Former Microsoft evangelist and DirectX co-creator Alex St. John talks Doom, persuading game developers to give Windows 95 a chance, and giant genitalia at Microsoft parties.
Before Alex St. John founded WildTangent, the company arguably responsible for launching casual PC games into the stratosphere, he played a pivotal role in creating a little-known suite of game development tools called DirectX.
St. John made a name for himself as an iconoclast right from the moment he breezed through the doors at Microsoft. His brash opinions and audacious ideas incurred the wrath of Bill Gates, Microsoft CEO and headsman, on more than one occasion. More impressively, he managed to look the headsman in the eye and convince him to put down his axe. Every time but the last time. Still, that’s an impressive track record.
In 2007, I scored an interview with St. John through Shacknews.com, the first site that paid me to write about video games. I’m proud to present that interview here on Episodic Content in its entirety, minus a few wrinkles I smoothed out after digging this interview out of my archives. St. John spoke candidly (the only way he knows how to speak!) about topics ranging from how he started at Microsoft and the outrageous party that that won over legions of game developers, to the times he was almost fired at Microsoft and the creation of the DirectX API (application programming suite) that revolutionized game development.
Tell us a bit about yourself, and why you thought PC gaming should move from DOS to Windows.
I used to work for Microsoft several years ago, and I was originally hired to handle their publishing and printing architecture. I worked with Windows 95 and got into multimedia, and they were having some difficulty in this department. Microsoft thought playing videos was the most exciting thing you could do with Windows. I was in the strategy group that said you guys are out of your mind, that is the dumbest thing ever and Apple will kick your butts and they deserve to. Gaming is what people want to use their PCs for. If you really want to have Windows be the dominant operating system, it should be built around games.
I started the DirectX project at Microsoft with a couple of friends and as you probably know it was an underground effort. It was not a big company strategy; It has a huge transformative effect on Microsoft because it took off, as you know. When Windows 95 shipped DirectX was not part of the OS. Microsoft would not include the technology with the operating system. What we did is we persuaded all the game developers who wanted to make Windows 95 games for us to ship DirectX with their games.
In the early ’90s, developers were entrenched in DOS. It was a difficult OS to develop for, but with practice comes knowledge. How’d you convince them to leave behind the devil they knew for Windows 95—an OS that, traditionally, was known for hogging resources that were more readily available in DOS?
It was very hard. The first step was, I was in charge of game compatibility with Windows 95, so I was working with all the DOS game developers to make sure the games worked better in Windows 95; that’s where a lot of the relationships came from. But when I said, ‘Hey would you guys consider making your next game on Windows?’ they laughed at me. I said, “Well what’s the problem?” and they told me, “Your OS is fat, it’s slow, it sucks up memory; everything’s just in the way, and it doesn’t have the features we need.” I said, “Well what would I have to do in Windows to make it a better game environment?” They said if I can solve the driver problems Windows had and essentially shut down the OS, that would be helpful.
Essentially it’s called DirectX because it was designed to bypass the operating system, to push Windows aside, get it out of memory, get rid of all the garbage competing with games for resources, and just let the games run. A lot of the functionality [was based around] shutting down Win graphics system so games could talk to the video hardware, stopping Windows from paging memory to the hard drive so that games could run at a constant frame rate, bypassing Windows message queue so you could get real-time mouse input so you could actually control a first-person shooter like Doom.
Bill Gates’ infamous cameo during a Doom presentation.
I went to Origin and id first and said, “Look, we don’t know what the hell we’re doing, we want to make Windows run games, and we need your support. If you trust us with the source to your most popular games, we’ll port them to Windows and hand them back to you. If you think the game runs well, you can publish it and keep all the money.” Carmack gave us Doom, the very first DirectX game [ever published], and Origin actually did one better and sent three people to work at Microsoft porting the games with us. As soon as we started showing the game community that the most respected games not only could run well under Windows, but were running better than they did under DOS, we started gaining some momentum.
It was Microsoft’s initial willingness to shoulder the risk for top developers… that helped establish a lot of the momentum.
Did game developers take to Microsoft right away?
