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Power On: The Story of Xbox is a six-part documentary debuting Monday about the making of Microsoft’ s Xbox video game consoles.
I recorded an interview with director Andrew Stephan in 2019, and am glad to see it is finally coming out. I watched a preview of the entire series, and it turned out well. I wrote two books about the making of the original Xbox and the Xbox 360.
Opening the Xbox came out in 2002, and The Xbox 360 Uncloaked came out in 2005. Those books were the first draft of history, as was a story about the Red Rings of Death, or the defects in the Xbox 360, that I published in 2009. Back then, I had to rely on unnamed sources for much of my reporting. But it is a testament to the passage of time and the diligence of Stephan and the executive producer Tina Summerford that this story has a lot of frank testimony in it.
You get the highs of launching the game consoles — the Xbox in 2001, the Xbox 360 in 2005, the Xbox One in 2013, and the Xbox Series X/S in 2020 — as well as the lows. Peter Moore and Todd Holmdahl talked about the pain of the failures and the documentary explains what really went wrong with millions of consoles that broke down. Robbie Bach tells why he submitted a resignation letter — one that then-CEO Steve Ballmer turned down — before the Xbox ever launched. And we get to hear the tale of those who were there at the beginning — like Seamus Blackley, Kevin Bachus, Ted Hase, Otto Berkes, Ed Fries, and Nat Brown — as well as many who came after them, including Xbox chief Phil Spencer.
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Blackley has said many times that the Xbox wasn’t a foregone conclusion. Just because Microsoft was a big company didn’t mean it was easy to launch the console. In fact, that made it harder. And so I highly recommend that you watch it — even though I’ve just got the tiniest of roles in it.
It’s a pretty dense story. And while it might seem long, the 20 years that it covers were so eventful and they involved thousands of Microsoft employees and game developers. I talked to Summerford what it was like to make it. It started out as a story on the Xbox anniversary, and it morphed to cover all the consoles.
The show will air on Roku, IMDb TV, Redbox, YouTube, Microsoft Movies & TV and more.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: What was your formal role in Power On?
Tina Summerford: I was the executive producer for the documentary, and then I’m the head of programming on the marketing team here at Microsoft. I would say I took the idea, pitched the idea internally, and then drove it through execution. I hired the production company, the director. Internally, I was the project owner, I’d say. I take part in the series as well, with a few sound bites there.
GamesBeat: I watched the whole thing. I got excited when I saw myself on camera.
Summerford: I was going to say! First of all, thanks for participating in it. You’ve been around a long time. You have a couple of books that certainly helped us from a research perspective. As a part of the process, the director specifically dove heavily into those, and then sitting down and talking to us was a gift. I’m glad you had a chance to watch it.
GamesBeat: Was it back in 2019 that you did all of the interviews? Or at least the E3 ones?
Summerford: It was. We had started pre-pandemic. You were pre-pandemic. You were one of the earliest, one of the first interviews we had done. Then the pandemic hit. It gave us a chance to take a breath, actually, but we stopped interviewing for a little while, just as the whole world figured out what to go and do next. December of 2018 is when I started to create the pitch deck and come up with the idea. I pitched it internally in February 2019, and we started doing interviews about eight weeks later. It was pretty quick.
GamesBeat: At the time I remember that it was a lot more about the original Xbox and the anniversary that was coming up. It seemed a little surprising to me that it turned out to be so much more than that. It covered the whole history of Xbox consoles. Did you expand the scope?
Summerford: That’s exactly right. Originally we had thought about doing a 45 to 60 minute documentary film. That was just the initial pitch. But then the truth is, as we started to dive in and dig in, it was so clear that we had a bigger story than we thought. We were learning so much. There was so much color, so much coming to light. As we thought about connecting it to the 20-year anniversary, it didn’t make sense to stop.
As we look forward now to what the next 20 years–where would we have stopped it? We didn’t want to stop at 360. Do we stop after the original? As we talked to people, some people who’d been here for that whole length of time, and we started to get into conversations about the 360 and the One, we said to ourselves, “Wow, the story just keeps unfolding. There’s so much richness and color there.” Then we decided, about halfway through the process, that we didn’t want to leave all that out. It was too much goodness for fans. We just kept going up until the present time, to the launch of Series X.
GamesBeat: It was interesting to see some people materialize who haven’t said that much before. That was maybe the first time I’ve seen Don Mattrick talk about it.
Summerford: We were very happy to have Don participate, for sure. It was nice to hear his perspective. A bunch of people have said–some of the community, as we announced this on the 15th, were curious whether Don–we’re purposely not including a lot of people in the trailers and stuff, so it’s a great surprise for fans. But we were happy that Don participated, for sure.
