Xbox Revisited: An Exclusive Interview with Former Microsoft Executive Robert J. Bach

In his upcoming book Xbox Revisited, former Xbox executive Robert J. Bach describes his time at Microsoft, launching the original Xbox at E3 2001, the initial launch of Halo, Xbox Live, and much more.

Bach learned many lessons from his many successful years at Microsoft. It is those lessons, and others from his fascinating life, which he describes in Xbox Revisited. A guide for reforming suboptimal political processes, the book lays out a path for meaningful change through a ground-up process – one developed by Bach during his years shepherding Xbox from nonexistent to one of the leading game consoles in the United States.

We had a chance to sit down with Bach for an exclusive interview ahead of the book's launch, to discuss Xbox Revisited and the philosophy behind it. Here is what he had to say.

 


E3 Insider: In Xbox Revisited, you describe E3 2001 as "the E3 from hell" for Xbox, because of all the problems with the Xbox launch. What would you describe as an E3 that went perfectly, or as near to perfectly as one could go, either for you or for someone you saw? What are the factors that go into making an E3 a success?

Robert J. Bach: E3 is largely about establishing momentum and positive buzz -- it is mostly a PR battle to determine who has the "mojo" going into the key sales cycle in the fall. Success at E3 does not guarantee sales success in the holiday, but it certainly makes the road easier.
For the Xbox team, any E3 where we had big game news, particularly about our franchise defining product, Halo, generated our best results. After all, gaming is about the Games. Launches are also important, and E3 2004 was probably our biggest launch success. We had been at odds with EA over their lack of support for Xbox Live -- and at that E3 we announced that EA would fully support the service across their game lineup. For that announcement, they brought all of their cover athletes, including Mohammad Ali, to our press briefing where Don Mattrick (then working for EA) and I announced the new plans. This was great news for fans, great news for Xbox, and also great news for EA who was starting to get traction with our platform. A similar example would be Nintendo's launch of the Wii at E3 -- the hands-on demos in their booth put them on a path to success in the fall.

E3 Insider: You describe the Xbox's signature title Halo: Combat Evolved as "no fun to play" at E3 2001, and, as we all know (and as you go on to state in Xbox Revisited) it went on to be one of the iconic titles of all time. How did Bungie achieve that, and how much did you, Microsoft Games, and Xbox have to do with that turnaround? How much of a role did that turnaround have in the success of the Xbox as a platform?

Robert J. Bach: To be crystal clear, without Halo's success, Xbox probably fails in the marketplace. The combination of Halo and Xbox Live are the two most important factors in Xbox's ability to grab a beachhead against Nintendo and Sony. All of the credit for this goes to the Bungie team and the support they received from Ed Fries and the rest of the Xbox team. We probably should not have shown Halo at E3 that year -- it was in an "intermediate phase" where some things worked, others did not, and the Xbox hardware was not really ready to support it.
The Bungie team made the decision to stop showing the product after E3 and focused on fit and finish until it was fully ready for game play. This made building momentum for the launch a bit more difficult but was absolutely the right decision. When we finally took the product to reviewers, the work they had done since E3 showed. It takes a special combination of art, science, music, and storytelling to create a great game -- and Bungie brought all of that together at just the right time.

E3 Insider: As you mention in Chapter 4 of Xbox Revisited, Xenon (Xbox 360) benefited from much clearer sense of purpose that the original Xbox, yet you also say that "Nintendo did [Microsoft] one better]" on that purpose with the Wii. Was this merely bad luck, or prescience on Nintendo's part? And was the Kinect a reaction to Nintendo or an extension of Xenon's purpose-based goals?

Robert J. Bach: We discounted Nintendo too much and were a bit over-focused on Sony. And Nintendo did an incredible job articulating a clear purpose for the Wii -- fun games for everyone at a great price. They broadened the audience in the console market by making games more approachable and accessible to those that were not traditional gamers. And to Nintendo's credit, gamers loved it too. Kinect was both an attempt to take advantage of and respond to the work done by Nintendo AND a logical extension of the purpose we established for Xbox 360. While the purpose for Xenon did not refer directly to Kinect, it definitely focused on broadening the demographic of our games and Kinect was one important tool we used to do that.

E3 Insider: Throughout Xbox Revisited, you stress the importance of teams sticking to the 3P Framework while they work toward common purpose, whether it be government actors taking political decisions, or corporations executing business goals. But how would you recommend "small fries," like some of us reading this interview, apply the 3P Framework to our professional relationships, whether those be as junior members of a larger organization, or entrepreneurs looking to start our own businesses, or even students looking to engage in campus politics or activism?

Robert J. Bach: The 3P Framework is grounded in the idea that it takes great simplicity to tackle difficult challenges. One of the nice attributes of this approach is that it applies equally well to personal challenges, smaller businesses, or almost any type of situation. At its core it asks a few, simple questions: What are you trying to accomplish? How are you going to act in the process? Where will you focus your energies? These fundamental questions are almost universal -- you can apply them in defining a relationship with a peer, with your family, with a boss, etc. These questions also scale whether you are talking about the smallest business or local municipality all the way up to a large business like Xbox or federal government agencies. It is very easy to fall into the habit of "diving in" to a problem, relationship, or civic activity without thinking first about how you are going to proceed. The 3P Framework forces you to think in a structured way about the entire "forest" of the issue so that you don't get lost in the trees.

E3 Insider: In Chapter 11, you say that one of the biggest problems with Washington today is that "...most conversations resolv[e] to a calculus about ‘what's in it for me?' " But isn't this an endemic problem with any principal-agent system? If a principal (say an electorate, or a corporation) endows an agent (say a representative, or an employee) with certain powers to accomplish a task on its behalf, won't that agent always have, to one degree or another, his or her own wants and desires? Or is there a way to overcome this issue?

Robert J. Bach: Representatives will always have some form of self-interest when pursuing a civic activity -- in many respects this is just human nature. But when individuals run for office and we subsequently elect them, they take on an obligation -- an obligation to relegate their own personal objectives below those of the greater community. In effect, they promise to do what is right for those that elected them knowing that sometimes that will be in conflict with their own desires. And when they don't, we should stop voting for them.

I'm not naïve enough to think this works perfectly all of the time nor do I think that elected officials will always "do the right thing". But the pendulum has now swung too far in the wrong direction -- reinforced by election rules and a party system that is biased toward self-preservation and makes change difficult. Addressing this problem involves finding/promoting better leaders, establishing better ways to frame and discuss issues (the 3P Framework is just one example), and what I call civic engineering. We need more citizens who are civicly engaged and informed -- these civic engineers can help drive change.

E3 Insider: At the end of Xbox Revisited, you list five books that you recommend would-be civic engineers read to get started on that path. Do you have a similar list for folks who would like to follow in your professional footsteps? What other books should aspiring Robert Bachs, aspiring Chief Xbox Officers, put into their Amazon wish lists?

Robert J. Bach: There are a bunch of thoughtful books that fall into this category -- I have books by Jim Collins and Clayton Christiansen on my reading list. One less traditional book I would highlight is Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, which chronicles the leadership sojourn of Abraham Lincoln. It is a long book but a fascinating study in strategy, leadership, and civic engineering.

E3 2015 attendees interested in pre-ordering Bach’s books can find more information at www.robbiebach.com.

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