Ahead of ‘Bet on Black: How Microsoft and Xbox Changed Pop Culture,’ our next Long Read scheduled for publication this Friday, Nov. 13, Shacknews is celebrating all things Xbox with articles and video features every day this week.
Dan Amrich is a co-author to the story of my childhood and my career. As a kid, I read his work in the pages of GamePro, in which he wrote under the pseudonym Dan Elektro. As an adult, I connected with Amrich when he wrote for Official Xbox Magazine, and he gave me many of the freelance assignments that formed the backbone of my portfolio early in my career.
When I want historical context from a journalist’s perspective on whatever epoch of gaming history I’m writing about, I go to Amrich, and he never disappoints. For Bet on Black: How Microsoft and Xbox Changed Pop Culture – Part 1, I wanted to pick his brain about the media’s perception of Xbox. From consumers to the games press to most of Microsoft’s internal teams, everyone seemed skeptical at the notion that the world’s biggest computer software company could compete in the video game space. This interview zeroes in on media perception from Amrich’s point of view. We talk his early experiences with the OG Xbox, physical injuries inflicted by the Duke controller, why Halo was the best (but perhaps not the only) choice to headline Microsoft’s first console launch lineup, and more.
David L. Craddock: How did you learn about Microsoft’s intent to enter the console market, and what was your reaction?
Dan’s most famous avatar from the pages of GamePro magazine.
Dan “Elektro” Amrich: I was slightly skeptical, but not too much. I had used Microsoft’s game controllers at that point, and felt they were fundamentally good hardware; I figured, well, if it’s an extension of this games-focused group, I’m interested. I remember hearing rumors that the original Xbox was basically just going to be a PC, and I thought that was a double-edged sword—if it were true, it was good news for developers, because the pipeline would likely be built with solid tools.
On the other hand, we’d seen PC games move to consoles where they didn’t feel right, and I was concerned about whether the machine would have its own identity or would be a dumping ground for quick ports.
Craddock: To some, the idea of the Windows/Office company making game consoles was laughable. Microsoft, compete against Nintendo and Sony? Yet skeptics felt the same way about Sony before PlayStation. Do you feel the skepticism toward Microsoft was par for the course, or did there seem to be more cynicism toward it than other competitors?
Amrich: Sony made video players and Walkman. Microsoft made Excel. The skepticism was understandable. Microsoft was also one of those companies people loved to hate. There was always a stigma—”oh, Bill Gates is a super-rich nerd” and strange biases about the company and its personalities that had little to do with the products they made. It was “I don’t like big companies” and “why does he have all this money” and of course lots of jokes about their consoles blue-screening.
But honestly, they were the new player in the realm, so any challenger is going to be greeted with skepticism—show, don’t tell. Until people tried the games themselves, there would be no reason to trust in the new platform.
Craddock: At what point did you begin to think a game console made by Microsoft had a chance?
Amrich: I was optimistic because I’d used the Sidewinder peripherals for quite some time—the 1995 gamepad became one of my favorites simply because the build quality was there, and force-feedback sticks were my go-to controllers. I still have a SW FF2 sitting here—I tried to use it with Star Wars: Squadrons, and even though I got it to run in Win 10, it doesn’t have as many buttons as the game needs.
Microsoft’s Sidewinder, a fan favorite in an era when standardization for PC controllers was nonexistent.
Craddock: Microsoft had a showing at E3 2001 best described as disappointing. In fact, former Chief Xbox Officer Robbie Bach described it to me as “disastrous.” Were you at E3 2001, and if so, what did you think of Microsoft’s showing?
Amrich: I was there but I have to say I remember very little. In 2000, I do remember being at GDC and thinking the chrome prototype was super cool. I also remember seeing footage of Halo and thinking “Wait, isn’t this that Mac RTS? Oh, not anymore—I guess this is what’s been taking so long.” It looked pretty I wondered if it could live up to such long expectations, and if it was still going to be able to deliver on its promise now that it had apparently shifted genres. I had just been reviewing Myth II on PC and loved it, but I had never played Marathon, so silly me was thinking “Can Bungie really make an FPS?” Um, yes, they can redefine the FPS for consoles entirely.
I also remember being at a San Francisco media event where they revealed the final name and logo of the console. They invited dozens of journalists to this little outdoor party, and we all had cocktails, and the big moment arrives, and I guess it was Robbie Bach speaking—but he did like five or 10 minutes in front of a draped graphic, and they took the curtain down and…oh, the Xbox code name is now your brand name? And that was it—everybody just walked away and the music came up and there was nothing else to see or do.
I remember that being super awkward—I was disappointed that the brand name was not something cooler, and I remember leaving with a feeling of “That’s it? I came all this way? You could have emailed that to me.” So I remember some of their growing pains, as they carefully parceled out what got announced when, and after a while I just wanted to play the thing for myself.
GamePro’s review of Halo: Combat Evolved.
Craddock: What was your reaction to holding, and then playing with, the Duke controller for the first time?
Amrich: “Wow this is…uncomfortably big.” I played a lot of Fuzion Frenzy on that controller with my wife, and it’s the only controller she’s ever actually injured herself using. Her wrist hurt for a week. She swore never to touch one again. When we saw the redesign for Japan, I was very happy to get few Controller S units and say goodbye to Duke forever. But that Bill Gates hamburger ad is still etched in my mind!