Well, Microsoft had the reputation of being a big boring enterprise company, the natural enemy to creative people who avoid that industry because they want to make games. In order for Microsoft to have any credibility. In this industry we had to have a cooler, more relaxed, creative reputation, and be more approachable to people from that industry. The best way to do that is to throw a great party, because at the end of the day you need people to be willing to try the technology, but if the technology was great but didn’t trust you, it didn’t bother how great the technology was, they’d never look at it. So I threw those crazy parties in order to help them with Microsoft’s relationship. And they were pretty wild, and they were very successful because they caused the developers to go, “Hey, these guys aren’t bad guys, I had a lot of fun at the party, the games and technology are pretty cool.” And that’s what smoothed the way for a lot of the developers to try [our DirectX] technology.
I heard the launch party for Doom on Windows was pretty insane. What part did that party play in garnering support for DirectX from the game development community?
That was the first party, yeah, the coming out party for Doom for Windows 95. I persuaded 24 game developers to create launch titles for Windows 95. One of the things I felt Microsoft owed them was as much marketing support and momentum as we could give those titles to make up for that big risk they were taking. I wanted to show the game industry that we were supporting them and we were going to help them promote the heck out of their titles, but the other thing I wanted to do was bring them into Microsoft and have Microsoft see how huge the support was from the game industry, and have Microsoft see what kind of games were being made for Windows, that were very different than what Microsoft thought games were about.
So what we did was take over the new game building’s parking garage from Patty Stonesifer—without her permission; she was very upset, complained about me to Gates—and we built a haunted house in the parking garage. We want to bring all these developers who are launching titles to build sections of the haunted house, 3000 press and publishers, and we’ll just have this crazy party, and it was of course very crazy and very controversial at Microsoft.
[In addition to hosting a WinDoom tournament], id brought Gwar, a pretty unhooked band, they brought in 8-foot tall vagina with a 100 penises hanging from it, OJ Simpson’s severed head, all sorts of things among their other costumes. There was a guy with a 4-foot long schlong spraying blood and so forth, and I said, “If we’re gonna do this, Microsoft has to suck it up. This is the games industry, let these guys do what they like. We’re supporting an open market platform, we’re not selling Nintendo [consoles] where we control what people make, and if people have the perception that that’s what Microsoft wants to do, they’re going to lose credibility immediately. This is us supporting the game industry, and they’re here supporting us.”
So we had this haunted house with all the press and Microsoft execs going through the house, and I got terrified; I thought, “You know what? I’m gonna get fired for this.” So I was standing outside the entrance watching these people coming out, laughing, covered with blood, getting their pictures taken, what have you, and all the execs came out laughing, having a great time. I went up to [one of the execs] and said, “Hey, did you like the haunted house,” and he goes, “Oh yeah, it was fantastic.” So I said, “Well, did you see the id room?” And he said “Yeah, they had a lot of monsters.” I asked, “Did you happen to see what they were?” He replied, “Well, it was dark, I saw some stuff getting sprayed around, yeah, it was great!” So the funny thing is with all the press and execs walking through here, either they didn’t believe what they were seeing or they just didn’t see it. I’m going, “Did any of you see the 8-foot tall vagina monster that attacked you?” “No.” “Did any of you see the huge schlongs?” “Oh, is that what that was?” So, it was a very successful party, you know, Patty Stonesifer complained to Gates, but all he said was, “Patty complained, but I heard it was a great party.”
We got a lot of fantastic press, and the game developers went and told everybody, “Hey, Microsoft is actually cool,” so we enjoyed a lot of success, but you can imagine how risqué they thought that would be for a professional organization like “the Empire.”
Wow. Was that your first near run-in with termination at Microsoft?
Oh my God. Well, the first time I interacted with [Bill] Gates was 3 months after I was hired. I was 25, I’d been hired to be a publishing strategist, I’d never dealt with press or a lot of big company politics. I was just an engineer who was very good with publishing technology. I think it was Infoweek Magazine, one of the top IT magazines of that time, called and said, “We want some commentary on Windows 95’s commentary for publishing,” and my boss says, “That’s perfect for the new guy, I’ll have him talk to you.” So they put me on the phone with a journalist, and this was the first time I’d ever talked with the press. I’d never had any PR coaching, I didn’t think I had to be careful [with what I said], I was naïve about it. So I was very honest, I said, “Yeah, printing in Windows 95 doesn’t work so good, we’re going to fix it, we’re going to have some dramatic enhancements.” And they asked, “How does it compare to Apple’s?” I responded, “Clearly, in the case of Windows 3.1, it’s not as good as [Apple Macintosh’s].”
