Anticipation is running high at Microsoft's Xbox games division. The console, which is the software giant's first entry into the highly competitive video game market, will be launched in North America on Thursday, November 8. In preparation for that date, a variety of things--ranging from the launch of Microsoft's 500 million dollar marketing campaign for the console to the actual manufacturing of the hardware units--must be planned, coordinated, and ultimately implemented. Console launches are both demanding and tedious at the same time, and one of the men in the middle of all the pandemonium is Ed Fries, vice president of Microsoft's games division. His primary duties involve managing the first-party lineup of Xbox games, which includes Halo and Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee, but the soft-spoken Fries also has a hand in crafting the overall strategy of launching the Xbox. So, we recently tracked him down to get an all-encompassing update on the status of the Xbox in the final weeks before launch.
During our conversation, Fries spoke on a variety of topics--everything from the launch lineup and marketing campaign to the bundling of Xbox consoles, launch shipment numbers, and the company's online plans for the console. We have transcribed several portions of the interview below. To see the interview with Ed Fries in video form, which includes a handful of additional comments, click on the appropriate media link at the end of the article.
GameSpot: How prepared are you in terms of game titles being ready and meeting the shipment numbers?
Ed Fries: It is going really well. I'm really excited about how things have come together. I mean, we're here today showing near-final versions of Halo, Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee, and Fuzion Frenzy. NFL Fever is just about done. Project Gotham is just about done. So, everything is coming together for us for an amazing launch. You know that I do first-party stuff, and I think we will have by far the strongest first-party lineup that a console has ever launched with. Games with 40 hours of amazing gameplay, games like Halo and Munch right at the start--games the PlayStation 2 didn't have for months and months after its launch. So, I'm really proud of what my teams have been able to do for launch.
On the hardware side, everything is coming together. The factory in Mexico is all ramped up, and the one in Hungary is coming up to speed now. They have parts on hand to build more than a million units, so we've got everything there ready to go. There will be more than a million units out before Christmas.
GS: Has manufacturing started yet?
EF: It is just about to start. When we do start, we can make about 150,000 units a week, so we can actually crank out quite a few units. What is really going to be different about this launch, as opposed to what people have seen before, is that we have the ability to quickly replenish supply. In the past, for game consoles that come from Japan, they have to be shipped over by boat or flown over by air, which is really expensive. So, you tend to have this big launch, then nothing. We've got a factory in Mexico that will be churning out Xbox units, loading them up in trucks, and shipping them across the border. So, pretty much every day new trucks will be showing up with Xboxes throughout the holiday season. So, if you're there on day one and can't get it, there will be new Xboxes showing up all the time. In that sense, I think it's really going to feel different for gamers.
GS: Will you be looking into bringing some of Microsoft's established franchises to the Xbox?
EF: Yep. Everybody wants to talk about titles we haven't announced yet, but I think we have some great franchises on the PC side. What we are not doing is taking games and porting them. No PC games are coming straight over to the Xbox, but if you look at the content and the worlds--you know, worlds like Crimson Skies, which is an air-combat game with Mad Max-like airplanes and blimps--can we do a console game in that world? We probably can. Can we do something in the MechWarrior world, with giant robots? We probably can. So, we have these worlds, and now it's just a matter of finding the right partners and finding the right projects. And that's all going well.
GS: When is the brunt of the marketing campaign going to kick off?
EF: Our first major wave of advertising for Xbox games--again, the first-party games, because those are the ones I tend to speak of--will run in the November issues of gaming magazines, which tend to come out in October. Television is a little different. You really don't want to run TV [ads] until pretty close to the time when people can actually do something about it. It is kind of an action-oriented medium--they see the ad and they want to go buy the product. So, you're really not going to start seeing the Xbox teaser campaign until late October. We'll do kind of some short-tease stuff and then will roll into ads that are more based around the individual games right around launch. Those ads are basically 27 seconds of gameplay and a few seconds at the end of branding. Essentially, it is all shots from the game, which is something I think gamers want to see.
GS: About the teaser campaign, can you go into a little bit more detail about that?
