Series Info...Biting The Hand #34:

Two Scoops of Gaming Goodness

by Jessica Mulligan
September 17, 2002

There are two goals to this week’s column: To publish a column that should have been published over two years ago, and to whine a bit. Or a lot. You’ve been warned.

Writing an opinion column isn’t always a bowl of cherries, especially when others take it upon themselves to stick their fingers in the creative pie. After writing and self-publishing Biting the Hand on the Web for about a year and a half, Attitude’s Happy Puppy game information site offered to pick up the column in 1999 and pay me to write it as a weekly offering. I’ll always be grateful to them for that. Sometimes, however, working with Happy Puppy, especially after it was purchased by later that year, could be maddening. The worst was when inexperienced editors and/or copy editors decided to treat the column like a news piece and have some opinions of their own of what should be in it. This didn’t happen very often and is not necessarily bad; having a column looked over by an unjaundiced eye can be quite helpful in tightening up the piece. At other times, however, it could get positively Dali-esque.

Take the column below, X-ing Out the Competition?, for example. Written over two years ago, it has never been published, even though I submitted it not once, but twice, to Happy Puppy. I wrote about 1/3 of it in early March, 2000, close to the day of Bill Gates’ address to the GDC introducing the Xbox, as part of a regular column duly submitted a couple days later. My editor at the time rejected the whole column, something he had done only once before. Then he did something he had never done in a year of our working together: he told me he didn’t want me to do any more multi-segment pieces, but to focus the column on one issue per week.

This ‘one issue per column’ bit disturbed me; it was a change to my style and a total change from the breezy manner in which I generally wrote and which, I thought, helped make the column popular (at the time, I was told that only the Happy Puppy Cheats section was more popular with HP’s three million monthly visitors). The man paid for the column, though, so I decided to try it his way. I figured I’d talk with him about the whole ‘one issue’ thing later on. Big mistake; I was a columnist, after all, not a news writer; my style was what they paid for. If he had an issue with that style… well, it wasn’t like I hadn’t been writing the column for him for a year, for God’s sake. If I had made a point of it at the time, I might have saved myself some grief and had the column published on time. Ah, well, lesson learned. I rewrote and resubmitted this expanded version that same day, to be printed as Issue 10 a few days after the 2000 GDC completed.

Why the rush on resubmitting the Xbox column? At the time, no one in the press had picked up on the import of the Xbox’s Ethernet port as a likely Microsoft stealth attempt to get an interactive TV set-top box into homes. I know that may seem weird today, but no one was discussing it, not openly, at least. The press seemingly believed MS’s repeated assertions that this was a game box only and would be used exclusively as a game console and nothing else. I say ‘seemingly’ because what they all were printing at the time was simple regurgitation of Microsoft press releases. I knew this for the camouflage that it was, figured everyone else in the industry did, too, and that it was only a matter of time before the interactive TV services potential of Xbox was discussed in print. After all, MS owned WebTV and had been talking about unbundling their OS and application software and offering the pieces for rent on the Internet for months. They also owned a huge chunk of a cable company. The Xbox seemed like an obvious piece of that unbundling puzzle. Search as I might, however, I saw nothing in the press about it. As the publication date for the column approached, I started rubbing my hands in poorly-concealed glee; it looked like I was going to beat out not only the gaming press with the story, but the mainstream press, too.

Column day came and went… no column. No answers to my emails, and no publication the next day, either. OK, this happened occasionally, that they would slip the column by a few days due to vacations or holidays. Nothing to worry about, right? Then the next week comes around; no new Biting the Hand column and I began to get some inquiring email from readers.

In fact, Happy Puppy didn’t print the ‘weekly’ column for over a month and totally ignored the Xbox one when they finally got around to picking up the regular schedule. In the meantime, I couldn’t get a return phone call or email reply from Happy Puppy for ten days. When I finally did get through, the editor gave me ‘the word;’ he was being moved upstairs and a new editor assigned. On his way out the door, my old editor informed me that my column just didn’t have the old spark it had had before that Xbox column and he was cutting me back from weekly publication to a twice per month publication run.

