LAS VEGAS, Nev., Jan. 6, 2001 — Room 1160 is about as close to top secret as you'll find in the quiet suburban office park that Microsoft's Games Division calls home. The door is always locked, the blinds always shut.
Inside, Microsoft designer Horace Luke and his colleagues have been working on one of the toughest challenges of their careers - translating the new and unforeseen game play experiences of the company's Xbox gaming unit to the physical design of the stand-alone console, controls and logo.
Drawings stamped "confidential" cover the walls. Early versions of the console and controller cover the tables. Against one wall lean photo collages of some of the thousands of gamers consulted to help design Microsoft's first-ever home game console -- and one of its largest investments. Xbox's promotional budget alone is $500 million.
With so much at stake, Microsoft has worked hard to keep the design of Xbox under wraps - until today. Microsoft Chairman and Chief Software Architect Bill Gates unveiled prototypes of the Xbox console and controller this morning during his keynote address at the 2001 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. He also demonstrated two exclusive Xbox games - "Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee" and "Malice" -- that highlight the future-generation console's rich and realistic graphics capabilities.
"Gamers are going to know right when they see this console and controller what to expect when they turn on the Xbox," Luke said recently. "They are going to know they are playing on a system that offers more power and new, unforeseen gaming experiences than they've ever seen on a home console."
The power Luke speaks of is easily evident in the raised ribs that run across the rich, black exterior of the console, giving it the look of a supercharged car stereo amplifier. The console is also emblazoned with a large X with a raised, signature Xbox "jewel" at its center. The controller combines a sleek two-handed grip with more game-control buttons and triggers than any other game console. Extra-long controller cables stream from the back of the console and glow green from the inside.
Based on early versions he previewed prior to today's unveiling, Benjamin Turner, a site director with the GameSpy Network, a collection of 51 gaming Web sites, expects a lot from the final design. "It's definitely going to stand out," Turner said, "in a way that Sony PlayStation 2 does not."
Xbox Design Previews Function
Since Microsoft last year announced plans to build its first console gaming system, the big news has been what Xbox will let gamers do, not what it will look like. Xbox promises unrivaled technology and the most realistic home gaming experience ever, including a custom-designed graphics chip capable of processing more than one trillion operations per second and providing at least three times the graphics performance of the newest generation of game consoles. Xbox will also offer four game controller ports for easy multiplayer gaming and adding peripherals, a front-loading DVD tray, a multisignal audio-video connector for easy hookup to televisions and home theater systems, an Ethernet port for fast online gaming, an NVIDIA graphics processing unit (GPU), Intel 733 megahertz central processing unit (CPU), and an eight gigabyte hard drive for massive game storage. The power of many of these and other features exceeds - and in some cases even doubles or quadruples - that offered by Xbox's competitors.
So why does Microsoft care so much about Xbox's exterior trappings[a1]? In the highly competitive world of home gaming consoles, the shell of a gaming console is not just a piece of plastic that keeps dust out of the inner workings. The controller isn't just a way to make pixilated characters move around the screen. Design sets the tone and conveys the potential of the gaming system.
"Gamers gain a certain amount of respect and insight into the image from how a console looks," said Vincent Lopez, editor and chief of IGN Xbox, a gaming Web site unaffiliated with Microsoft. "What you see is what you get."
As a result, Microsoft has gone to extremes unheard of in the gaming world to make sure Xbox looks, as well as functions, like the revolution it promises to be.
5,000 Gamers Can't Be Wrong
Microsoft talked to 5,000 gamers in the United States, Japan and Europe. Xbox designers even toured 130 of these gamers' homes to see how and where they played games. Luke alone spent time with more than two dozen gamers in the United States and Japan. He played games and quizzed them on what they liked and didn't like about current consoles. He also visited shops where gamers hang out or buy consoles and games to "absorb the culture, see what they see every day," Luke explained.
The insights he and the other Microsoft designers gained were invaluable, Luke said. Some insights seemed trivial - pastel colored buttons on controllers aren't cool -- but were important to some gamers. Others greatly influenced the overall design. For example, the designers noticed many gamers keep their consoles in the middle of their living room or family room, but only by necessity. The cords from the controller are too short to reach the sofa. Or games must be loaded into the top of the console, making the console too tall to fit into an entertainment center. As a result, Xbox will offer a cord more than 9.5 feet long-- the longest offered by a console maker -- and the front-loading DVD tray for game CDs.
"Visiting gamers in their homes helped put us in their shoes," Luke explained. "We are designing on their behalf."
The Microsoft designers kept in touch with gamers throughout the design process. In particular, gamers tested many of the 34 different variations of the controller that Microsoft built before settling on the current model. It features an eight-way directional pad (D-pad); left and right analog sticks; left and right shoulder triggers; six pressure-sensitive, multicolored analog buttons; dual slots for memory cards and other peripherals; and a built in "rumble" feature for more realistic gaming.
"Not only does this controller offer more ways to interact with the game; the buttons and triggers are located in the places gamers want them," Luke said. "We know because gamers told us where they wanted them."
Turner of the GameSpy Network said Microsoft's efforts to gauge the tastes of gamers might well be unprecedented. "I don't know of any company consulting gamers to such an extent," he said. "I'm heartened they care so much about what the hardcore gamer thinks. That can only be a good thing."
IGN Xbox's Lopez agreed: "That's a great way to get people on your side: Get their input."
Defining Power: Jets, Motorcycles Good; Mack Trucks Bad
Gamers helped design the look of the console and controller in others ways as well. Xbox designers asked them to share what they consider symbols of power. Gamers suggested jet airplanes, Ferrari automobiles, motorcycles, loud stereos. Traditional symbols, such as Mack trucks, didn't interest them.
Luke and the other designers kept these symbols in mind as they created the look of the console case and game controller. Then they let inspiration take over. Luke got the idea for the ribs on the console when he was walking around his office playing catch with aluminum heat sink from a computer he had recently disassembled. The palm-sized sink, which helps dissipate heat inside a computer, has metal spines that resemble those on a car stereo amplifier.
"When gamers see the Xbox, I want them to think of the loudest car stereo they have ever heard - one so powerful it shakes the windows of their home. That's the kind of power they will get with Xbox," Luke said. "I also want the look of the console to build anticipation. I want gamers to be thinking about turning on the Xbox from the moment their mother, spouse or significant other forces them to turn it off."
The Microsoft designers reinforced the idea of Xbox's unforeseen potential and power by putting a raised "jewel" on the top of the console. Luke compares it to a porthole on a furnace, nuclear submarine or atomic collider. "You can see the fire inside burning," Luke explained.
But what color should the fire be? In the real world, fire is red. With everything that is Xbox, it is green, a radioactive neon green. The color radiates out from Xbox logos and gives the controller cables the look of alien veins.
As with nearly every other aspect of the design of Xbox, Luke had a hand in choosing the color, though, in a sense, the color chose itself. Green has always been the color associated with technology, magic and outer space, Luke explained. It also was the only color marker he had in his knapsack when he was drawing early designs for Xbox.
"It was just total luck that I had the perfect color of green," he said. "From the moment we saw it on the drawings, we knew it was right."
Now gamers get their chance to peek into Room 1160 and, Microsoft expects, draw the same conclusion.