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Now you know who to blame for all those banner ads on your Xbox One

The home screen on my Xbox One is "featuring" three products today; Nutjitsu, Powerstar Golf and Wall-E.

They are presented as little banners that lead me to retail pages. They are ads; an entirely common entity on games console user interfaces, here in 2014.

Curious to consider that the notion of advertising through a game console's navigation was once viewed with horror, not merely by gamers, but by Microsoft itself. That, at least, is the tale told by Allen Murray, in a mea culpa on Gamasutra today, titled "Sorry for all the ads."

Murray, who worked at Microsoft in the early part of the last decade, takes the blame for infesting console UIs with advertising.

"I am one of the people, if not the person, responsible for ads on the Xbox," he says.

xbox ads

I think we can all recognize a little tongue in cheek on his part. After all, advertising eventually ends up everywhere, right? But, let's hear the story anyway...

Back in 2004, Microsoft was pioneering digital games retailing with Xbox Live Arcade, in which indie-style games could be bought, downloaded and played directly through the console. This was, at the time, a very small part of gaming's retail infrastructure. The games tended to be buried deep inside the Xbox UI's funky tendrils, and very difficult to find.

Murray was working at Microsoft on the Xbox platform. He had previously worked at Amazon and so knew a thing or two about online retailing. His office was close to a chap called Larry Hryb, aka Major Nelson, who Murray approached, to pitch an idea about placing banners on the Xbox's entry page, advertising these new games. Hryb was keen, but first Murray had to get the idea past his own boss.

The boss's response was not exactly effusive. Murray recalls the conversation:

"Wait, banner ads? Like on websites?"

"Sort of, but these aren't like ads for Mt. Dew or anything, these are just..."

"No way. Gamers are gonna hate ads. No way."

But Hryb ran with the idea and Microsoft came up with "a web-based scheduling system so you could schedule ads in advance and line up your ad programming weeks in advance to map to the event and release schedules on Xbox Live," says Murray. "It was 100% hackery at the time, but it worked."

Fast-forward to 2014, and consoles are designed like online retail outlets, snuggling the games you own, and the apps you use, alongside offers to buy this, that and the other.

"Nowadays the Xbox One UI is nearly all ‘ads', i.e., links promoting content and apps in the Xbox ecosystem," says Murray. "So it's nice to see that the idea caught on. If you hate the Mt. Dew ads, I am truly sorry. I just find it funny and interesting that 10 years ago it was an uphill battle to build a system that is pretty much the standard way to present content on the console."


Correction: An earlier version of this story misattributed quotes to Larry Hryb, that were spoken by Murray's boss.

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