At this point, steam was exploding from my ears. Here the man had flippantly changed my style to match his perceptions of what the column should be, then had the gall to tell me that it no longer had the same old spark and he was cutting the publication dates because of it (in the process, cutting back the income I made from the column by 50%, at a time when their stock price was going down the toilet. Coincidence? I think not.). If we had lived in the same city, he’d have been a statistic within an hour. As it was, I nearly cancelled my contract. After cooling off a bit, I decided to let it ride for a while.

In the process, the new editor continued to ignore my emails for a couple weeks, the Xbox column was never published (I don’t recall ever being told the reason, even after repeated inquiries) and the opportunity was lost. By mid-April, the mainstream press started speculating openly that MS would use the Xbox for purposes other than a game console. By Fall of 2000, MS started announcing “experimental” Xbox versions of the company’s other products, such as MS Money. Yes, this is just the application every console gamer has been waiting for, isn’t it?

Nowadays, it is common for press organs and analysts to refer to Internet-enabled game consoles as Trojan horses to capture the living room and no one seriously doubts the intent (See the recent New York Times article for example. A free registration is required. Sorry.). It still galls me that I had a one-month scoop on this and Happy Puppy tossed it down a rat hole. Writers can become temporarily famous for being first to print on this kind of major issue and even ‘temporarily famous’ usually means gobs of quotes in the mainstream media and being mistaken for an expert, which brings more writing opportunities, which also means more cash. If you think that isn’t important to a writer, you’ve never tried to make a living as one. Sure, it only happened that once; of course, the General Perversity of the Universe dictated that it happen on that one issue. OK, whining over.

So, the original column is presented here for the first time, because the points made are still relevant today, over two years later. As it turns out, my speculations were actually two scoops, not one. Read the Post-Mortem following the column for details.

X-ing Out the Competition?
March 16, 2000

In the only real news of import from the Game Designers Conference, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates unveiled the Xbox gaming console to a figuratively breathless crowd. It was discovered that the Xbox is, surprise! a stripped down PC that will run versions of the Windows NT kernel and DirectX. Lots of people are commenting on the Xbox; Happy Puppy's Ray Padilla wrote an excellent article about the console's specifications and potential. I recommend you read it.

Microsoft is going all out to avoid calling the Xbox a PC, preferring to label it a game console. However, this console's "brain" is a specially made Intel Pentium III, it runs on a version of the Windows OS and has an 8 megabyte hard drive. If it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck and spits pork like a duck, it's a stripped-down PC. A powerful one, there is no doubt; the integrated Intel/Nvidia CPU and graphics chip is going to be very fast, three times as fast as anything out there, according to Gates. It's still a PC, dammit.

However, it also will be a stripped-down PC with an Ethernet port. Ahhhh, now we start to see into Microsoft's Nefarious Plan for World Domination™, as conspiracy theorists might brand it. When the Xbox ships in late 2001, it will ship cable-modem and DSL ready. Plain and simple, this is MS's attempt to get the Windows OS into the living room of the 50% of homes that don't own a PC, but probably do subscribe to cable. And that coaxial cable can be split to provide both TV and Internet service, industries in which Microsoft has invested heavily.

That makes the Xbox part of MS's plan to diversify into every possible device it can tailor the Windows code to match. Not only does the company get a foot in the door on the hardware side of the $7 billion digital entertainment industry, it infiltrates the home and positions itself to take advantage of the broadband home entertainment market. And did I mention that the company already owns significant chunks of cable TV companies and backbone access providers?

Not surprisingly, MS is also going to great lengths to tell anyone who will listen that the Xbox is not a veiled attempt to get a Microsoft-owned set-top box in homes. It's a game console, pure and simple, they say. In a market crowded with three other game consoles, however, what makes the lads in Redmond think they can succeed with a fourth?

