Ed Fries, co-founder of the Xbox project and former vice president of Games Publishing for Microsoft, left the company in 2004. He was gracious enough to answer our questions pertaining to the history of Oddworld Inhabitants.
Magog on the March: What were your motives, back in 2000, for obtaining the rights to publish Oddworld Games exclusively for Xbox?
Ed Fries: The Xbox project had just been officially approved by Bill Gates (and announced at the Game Developers Conference in March of 2000). Everyone wanted to know what, if any, games we would have for the new platform. That was my job as the head of game publishing for Microsoft. Oddworld was very interesting to us because it had been a hit game on our competitor’s platform (Sony PlayStation). We had several very good PC game development groups but we had almost no console development experience. It also helped that Lorne Lanning was an excellent spokesperson. I think this cartoon from the time says it all: https://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2000/10/23/it-is-also-called-moolah
Magog on the March: If you don’t mind my asking, did Microsoft intend to acquire Oddworld Inhabitants (like Bungie who would become part of the Microsoft Game Division in 2000)?
Ed Fries: We negotiated a deal (if I remember right, it was almost 20 years ago…) with GT Interactive. They owned the publishing rights to the Oddworld franchise and owned 50% of the Intellectual Property rights. We purchased those as part of the deal. In general we didn’t go around looking for companies to acquire. In each case we tried to put together the deal that made the most sense with each developer.
Magog on the March: All in all, was Munch’s Oddysee — which was part of the “Platinum Hits” series and sold more units than Stranger’s Wrath — considered a success?
Ed Fries: I think it was a success and I would do it all over again even knowing everything I know now in hindsight. The game was overshadowed at launch by the enormous and somewhat unexpected success of Halo but it was a strong part of our lineup at a time when we had very few console games.
Magog on the March: In a 2015 interview, Phil Spencer said “the game we were really about, the game that had the most internal buzz, was Munch’s Oddysee. That was the game we really thought was going to cement our reputation [on Xbox]”. Why?
Ed Fries: The reason is, as I said above, the Oddworld franchise was already well established on console, with a built in fan base, so it was a safe bet at launch. At launch we put an equal amount of marketing money (including TV ads) between two games: Munch’s Oddysee and Halo. Even though we loved Halo internally, we weren’t sure how it would be received by a console audience. With a few exceptions, first person shooters were almost completely unknown on console at the time.
Magog on the March: Lorne Lanning publicly revealed in 2016 that the “PS2 footage” of Munch’s Oddysee was in fact pre-rendered. Was it an open secret at the time, or did you genuinely think it could run on the original Xbox hardware?
Ed Fries: Honestly I don’t remember that being a factor either way. We were happy to work with Lorne and to grab a franchise away from Sony and on to our new Xbox platform.
Magog on the March: Concerning that prototype meeting back in 2003, would you have been more likely to publish Munch’s Exoddus in place of Stranger’s Wrath?
Ed Fries: I was excited about Stranger’s Wrath. Munch’s Oddysee had been a success for us but it hadn’t been a massive success like Halo. I think it was smart for Lorne to take the franchise in a new direction.
Magog on the March: Why didn’t you pick Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath?
Ed Fries: Stranger’s Wrath was developed in my group for many years. Unfortunately people on my team ultimately lost confidence in the game and I had no choice but to let it go. When I did, I gave Lorne and his team at Oddworld the 50% of the IP rights that we owned so that he could take it to another publisher.