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Wednesday, January 14, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

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Influential Xbox executive Fries resigns from Microsoft

By Kim Peterson
Seattle Times technology reporter

Ed Fries, Microsoft's key link with Xbox players, game developers.
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Longtime Microsoft executive Ed Fries has resigned as the head of the company's Game Studios division, and with his departure Microsoft is losing a popular Xbox ambassador — and prank victim.

The jokes co-workers have pulled on Fries over the years are legendary, such as when they built a wall that covered the corridor to his office while he was in Japan. Jet-lagged and unable to sleep upon his return, Fries walked into Microsoft at 3 a.m. and walked right by his hidden office.

"That was one of the better ones they pulled on me," he said yesterday.

Fries' last day was Monday. He joined Microsoft as an intern in 1985 and worked his way up the ranks to run Microsoft Game Studios, one of the most competitive and prolific divisions in the company.

Microsoft is the only company Fries has worked for in his professional career, and he said it is time for a change. He is not ready to announce his plans.

"I want to stay involved in the game business, but at the same time I'm looking for more balance in my life," said Fries, who is 39 and has a 1-year-old son.

Fries said he flew more than 100,000 miles a year in his job, mainly to Japan and Europe. "That's a lot of time away from friends and family," he said.

Ed Fries


Age: 39
Title: Corporate vice president
Career: Joined Microsoft in 1985 as an intern in the Office division, where he was charged with upgrading an online tutorial system. Spent 10 years on the Office team, then decided in 1995 he wanted to work in the games unit. Eventually rose to head of the Game Studios division.
Key point: When he sought a job in the games unit, Microsoft execs tried to persuade Fries to work in other areas. Fries was adamant, so they relented. In 2000, he was promoted from general manager to vice president of games publishing.
Key task: As Microsoft began developing the Xbox video-game console, Fries' job was to enlist support from outside game developers, including the big names: Activision, Electronic Arts and Konami.
Xbox in the market: Microsoft has sold 9.4 million consoles since Xbox was introduced in late 2001, making it No. 2 in the market, behind Sony PlayStation 2. Chief Xbox Officer Robbie Bach said last week Microsoft expects to have shipped between 14.5 million and 16 million Xbox consoles by June.
Money talk: Revenue from the Xbox increased 23 percent in fiscal 2003, helping push sales in Microsoft's home and entertainment division to $2.75 billion in 2003 from $2.45 billion. The division's net loss widened to $924 million from $874 million in 2002.
Microsoft heaped praise on Fries yesterday, going beyond the typical press-release recognition of a departing executive.

Robbie Bach, senior vice president of the company's games division, sent an e-mail announcing the news and later spoke to reporters about Fries' contribution at Microsoft.

"That's mostly out of respect to Ed," Bach said. "He's been here 18 years and he's contributed spectacularly to the company. This is a decision that he's making, so we're happy to talk about it."

At Microsoft, Fries managed a team of 1,200 programmers, designers, artists and producers and was in many ways the public face for the company's game studios.

A longtime gamer himself — he created his own version of the video game "Frogger" while in high school — Fries connected with players and developers in ways other Microsoft executives could not.

He was influential in some of Microsoft's biggest game-developer acquisitions.

During his time, the company produced such well-known titles as "Project Gotham Racing" 1 and 2, "Age of Empires," "Mech Assault," "Halo" and "Flight Simulator."

Fries helped build relationships with big gaming studios in the industry.

He read all of the Harry Potter books when Microsoft was vying, unsuccessfully, to publish an Xbox version of the Harry Potter video game.

He even has gone on record saying some of his favorite games are Nintendo titles.

"In the industry as a whole, one name or face that goes with the Xbox would pretty much be Ed Fries," said Mark MacDonald, executive editor of Electronic Gaming Monthly, a video game magazine.

Fries was often the person who would decide whether games would make their way to the Xbox or not, MacDonald said.

"If you talk to developers, a lot of them are probably more upset and sad about this because they knew Ed Fries," he said. "A lot of them had only worked with him. He was the champion for a lot of their games."

His departure leaves a major void at Microsoft, both in internal management and external relations with the industry.

Bach said it could take up to three months to find a replacement.

Shane Kim
Microsoft has named Shane Kim as acting chief of the Game Studios unit. Kim has worked for Microsoft for 14 years, most recently as the unit's chief operating officer. He will report to Bach.

There will be no staffing shuffles or strategic changes as a result of Fries' departure, Bach said.

Fries still has two family members at Microsoft. His twin sister is a program manager in the search-technologies unit.

His brother is a development manager working on storage technologies.

Fries' mother did technical writing part time for Microsoft after she earned her master's degree in computer science from the University of Washington. His engineer father moved to the region after college to work at Boeing.

Fries grew up in Bellevue's Lake Hills neighborhood and attended Sammamish High School.

He said he has no plans to relocate, particularly because his extended family and many friends are here.

He still might have some retaliatory pranks left for former co-workers, although Fries has gotten revenge as only a computer programmer could.

Once, he took a co-worker's Macintosh apart and planted a chip that played the music of a musical greeting card.

The co-worker assumed it was a program gone awry. He spent hours working on the machine, only figuring out the problem when he unplugged the computer and the music continued.

Another time, Fries glued compact disks all over the walls and windows of a co-worker's office. The room looked like a disco nightclub, he said.

Jokes aside, Fries said the best part of his job was working with others on projects that seemed nearly impossible.

"When it comes to the games group, there are these people with these wild visions of what things could be," he said. "They just need the opportunity to bring that vision to life and the support to bring it to life."

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or kpeterson@seattletimes.com


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