The roots of Microsoft’s Xbox

Every game console has to start somewhere.

Jump to

As part of Polygon’s cover story on the history of developer Looking Glass, we’re looking at various projects and companies that spawned in Looking Glass’ wake. Here, we explore the roots of Microsoft’s Xbox.

Today’s world of video game consoles exists largely because of one small group of people. After sales ceased for the Sega Dreamcast, only two contenders remained: Sony’s PlayStation 2 and Nintendo’s GameCube. The playing field remained the same, but the players grew enormously.

But then came the Xbox and the small group of people who were crazy enough to think it might work. And one of their leaders, like so many other developers of his time, got his start at Looking Glass Studios before the company died.

It was May 5, 1999, and dozens of people gathered in a conference room on Microsoft’s Redmond campus. They were pitching the idea for a new home console to Bill Gates, the man who would have final say on the project’s future. This was the only chance they would get.

As Seamus Blackley watched Gates that day, he felt the pressure mounting.

One year before that, Blackley was working on Jurassic Park: Trespasser, a project with extensive funding and a host of promises. Steven Spielberg was attached, and the public was expectant. After exceeding the budget and cutting numerous features to release on time with the "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" film, DreamWorks Interactive released Trespasser. It sold only 50,000 copies and was a critical failure.

And now, Blackley was staring Microsoft’s co-founder in the eye, telling him to trust a team of young designers who might easily screw things up.

"Anybody who likes their Xbox should be happy that meeting went well," Blackley says. "If Looking Glass hadn’t existed, and Trespasser had succeeded, and I hadn’t freaked out at Bill Gates and said he needed a video game console, it would be a Sony console world."

Inside Microsoft, the Xbox project was often scorned. It revolved around a plan to sacrifice hardware sales in favor of long-term software profits, and many thought it would crash and burn. By that assumption, anybody who joined Blackley’s team must be crazy.

But the team pressed on. They traveled, setting up meetings with developers around the world, trying to convince them of the Xbox’s staying power. Some were skeptical. Others laughed. But as the months dragged on, and the console gained supporters, it became clear that the band of outcasts might have an ace up their sleeve.


"Xbox was me driving home, crying, throwing things at other cars because I just worked and worked and worked," Blackley says. "And Xbox succeeded because I found a Looking Glass-like group of people."

It all started on Harvard University’s physics board.

Blackley saw the ad for Blue Sky Productions, a nearby development company looking for people to help with simulation. Blackley knew simulation from working on high energy physics. So, he joined Blue Sky, working on music for Ultima Underworld, and did his fair share of programming with the likes of Doug Church and Dan Schmidt.

For Blackley, someone whose pursuits range from particle physics to jazz piano, the idea of 3-D video games was more than novel — it was intoxicating.

"It was like practical magic," he says. "It really was. Being able to see real-time 3-D for the first time — it was like the first time you see the Star Destroyer flying overhead, and you hear John Williams’ music playing.

"It pummeled you."

Today, in November, 2014, Blackley has a collection of 500 old arcade games. Some date back to the bronze age of video games, when code and logic chips had yet to enter the equation. These old machines function on wiring and mechanics alone, built when programming, as it’s known today, was barely a concept.

Looking Glass came from a foundation of prolific programmers. And none of them really had a clear end goal in mind. There was no precedent, and they had no examples and no textbooks for making 3-D video games.

"It’s like a musician sitting in front of the piano. Until you create something and play the music, is there really anything there?"

Blackley’s skills in simulation carried over into another side of Looking Glass — the side that eschewed RPGs and immersive worlds in favor of realistic flight sims. Flight Unlimited and its two sequels garnered critical acclaim throughout the studio’s lifespan and helped delay the debt that would later sink the studio.

"It’s like a musician sitting in front of the piano," Blackley says. "Until you create something and play the music, is there really anything there?"

Blackley, who played a major hand in creating the original Flight Unlimited, had another idea. He developed the concept for an aerial combat sim, and would call it Flight Combat. As was his habit — and still is — he wanted to pave new ground, not retread prior successes.

But Flight Unlimited was a commercial success. And Looking Glass had recently brought in management staff to oversee financial planning. One manager didn’t like Blackley’s proposal and told him to instead focus on a Flight Unlimited sequel, which would undoubtedly increase profit margins.

Blackley disagreed.

"He took me out to lunch to get me to stay, but he was arrogant," Blackley says. "He was saying he could find a million ‘me’s.

"When you have a kid, you look back on what your parents did with either respect or disrespect. And I look back on what this guy did, and he was a moron. A fucking moron. Jackasses like that flushed Looking Glass down the toilet."

So Blackley left the studio and began work at DreamWorks Interactive, where Jurassic Park: Trespasser would later flop. Blackley left that studio for Microsoft where he worked in relative obscurity until a new idea came to him. And 16 years later, Microsoft’s Xbox One console sold 10 million units to retailers during its first year on the market. All because of an idea that no one thought would work.

Seamus Blackley

Today, remembering Looking Glass, Blackley laughs. His bridges remained intact after leaving the studio — except for those with some management staff — and he remembers the time fondly, working alongside Church, Schmidt, Lerner and Neurath.

On certain days, Blackley and co-workers needed comic relief. They installed a bug on computers that would revert any colors back to those of the original Apple II. And every time Neurath reported the bug, the programmers would leave it in. The file’s name was 4_Paul.

"To this day, I don’t think Paul knew it was us doing that," Blackley says. "He’ll probably read this and laugh. The guy was a saint. He put the company on his shoulders and carried it, even in the end, when people above him were making terrible decisions."

Blackley left Looking Glass, but not before he gained invaluable experience. He pushed boundaries at DreamWorks, and at Microsoft, always looking for the risk when others were focused on guarantees.

And he’ll always be surrounded by the people everyone calls crazy.

"It’s rare that you get that, with programmers and engineers used to competing at Harvard and whatnot," he says. "And that’s the incredible thing about Looking Glass. We were there for each other. And I miss that.

"I think we were all a victim of our own ambition. But sooner or later, that ambition pays off." Babykayak