On the front page of Infoweek, [the headline reads]: “Microsoft Executive Alex St John says ‘Mac Is Superior Publishing platform to Windows.’ Apparently I was promoted. The article stated how Windows sucked for printing. I [arrive] at my office and I get an email from Bill Gates going, “What the hell are you thinking? Have you ever heard of the PR department? I can’t believe you’re talking to the press and making these kinds of comments, [et cetera].” My boss was the first to greet me, looking ashen, and says, “Hey, sorry kid, I may have gotten you fired, oops.” So Gates was saying, in his email, that “We have the best publishing architecture, it’s superior to the Macintosh’s, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I was devastated. I went and took a long walk around Microsoft’s campus, and was thinking about it, probably getting back into the publishing industry. After a while, it was a weird thing that happened, and I think it was a pivotal point in my career at Microsoft, because I went, “What the hell does he mean I don’t know what I’m talking about? Gates said I’m wrong.” I wonder if he actually believes that, because I know I know what I’m talking about. I figured if I’m fired anyway, I may as well tell Bill the truth. I went back to my office and responded, “Hey, I’m sorry I let you down, I shouldn’t have talked to the press, but what the hell are YOU talking about? Your OS is completely fucked for printing, and whoever told you otherwise pulled the wool over on you, Bill.” I hit Send. I mean I’m fired anyway, so what the hell?
He sent the email over to Microsoft’s top execs, saying something to the effect of, “This kid we hired is an expert from the publishing industry, and he says you guys have been lying to me the whole time. You guys are telling me we’ve got a superior [printing] architecture to the Macintosh, and this new kid says that’s absolute bullshit.” And they came down on me like a ton of bricks, coming in saying, “What the fuck are you doing talking to Bill Gates? We have a great printing architecture,” this and that. At that point, in my point of view, I was already fired, so I said, “What the fuck are YOU talking about, that’s horseshit!” I got into it with so many executives, saying “What are you doing, embarrassing us in front of [Bill] Gates like this?” and I just said, “I don’t care, I’m gone, I know I’m gone, so here’s how it is.”
A very weird thing happened. It turned out I wasn’t fired, and I started getting called into all the meetings where publishing architecture was discussed. I told them what was broken, and they would say, “What do we have to do to fix it, and please don’t tell Bill we suck.” I was able to ultimately replace a lot of the people who were in charge of Microsoft’s publishing architecture, bringing in a lot of the people that I’d worked with. I persuaded companies like Adobe to put their software on Windows 95, and ultimately ended up transforming Windows’s print architecture. I acquired a great deal of power and credibility [with Bill Gates], even though I wasn’t well-regarded by a lot of the senior executives. I think some of that experience carried into DirectX, because when I say loud and clearly that something’s broken, that doesn’t get you fired, but it certainly gets a lot of people pissed off at you.
I think I get a lot of more willingness to go over the edge from that first realization that if you’re outspoken, stand your ground, that’s a fairly successful way to get things done at Microsoft. And that’s one of the great things about the Microsoft culture: very hard on the nervous system, but it worked. I went about creating DirectX the same way, and I think if I wouldn’t have had that experience, I probably never would have acquired the courage to deal with some of the challenges I faced with DirectX at a senior level.
I ended up writing [many of] Bill’s speeches, I traveled with him, I used to coordinate events for publishing and for gaming. I think he always thought, “Hey, that kid’s crazy, but he’s very smart, and I like the fact that he overturns my responsible, established guys who might otherwise blow smoke up my ass.” I think he valued me for that, even if I was recognized [by others] as being a bit of a wild hare.
Your middle name was “Controversy” at Microsoft, it seems.
[laughs] Speaking of controversy, I think you’ll like this. You know why the “X” on the Xbox is a glowing green X?