GamesBeat: How independent does it wind up being? There’s help from Microsoft, but there’s also–you guys basically curate what you want to do here, right? How did you navigate that part?
Summerford: It was important to bring on a production company and documentary filmmakers that could take us a bit out of our comfort zone and make sure that it explored what an authentic, truthful story would be. Their job was, I would say, the research, a lot of the Q&As, and crafting the story as it unfolded in the chair. Figuring out how we edit that together. My job with my team was to be there to support, to give the access, to give help with things like archives. It was a beautiful partnership, because we both needed each other to get to the end result. It hopefully feels like a good balance of both.
If we’d just done it all internally, I don’t think we would have gone where we went. It was critical to bring in outside storytellers that have had success diving in deep and then pushing us out of our comfort zone that little bit. That’s how the partnership worked with TEN100 and Andrew and myself.
GamesBeat: That’s where it got interesting, to see how frank the conversations could be. It felt like the more time passed, the more people were free to just say what they wanted to say, as opposed to biting their tongues whenever they were talking about…unfortunate things?
Summerford: It had the gift of time. What you saw unfold is the same thing that we saw unveiled as we were exploring it. We had the gift of time, of 20 years from the origins. You’re right. Most of those people have gone on, moved on, and they were excited to relive that. There was a lot of color there, just incredibly interesting stories. But there is a gift of time. I think if we went to do a documentary on just the Series X, it would be tough to do right now. You need time to digest it, to understand how it affects you in your own life. Time just has to move on for people to feel significantly more at ease talking about it.
GamesBeat: It was gratifying to see certain things covered, like the whole clip about TV, TV, TV. And then Don Mattrick’s response there as well. Different people saying the mea culpas about all that. Looking back on the Xbox One, they seem to have gone back through that history and realized what it looked like, what the optics were like.
Summerford: Right? Hindsight is 20/20. I will say, going back and–as somebody who was there and partly responsible for that moment in time, like so many of us that are still here–yeah, it’s hard to go back. But you do know that it is the story. It is what it is. You have to own up to it. “We didn’t nail this one. We have to learn from it.” We couldn’t avoid it if we wanted to tell an authentic story.
We leaned in and talked about it and discussed what we learned. Doing that was healthy for a lot of us internally. In some ways it was closure on that moment. But yeah, it still hurts to watch and know that we let gamers down at that time. I’m not sure when that will go away. You never–people spend their money and time and they have a passion for the product. It hurts when you let them down. It’s emotional for a lot of people. Reliving that is hard to watch for a lot of people in the series, and that were here at the time.
GamesBeat: I still feel like people were overly critical about that. Maybe just the clarity of saying, “We’re going to talk about other things you can do at first, and then we’ll tell you about games at E3.” People didn’t seem to understand that. They just said, “Where are the games?” Like I said, it’s optics. Somehow that became the narrative, that there are no games for this thing.
Summerford: It was ahead of its time. It wasn’t that it was the wrong–it certainly was the wrong rollout. That was the biggest lesson learned. I think you’re right about that. We also learned that it’s hard to take something back once it’s out there. Being able to tell people, “Hold on, we’ll be coming at E3,” that was not really acceptable. With the internet and the community being as passionate as they are, they let us know. I don’t think we think it was the perfect plan. But we also learned that–that was the moment we learned the most how passionate the community was. It wasn’t a hardware issue. It was their appetite for something that we weren’t delivering yet. We learned a lot about marketing and rolling out. They taught us that. Which is a gift, thankfully.
GamesBeat: There was a lot of frankness in the Red Ring of Death section as well. From what I remember, writing about it early on in 2009, I had to rely on a lot of unnamed sources for some of the information. The percentage of machines that were coming off the line broken (at one point, 68% of the machines coming of the line were failing). The bone pile warehouse where there was a bunch of stuff piling up. Things that put the scale of the problem in perspective. Back then nobody was ready to talk about those things. But then to see people like Peter Moore and everyone else referenced there talking about those things, and the actual cause of it as well, all of that felt ground-breaking to me. It’s this moment in history that they now realized they could talk more about. That felt like very fresh information. Todd Holmdahl said four out of 10 machines were coming off the line bad.
Summerford: Again, it’s that gift of time with that one. It really was the first time you had the different angles of the business coming together and saying, “Here’s exactly what happened.” It was fascinating to put that section together. Fascinating to be in the chair and hear what it was as somebody who was at G4 at the time and covering a lot of the Red Ring. Actually, I’d just left G4, but I was super excited about the 360, and then following that and seeing what happened. It was fascinating. This is one of the parts people will gravitate toward, which is an answer to something that nobody really had before.