Craddock: The Duke was re-released recently for Xbox One and PC (and presumably Xbox Series X). Do you think the Duke deserves a status as one of the industry’s best controllers, or does it deserve its current status as one of its most infamous?
Amrich: Kill it with fire.
I accepted the S as an apology immediately, and then found the 360 controller to be a glorious refinement of the S concept. The 360 controller is still one of my favorites. But the Duke is absolutely one of my least favorites, and I have to assume that the folks who were happy to see it reissued could not find a hair shirt for their dark personal penance, so this was a suitable replacement for self-torment.
Craddock: What was your reaction after playing Halo for the first time?
Hyperkin’s re-release of the Duke controller.
Amrich: Oh my god, they did it. They learned every lesson from the awkward PS1 corridor shooter ports, they nailed the controls, and this is the new standard.
I was not terribly observant during the campaign, though. A friend who had played it before me wanted to know if I got to the twist—the appearance of the Flood. I had and I didn’t realize I was fighting a new enemy—I thought they were an extension of the Covenant. I told him where I was and he said “Oh, yeah, you’re past that point—wasn’t that amazing?” And I said, “I feel like an idiot. I totally didn’t get the reveal.” Thankfully I was not reviewing the game.
Craddock: In my interviews, I learned that Xbox’s higher-ups put an equal amount of marketing muscle behind Halo, Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee, and Project Gotham Racing. Two questions stemming from this. First, did you think a game other than Halo had any chance of being the Xbox’s “system seller?”
Amrich: Halo was the one thing that was truly novel—an FPS that was legitimately fun on consoles, and the first non-PC statement of FPS gameplay that was on par with PC—but I cannot blame them for hedging their bets across the board. Platformers were a traditional console powerhouse and the Oddworld team was incredible; driving and racing games are always seen as a really good technical benchmark, and people who are really into those might not play anything else. So they saw three primary market segments and went after each. Totally makes sense.
Second, some critics and players believe a racing game has about as much chance as becoming the must-play title for a console as it does winning a Game of the Year award. Granted, the Xbox launched during a time when most pundits believed a manufacturer needed a strong platformer with a recognizable mascot to have a chance of starting strong. What are your thoughts on the perception that one genre holds more sway at retail (physical or digital) than another?
I disagree with the doubters with two words: Ridge Racer. That became the must-play title for PS1 at launch, no question. You had other options, but Ridge Racer was required. Again, the technical show-off title is always going to be part of the conversation, and PGR was a visual stunner. Everybody has been in a car; it offers a real-world experience that you can use as a benchmark for realism, in a way a platform hopper or space marine shooter cannot. I’ve never shot a rifle on Saturn and I’ve never been a sarcastic kangaroo, but I can tell you how riding in a real sports car compares to driving a virtual one.
Ridge Racer, the PS1’s must-have title at launch.
Craddock: Xbox Live launched one year after the Xbox. Before trying it, I remember thinking that a $50 subscription—the same price as most AAA games back then!—seemed a big ask. What were your thoughts on Xbox Live going into it, and how did your perception of it change over time (and the games you played)?
Amrich: Multiplayer was free on PC—I’d been dialing up via modems since the early 90s—so my initial reaction was to take offense. How dare you charge for what we get for free over here? But that wasn’t the case at all—on PC, there was no consistent identity, there was no easy matchmaking, and there was rampant cheating. Xbox Live was going to solve a lot of hassles (cheating would be harder, though not impossible) and it was, to me, the beginning of a persistent virtual space that I wanted to visit.
I was absolutely thrilled to see an Ethernet port on the hardware—that told me they were serious, that this was not the clunky dial-up experiences I’d used in the past. I reviewed THPS3, which was the first of the series to support online play (even before Sony supported it—the hardware was there, but Neversoft built their own networking code). And I remember seeing the PS2 modem adapter and thinking “Woe to the person who connects via a phone cable—I’m using the Ethernet jack, that’s so much faster, they will have no chance.”
So combine the Ethernet-only hardware with the idea that you would be paying for a service that would always be there, that would make finding other gamers easy (and supported voice chat!), and one that would not interrupt my family’s phone calls, I realized paying less than $5 a month for that was a bargain.
Craddock: Halo 2 is outed as one of the biggest game launches ever, not only in terms of sales, but in terms of giving the Xbox a second win and, to many, serving as the reason for Xbox Live’s existence. How do you view Halo 2 in the context of gaming history?
Amrich: Like a lot of second chapters, it focused on everything that was right with the first game and evolved it. Multiplayer was by far the star that time; the story was great, the lore got deeper, but that multiplayer was simply phenomenal for the time. To me it’s the pinnacle of the series, but that’s just me.
Craddock: Xbox ultimately finished second in the PS2/Xbox/GameCube generation. Besides Sony having a year start and riding the momentum of its first console, what do you feel accounted for it overtaking Nintendo?
Amrich: It offered experiences Nintendo was not ready to offer. I remember there being a rush to get games “taken seriously” and both Sony and Microsoft courted the young male market—the one that needs things to be cool and fast and sleek and dark. GameCube had an asymmetrical controller that looked like it was made with pieces of candy. Nintendo has always been brilliant by knowing its audience and never losing sight of simply making fun, approachable games and hardware to match—but at that time, the cool kids were driving the bus, and Microsoft was offering the gamers who grew up with Nintendo a perceived upgrade—to reward their love of games with something sophisticated.
Like or hate the Xbox console design, it did not look like a toy; it was not juvenile. That was potentially validating.