You’ll never hear this from anybody else because they probably don’t know. The original codename for DirectX was “the Manhattan Project,” because strategically it was an effort to displace Japanese game consoles with PCs and ultimately the Xbox. We called it “The Manhattan Project” because that was the codename for the program developing the nuclear bomb. We had a glowing radiation logo for the prototype for DirectX, and of course as soon as that got out and the press covered it, it caused a scandal. Microsoft PR said, “You have got to change that. You cannot be using a radiation symbol and calling this thing ‘The Manhattan Project’.”
So we renamed it DirectX but we said, “Everybody loves the radiation symbol, so what we’ll do is add legs to it to make it an ‘X’.” There are probably 3 people in the entire world that know how that came about. Microsoft was very funny when the Xbox launch, they said, “Oh, well, some artist made the green thing, and we thought it was cool,” and I just said, “Oh stop, that was the color scheme for the DirectX logo from the very beginning.”
Let’s go back a bit. How did you get started at Microsoft?
I was very young and naïve, and when you’re young and naïve you may not realize how much potential you have, or how good you are at what you’re doing. Having a company specifically hunt you down and target you for recruiting because you have some personality attributes or skills that they recognize as very valuable was a foreign notion to me. I had been working for a British companies building clones of Adobe’s post scripting language. I’d built a product that was very successful and was an effective competitor to Adobe. I was writing tech columns in the press about printing and publishing technology, and Microsoft was at that time in heavy competition with Apple, and was very concerned about Apple’s dominance in publishing and printing.
Bill Gates had created a position for a strategist, for someone who really understands the technology. At the time, I didn’t know such positions existed. They were looking for people who were very articulate and strategic in their thinking. They primarily hired kids who weren’t very experienced because they wanted to shape them in their own image.
Microsoft recruiters contacted me and said, “Hey, we’ve got a special job we want to hire you for.” I said, “I don’t really want to work on the west coast, so no.” They kept calling back pretty persistently over a period of about three months, and what the recruiter finally said to me was, “Have you ever been to Washington? It’s beautiful, and Microsoft has an incredible Christmas party. Why don’t we just fly you out for a weekend vacation, you can come to the Christmas party, stay in a nice hotel, tour the area. All you have to do is an interview, we’ll ask you some questions, we’ll cover the expenses.” I said, “Sure, what the hell. Free trip to Seattle sounds fun.” I had no intention of taking any job.
So I had to do the interview in order to pay for the trip and check out the Christmas party. When they brought me out, they put me through everything you’ve ever heard about Microsoft interviews, really grueling. I kept asking, “What am I interviewing for?” They were very evasive, and when I was ultimately offered a job, what I said was, “What’s the job? I don’t even understand what I’ve been interviewing for.” They said, “You’ll be an evangelist” I said, “What’s that?” “Your job is to promote Microsoft’s publishing strategy to developers,” and I said “But your publishing strategy sucks, it’s a disaster, that would be embarrassing.” “Well, you would be in a position to influence that.” “So you want me to work the publishing gauntlet?” “No, it’s not running it, that’s other people. You’d be in a position to influence it.”
I didn’t completely understand it, but it was a compelling offer, and the Christmas party was stunning. It was incredible. So I thought any company that throws this kind of party, you have to know what it’s like to work for them. They have a beautiful campus, lots of intelligent campus, and it all seemed very exciting. I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into.
When did you realize what you were getting yourself into, as you say?
A month or so in, I still didn’t know exactly what my job was until one of the guys who hired me said, “Write a strategy for how you would persuade the publishing industry to move to Windows.” I spent a lot of time writing documents saying here’s what our strategy should be, here’s how we could convince companies to sign on, all that. I came in to do my presentation, and I got about three slides into it before I was interrupted by one of the executives saying, “This is all great stuff, you have a perfect plan. Developers who are reasonable should all support it, but what do you do if none of this works.” “What do you mean?” “What if in spite of your best efforts, your best arguments, you best relationships, you can’t get them to support them. How do you force the industry to support Microsoft anyway?” “Force them? Well, I don’t know.” “Come back when you have a plan that answers that question.”
That perplexed me for a long time. I’m thinking, “What the hell does he mean, force them? I can’t hold a gun to their head, so how do I put all these companies in a position where, regardless of what they see is in their best interest, they have to adopt your technology?” That experience had a major impact on my thinking. I realized that a major part of my job was to figure out how to use technology control to create economic force, or leverage, such that money and business flowed in Microsoft’s direction, and people had to go [to them]. That, ultimately, is when I became a “Microsoft guy,” when I got that concept.