Almost everyone, even internally, that’s watched it said, “I had no idea that’s what caused it, and that all of those things happened.” That Peter went to Steve and that Todd–you could just see in Todd’s face, see him going back to those moments and how hard that was. That was a moment where there were some tears in the chairs, because that was an emotional part of people’s conversations that were directly involved with that.
GamesBeat: Did it feel like you got to the bottom of that, as far as clarifying the history?
Summerford: I don’t know if an onion is a good example, but you could probably do a whole documentary film on that and go deeper through the layers. I think it was the right amount of depth for this story. But who knows? Maybe there’s a follow-up. We’ll see if people want to know more. But I think it’s the perfect amount of depth for this docuseries.
GamesBeat: Do you look at both of those things as–how do they fit into the overall narrative of the 20 years?
Summerford: I think the interpretation is the acknowledgment and the lessons learned from those moments. And without those moments I don’t know that we would be where we are today. Certainly, if we didn’t take accountability, then we would not be learning the lessons that those moments taught us. It’s human. A brand goes 20 years–if you’re innovating enough, that’s going to be enough risk. If every risk works out, you’re probably not innovating enough. True innovation doesn’t come without risk, in my opinion.
I’ve been in meetings today where we refer back to lessons learned from Red Ring, from the Xbox One launch, and say, “Do you remember when we did that then? Let’s not have another.” We reference those. They’re a part of our narrative. It is what it is. If we didn’t take ownership, we’d be missing the point of it. And so we do, 100 percent, internally we take accountability and we remember very vividly. It helps us in what we do moving forward.
GamesBeat: I still think that some people don’t quite get enough credit. Folks like Bill Gates or Steve Ballmer, who were willing to lose $4 billion to eventually get to where we are today, with billions in revenues per quarter.
Summerford: It was clear, as you saw in the series, that they played a very important role in the creation of it and the early years. That’s the story, right? They were there to greenlight it and back it, put the money behind it. They had a very important role in the creation, and I think hopefully that should show through.
GamesBeat: Are there particular things that you pull out of the series, looking back?
Summerford: I don’t know what this sounds like, but I will say, I’ve never been more proud to work for this company as I have been when I’ve been lucky enough to go and explore this story, to appreciate not just the origins, but the journey over the last 20 years. The passion, the people. You needed that group of personalities in how it all came together.
I also didn’t realize myself how difficult it was to go do this at Microsoft. The appreciation you have for that entrepreneurial spirit in a company like this, people who are willing to go do that, made me feel more pride for the company as I learned those stories, learned more about the role of some of the early leaders and the risks. That made it a bit easier for me to understand how we got to where we are today. There’s an appreciation for the innovation and the vision that people had. You need the people behind the tech.
GamesBeat: Was there any interesting feedback you’ve heard from some of the people involved so far, anyone who’s seen it yet?
Summerford: Very few people have seen it. There’s the cast. Tomorrow will be the first time most people will see it. A few internal people saw it when we did early rounds of feedback and fact-checking. There’s a general excitement around the company right now for this coming out on Monday. Chris Capossela, our head of marketing, is so excited about it. There’s been a lot of support for the innovation around storytelling and how we’re showing up authentically. We feel like we made it for the fans. We’re all just excited to get it into their hands. People can go down memory lane and smile and maybe feel a little bit of pain with us at times too.
GamesBeat: It reminds me a bit of the original Xbox programming on the E.T. game and the video game crash. That was a good one, I thought. A smaller story, but still.
Summerford: The genesis of it really is the authenticity part. We know that’s what consumers are looking for and what they want. Sometimes it’s hard to get there. You feel like you’re taking a risk. But it is what it is. We knew that we wanted to tell an authentic, real story. I’m proud of the story that we’re telling here, and that we’re allowing the story to be told. There’s a lot of pride that goes into it. I think fans are going to be excited to watch it.
GamesBeat: It’s probably good timing to come out after the Halo launch. It gets a moment to shine.
Summerford: We certainly want people playing Halo right now! We don’t want anything to get in the way of playing Halo. It’s been a fun week for sure.
GamesBeat: Can you remind me in what ways this will be viewable?
Summerford: It’ll come out on December 13. You can watch it on Microsoft Movies and TV. It’s on IMDb TV, which is enveloped on Amazon Prime. YouTube, Roku, Redbox. We’re getting broad distribution, which is a lot of fun.