Xbox Live Team

Tony Chen, Mark VanAntwerp, Boyd Multerer, Dinarte Morais, Benjamin Kilgore

2009 Outstanding Technical Achievement
The Xbox Live team has helped transform gaming from solitary exercise into potentially world-changing social experience.

For Boyd Multerer, general manager of the Xbox Live team at its commencement, receiving this year's Outstanding Technical Achievement award felt a little like winning the Nobel Prize in that "you do something cool and 10 years later you get recognized for it." Moreover, Multerer believed early on that Live might someday even contribute to "world peace," another Nobel concern. How so? "Live enables people to have a social experience without actually having to talk to each other," he explains. "And if you have enough international people on your friends list, you're going to start to feel for them a little bit, right?"

In 2000, Multerer and the four Live teammates who share this award—Tony Chen, Benjamin Kilgore, Dinarte Morais, and Mark VanAntwerp—were tasked with developing the world's first online gaming service on a console. "We knew we wanted to do something online, but we really didn't know much more than that," recalls Multerer. The smart and sometimes controversial bets the team placed during its first year together have paid off in spades. Launched in November 2002, the world's premier multiplayer gaming service currently boasts more than 17 million subscribers and grows faster each year.

Building the Xbox experience from the ground up, the team counted on the increasing accessibility of broadband, eschewing modems in favor of an Ethernet connection on the console. Greater bandwidth would be necessary for the unparalleled social aspect of the service. But who would use this revolutionary system? Focus groups helped, Multerer says, but they had to walk a fine line. "Some people said they weren't interested in online gaming because they wanted to have a social experience. But we didn't want to alienate the PC guys, either, because we knew one of our strengths was making really high-end graphic games."

According to Multerer, "Technical teams have a tendency to decide what they want to build before seeing if there are customers for it." The Xbox Live team, on the other hand, spent a great deal of time observing their customers and thinking about what they would get out of it, before building anything. They hired numerous gamers and always kept in mind that they themselves were not the target customer.

Long before social networking became ubiquitous, game publishers bristled at Xbox Live innovations such as Gamertags (user names that extend across all Xbox titles) and the Friends List, which lets users see which games their friends are playing online. "You mean you're going to advertise my competitor's game in my game!?" Multerer recalls skeptical publishers objecting. "No you're not." The tipping point for publishers, he believes, arrived in 2002 with Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell by Ubisoft, which saw the title's sales increase dramatically thanks to its success as a Live game.

Xbox Live exhibited promising viral tendencies from the outset. Players recruited their friends to join them amid the service's growing number of games. Also, the experience offered a stability that couldn't be guaranteed elsewhere. In the PC world, for example, hacked games suffer dramatic declines in popularity. "Once you get over 1 percent pervasive cheating, people lose faith in the game," Multerer notes. Security was an early priority, and the team remains collectively proud of the fact that the service has never been hacked in a major way.

"It was a very special team at a really good time," concludes Multerer, now general manager of the Xbox XNA Developer Center. "We had all kinds of air cover from the executives, and we felt completely free to challenge expectations and norms."

View Morais' official press profile.