Did your fellow evangelists adopt that strategy as well?
Yeah. One guy, Michael Winsor, he was a funny guy. He was one of the guys that really taught me the job, and it took me the longest time to figure him out. He was very flamboyant, very outgoing. He wore a different neon coat every day, and he seemed to know everything; you never caught him in a situation, no matter how complex or broad the question, he seemed to have an answer for everything right off the cusp. He’d go to meetings with people, and they’d ask him all sorts of questions: sales, business, economic, technology, and he just seemed to [always] know the answers.
I was flabbergasted. I think I’m a smart guy, but I’m thinking, “How the hell did he learn all this stuff?” It took me a long time to realize that most of the time he was pulling stuff out of his ass. I didn’t know any better at that point, I just had to believe he knew what he was talking about. Michael had enormous credibility with people because he’d come in, say whatever was needed in order to get support for a platform. You see, in order to get momentum for a platform, one percent of key people to adopt; the other ninety-nine percent end up getting towed along. Michael would find the one percent and work with them.
I never quite adopted his approach to things, but he was an early example of a successful evangelist that I worked with.
How did you become interested in gaming?
The first thing I taught myself was how to code video games. I played early Commodore games, and I loved playing these very early, primitive games, and they influenced me to learn how to code. I was always fascinated with graphics, being an engineer-mathematician-“3D” guy. My interest in three-dimensional mathematics, rendering, and physics led me into a publishing and two-dimensional graphics career. Years later when I arrived at Microsoft, I noticed that they didn’t really have anybody that new how to make games. I got the gaming mantle because of my background in … graphics technology, not specifically because I was from the game industry. I chose the company, RenderMorphics, that Microsoft acquired to create Direct3D. A lot of the 2D graphics and real-time support was also shaped by my expertise in graphics as well. So basically I started out as a mathematician-engineer geek, but became the game guy.
I actually attribute my reasons for being successful there to listening carefully to the game developers. My strategy was very simple–I go to them and ask, “What kind of crack would you get addicted to?” They’d tell me, and I’d go back to Microsoft and say, “If we make this crack, those developers will buy it.” Very simple. DirectX was essentially the crack they asked me to make. That’s the way you hook somebody–ask them what they’ll pay money for, then go make it.
What led to your departure from Microsoft?
I wasn’t burned out, per se, but I was in the middle of a messy divorce. That’s a common pattern at Microsoft–had it not been for that going on, I probably would’ve wanted to gut it out because I was having a good time. It was an enormously high pressure job, and it was very difficult to have other stuff going on in your personal life at the same time you’re dealing with a high pressure job. In the end, I wanted to get the hell out because it was all too much to deal with at that point, but I had too many people internally at Microsoft whose careers were dependent upon me. I was critical to the relationships with the developers, to spreading the word about the technology, to its vision.
So I concluded that the only way out for me was to just tell them, “Look, I wanna go.” But they wanted me to continue running political interference for whatever crazy thing we’d end up doing next. I said, “I’ll tell you what–I’ll do that for as long as I can, I’ll get in the other groups’ way, the ones that tear down each other and interfere, I’ll get in their way until I get fired for it. After that, I’m gone.” I wanted to do that rather than just leave, because when you’re terminated at Microsoft, you have the chance to keep your stock.
See, the problem with success at Microsoft is that everybody wants to jump on board. What happened with DirectX is gaming became such a huge thing. Executives who didn’t have any ownership of DirectX were always hanging around saying, “That should belong to me, those kids are crazy, they’re irresponsible, really this should belong to me.” With the success of DirectX came an enormous amount of very hostile competition. There were some very silly projects that were being pushed, that had been taken over from me by other executives, and I said, “I can interfere with all of that, but it’s gonna cost me my career–but I don’t mind.”
For example, Microsoft was going to make their own 3D hardware card called “Talisman.” They were going to force all the 3D hardware [manufacturers] to adopt DirectX, to adopt Microsoft’s 3D hardware architecture. That strategy was promoted at the senior-most level at Microsoft, so I went head-to-head with top executives saying, “Those guys are crazy, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of. They’re going to fuck up all the success we’ve had in gaming, and they should be fired immediately for their incompetence.”