EF: Probably even talking about it is more than something I should do-even mentioning it. [laughs] It is going to be good. The thing you have to realize is that our awareness is in the high 70 percent range right now, without doing any advertising at all. So, that is a pretty high number.
GS: Right now, several specialty retailers are taking preorders for Xbox bundles only, some that run in the range of several hundred dollars. Will consumers be able to walk into a store on November 8, or soon after launch, and pick up a console for its $299 retail price?
EF: We have been really careful to restrict the number of presell units. We have been discouraging all the retailers from preselling a large percentage of their units. So, that is actually one reason you see a lot of them bundling, because it is only a part of what they can sell. So, they are saying, "OK, for this part we want to bundle a lot of value into the product, because we know we are going to have these other ones we are going to sell off the shelf." More than half the inventory available at launch will be just to buy [at the retail price]. We think that is really important.
GS: So, that's 700,000 units at launch?
EF: We're going to have to see how it works out, but like I said, we can build 150,000 units a week out of our factory. So, it is going to be an amazing launch.
GS: Nintendo just announced that Resident Evil will be exclusive to the GameCube. You guys have announced lots of exclusives, but they haven't really been of the magnitude of this announcement. Are you guys looking into wrapping up some of the bigger franchises with third parties?
EF: I think we have done a good job of getting the major Japanese publishers onto the platform with some big titles. If you ask people what would they still like to see on the Xbox that we haven't already announced, the list is starting to get pretty short. Probably, Square is a big one sitting on top of that list, but if you go beyond that, the list gets pretty short, pretty quick. So, I think the third-party guys have done a good job bringing content to the platform. I think what really matters is what your platform can do. As a gamer, do I really want to hear that this genre that I really care about is only going to be available on a platform that maybe doesn't have the highest quality performance? I would like to see what it could do on the Xbox.
GS: This is more of a broad question and doesn't specifically pertain to Microsoft, but do you think other companies will follow the lead set forth by Sega with Phantasy Star Online and have pay-for-play online console games? Be it subscription-based or on a set fee, is that a direction that online gaming is going to go in?
EF: I think there are different kinds of online games. Some that work well without a subscription fee, like a Counter-Strike model, for example. But when you get into the massively multiplayer, server-based games, there is a big infrastructure cost. I mean, we have been running Asheron's Call for several years now on a PC. It is a great business for us, but we have a huge amount of servers for that game. We actually have more servers dedicated to Asheron's Call than we do to our entire Internet Gaming Zone. So, from a gamer's perspective, I love those games. I actually spend too many hours a week playing massively multiplayer online games. If you think about it, "I'm paying 10 bucks a month for how many hours I'm on this month," it turns out to be pennies per hour of gameplay. It is really a good deal from an entertainment value point of view, so I think there are places where it is really appropriate and is a good value for gamers.
GS: Are there any online games out now that you'd like to see on the Xbox?
EF: I think ultimately we are going to have to create new games for the console that sort of have a console ethic to them, a console feel to them. I think Phantasy Star Online took some great elements from Diablo and mixed them in with a console ethic, but it didn't really create a true massively multiplayer game. So, I think that thinking is right, but it just didn't go far enough. That is what I'd like to see, something that looks, feels, and plays like a console game, but has the elements of a true massively multiplayer game within it--that huge depth, and thousands of players in one place at a time. Maybe the first one that is going to do that is Final Fantasy XI...we'll see.
GS: Will there be any games, on a major scale like that, on the Xbox in 2002?
EF: It is hard for me to say. Games like that are huge investments and they take a long time to build. Also, to justify the investment, you need to have a certain size of an installed base out there. So, I think that things are going to scale a little more slowly.
GS: Will the Xbox DVD have progressive scan capabilities?
EF: I'm not an expert on this, but my understanding is that there is progressive scan capability built in.
GS: So, that's for all the home theater guys out there. Any parting words for our readers?
EF: For us, it is a really exciting time. We're just finishing everything up. There has been so much speculation around the Xbox, and now we finally have the proof in our hands. We can sit here with your guys today and say, "Here, I'm not even going to say anything, just play Halo for an hour and tell me it's not one of the greatest games you've ever seen."