Beyond the fact that many PC developers will have little problem retooling to develop for it, the Xbox has two huge advantages to smooth it's entry into the gaming market:

  • Microsoft can pour literally billions of dollars into marketing the Xbox, buying shelf space to promote the box prominently at retail and buttressing the price so it is an inexpensive buy.

Don't think that marketing and placement makes that much of a difference? Well, do you remember the BetaMax? If you're one of our younger readers, you may not. See that VHS machine sitting near your TV, the machine that plays the video tapes? Would you believe me if I told that there once was a better video tape player system, one that was so high quality, it made your VHS tape quality look like old bat doo-doo?

Well, that's what the BetaMax was. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the VHS and BetaMax formats slugged it out to own the video tape player format market. BetaMax was better in every qualitative way imaginable, yet it is as dead as honest politics in America. Why did it lose if it was so darn good? For the same reason actors and pretty-boys keep getting elected president; the VHS guys threw around more marketing dollars and kept lowering the price. Bye-bye, BetaMax.

As a result, you can expect to see a price war in the game console market next year, as Sony, et al, scramble to keep pace;

  • Publishers and developers literally despise Sony, Nintendo and Sega for past abuses in gouging licensing fees and royalties. They want Xbox to succeed, as both punishment and maybe in hopes of getting charged lower fees through competition.

You probably have little idea how much those guys charge developers and publishers for the privilege of spending millions to make a console game; it just isn't something the industry talks about. Want to know why your video games cost so much? For one console game I produced about six years ago, I was told by my boss that the fee we paid the console maker was some $20 per unit. This did not include our development costs, the $5 per unit cost of goods to print the box and manual and duplicate the disc or marketing costs. Ouch.

I am told that the console makers are much more reasonable on the fees these days and that is likely to be even more the case in late 2001 when the Microsoft behemoth begins to march. No matter; I still need a breath mint when I think of what we had to do to publish that one console game. Ah, the days of paying baksheesh to well-connected middlemen, just to insure a game made it through the approval process without “unavoidable delays.” Those were the days, I tell ya; I still have calluses on my knees and a smoldering resentment. You can bet there are a lot of executives and developers who feel the way I do.

Even with these advantages, MS is going to need some help on the software side. They have pretty much zip experience with video console games and when it comes to consoles, software sells the hardware. As the Xbox tools will be familiar to most PC developers, they'll no doubt port some games over. Microsoft does have enough money to buy a nice big piece of some company that does have experience in that arena, however. A company that might otherwise be exiting the industry in three or four years, whether they want to or not. Like, say, a Sega or a Nintendo…

Now, wouldn't that be interesting?


Reading the above, did you notice the second scoop? If you missed it, it was the speculation that Microsoft would try to buy an experienced console game developer/publisher to jump-start its own first-party development efforts. As we know now from numerous reports, Microsoft has tried to buy Sega at least twice in the last two or three years. However, those reports didn’t start surfacing until June, 2000, three months after this column was supposed to be published. Since then, they’ve also picked up FASA Interactive, Ensemble and lately rumors have surfaced about Microsoft making a bid for Rare.

To the gaming industry, the second scoop was a far more important issue and it would have raised some interesting questions about consolidation of resources and less choice for gamers as more products were produced for the Xbox instead of the PC. Had Microsoft been successful in purchasing Sega or another major console developer or publisher, it would have changed the whole nature of the industry: the Xbox/PS2/Gamecube equation would be much different today and I suspect Sony would be sweating the competition a little more than they are now. Microsoft is trying to pick up the slack by cherry-picking some excellent studios here and there; that strategy takes longer but can still achieve the goal. However, can you imagine the shape of things today Xbox if MS had picked up Sega two years ago?

Having a ‘first hit’ on both these issues in one column… In the plaintive words of Stanley Kowalski, “I coulda been a contender; I coulda been somebody.”

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