I was going to lose the battle ultimately, but that’s what I wanted.
That’s what I set out to do. There are a few things I wish I would’ve done differently, but there was no way of getting off a moving train going that fast except to jump.
Microsoft’s tendency to force its users–and internal staff–into adopting their technology seems to be a common theme with the company. Many PC gamers right now feel that they’re being not so much nudged, but shoved in the direction of Windows Vista. Do you see Vista as a viable gaming platform at present?
Well, the PC–forget the operating system–is always a great platform. Modern PCs have superior graphics and memory and processing power to any next-gen console. I don’t think Microsoft did anything to help the PC as a gaming platform with Vista, and that’s a tremendous frustration because I take it very personally. If I would’ve been there, I would have made much more aggressive efforts to make sure Vista stayed out of the way of games.
What you see with Microsoft is, without people at Microsoft who realize that the operating system does not add value to gaming, it gets in the way, they think they can add more value by adding in more shit that only gets in the way of making a good game. Unfortunately, Vista does that. Microsoft added more shit that impedes game development. It’s certainly possible to make great games in Vista, it’s just more of a pain in the ass than it needs to be. I think Vista is a missed opportunity for Microsoft to have done a better job in supporting PC gaming.
What are some of the bottlenecks that you see Vista causing for games?
The Vista game explorer is a dumb idea. They hard-coded a game browser that was somebody’s idea, at Microsoft, for what a good user experience is for discovering games. They imposed a parental control system that doesn’t work, and because it’s hard-coded into the OS, you can’t replace it, and you can’t work around it; it has implications for the user experience that can’t be fixed by Microsoft. Essentially they put a roadblock right in the center of the screen that developers and users are going to have to maneuver around.
The biggest foolishness is Vista’s security architecture. Any time someone questions Vista’s security, Microsoft accuses that person of being anti-security, or is just bummed because they can’t do naughty things that they otherwise wanted to do. Vista’s security is weird, it’s like a house made out of concrete walls but has screen doors. It’s an enormously overbuilt security system with huge, gaping holes. It’s extremely intrusive, and it gets in the way of the user’s experience without actually being secure. It makes it even harder for consumers to download things and play games, without actually gaining any security benefits. It basically fucks up legitimate applications while leaving holes for the bad ones to just climb on through.
You made an excellent point about modern PCs being the best gaming platform available, yet Microsoft doesn’t seem to be giving them the respect they deserve; everything seems to be moving toward consoles. Do you think that Microsoft is trying to make the PC as close to a console as they possibly can?
Yeah, in fact, Microsoft is still executing a strategy that I wrote the proverbial book on years ago. I’d like to think that they should’ve gotten [here] a lot faster than they did, but I’ll tell you what the original playbook said. I wrote a strategy document in late 1994 called “Taking Fun Seriously.” It outlines all of the strategic reasons for Microsoft to get into gaming; predictions as to how the gaming market will evolve; and what sort of strategy Microsoft should take in the console space. It’s very interesting to read that document today because that’s what they’re doing today.
The whole purpose of making DirectX was to make the PC a leading game platform. I said that if Microsoft can port that architecture to a game console, then the PC would act as an anchor for a Microsoft console. What happens in the console business is that you have hardware developers such as Sega that come and go. They fail to make the proper transition from one hardware generation to the next because the hardware architecture changes too radically, and they almost have to start from scratch.
I told Microsoft in [my document] that the strategy they should have is to intimately link a console strategy with the PC. So essentially, the strategy for creating Xbox was to intimately tie it to Windows tools and technology. That way developers could easily create content that could run on both platforms, and would give Microsoft a simple way to transition their console hardware without losing momentum.
Certainly Microsoft is still pursuing that strategy to this day, however awkwardly I believe they go about doing it.
Author’s Note: This interview was originally published in 2007 on Shacknews.com.
In part 2, Alex St. John talks the casual games market, the founding of WildTangent, and the accusation that WildTangent used its games as Trojan horses for spyware and adware.
Choose Your Destiny