Riding shotgun with Xbox's father of invention
Boyd Multerer gets in the driver’s seat of his red Tesla Model S.
“Hop in,” he says.
I reach my hand out, but hesitate, my hand frozen in midair – there appears to be no handle. There may be a Tesla in every parking lot at Microsoft headquarters, but for the driver of a 15-year-old dented Subaru, this feels like a test. I frown at the door.
“Tap it with your finger,” he says.
I touch the gleaming silver rectangular. Once flush with the door, it smoothly slides out several inches, presenting itself as a traditional door handle.
“What. The. What,” I say.
Multerer smiles and starts the car. Pink Floyd’s “Shine on U Crazy Diamond” is playing. Loudly. “As I get older, my music gets louder – and heavier,” he says as he turns the volume down a skosh.
The car is immaculate save for a small, purple fleece coat in the back seat. It belongs to his 5-year-old daughter, also named Tesla.
Multerer uses his index finger to scroll through his music collection on the car’s 17-inch touch screen. Past Adrenaline Mob, past Iron Maiden, Pucifer, Wino and Heavy Kingdom, he stops on a song called, “Lullaby for Indigo.”
Multerer, who has been playing the guitar for 20 years, wrote and recorded this lullaby for his oldest daughter Indigo, who is 9. He wrote another for his middle daughter River, who is 7.
“I am still working on Tesla’s,” he says. “I just haven’t had time.”
He’s been a little busy of late leading a team of engineers to build the thunder under the new Xbox One’s hood.
Like Tesla, the namesake of Multerer’s daughter and his car, even if you don’t know who he is, you almost certainly know his work.
I’m riding shotgun with the man responsible for Xbox Live, the gaming and entertainment service now used by more than 46 million people worldwide, who is also the father of the popular XNA video game programming language.
We’re sitting in his office now, where he has spent every day but five (including weekends and holidays) since June, preparing for the launch of Xbox One.
“The whole team has been doing this,” says Multerer, Xbox's director of development. “We’re all working hard and we’re all tired. But we’re all doing it because we’re building something great.”
Multerer is a ponytailed and bearded software programmer, but stylistically the cliché ends there. He is dressed in programmer casual, but makes it look ship-shape: Puma sneakers, upscale blue jeans and a hoodie with a pterodactyl on it, purchased from The Oatmeal, of one of his favorite Web comics.
He is intense, in a laid-back way. His office has the usual assortment of technical manuals and awards, but also some favorite comics, a plush skull (alas, it is Shakespeare’s poor Yorick) and a crystal cube with what look to be named dots suspended inside. It’s a 3D map of nearby stars, he says, a gift from his wife. The map centers around the star Sol, and spreads out 5 parsecs in all directions.
Multerer logs into the Xbox One in his office (his gamertag, fittingly, is Grey Matter) to demonstrate what he and his team have been doing. He loads up "Savage Frontier", a test game for Xbox One featuring a 3D simulation of the solar system.
Using the streamlined Xbox One controller, Multerer zooms around the galaxy, then heads for Mars at a couple of light years per second.
Multerer explains that Xbox One actually runs on three operating systems – the Xbox operating system, and a Windows 8 kernel operating system, and a third system to connect and act as a switch between the other two. “When Xbox 360 shipped, there were no smartphones, laptops were expensive and rare, there were no tablets. You didn’t have any of these things, and you didn’t do anything other than play the game you were playing,” Multerer says.
Next-generation gamers have smartphones, tablets, are devoted to their favorite apps, and expect a video game system that will grow, change, and evolve. That is in direct conflict with the desires of game designers and developers, who invest loads of time and money to create a game, and therefore want a system that doesn’t change.
“They want to know exactly how much RAM they can use, and exactly how much CPU, and exactly how the graphics are going to work, and that should never change,” Multerer said. “The needs of the gamer and the needs of the game developers are at direct odds, so how do you serve both at the same time? That’s the real reason why we did two separate operating systems. One is more static, aimed letting game developers ability to deliver the best games, and one is aimed at the gamer to give them an evolving, changing, updating console that will be able to support the next big social network that hasn’t even been invented yet.”
Abruptly, he switches from outer space to ESPN, then snaps ESPN onto the right side of the screen and continues cruising outer space.
“Let’s see if we can find Orion. I always like going to Orion,” he says.
Xbox One’s operating systems give it the ability to switch back and forth between games and apps instantly or, if you’re a multi-tasker, you can play Forza and Skype with your mother at the same time.
“I’m extremely proud of the architecture,” Multerer says. “It’s the hardest project I have ever worked on. It was a total slog to get it done.”
Most people will never realize the complexity behind Xbox One’s dual-operating system. And Multerer is OK with that.
The needs of the gamer and the needs of the game developers are at direct odds, so how do you serve both at the same time?
“You shouldn’t ever have to think about it if we did our jobs right,” Multerer says. “If we did it right, it should just feel natural and like it’s all one system and they won’t know there’s a difference between the evolving side and the consistent gaming side.”
Multerer began doing contract work with Microsoft in 1994 while also running his software company, Zephyr, and in 1997 came to work full-time for Microsoft, joining “a little bitty team called Xbox.” They pointed to the back of the in-development Xbox and said, “All right Boyd, we put an Ethernet cord in the back of the console. Go figure out what it talks to.”
“And then I became the first person on Xbox Live,” he says. “We knew we wanted to have a social experience online, but not much more than that.”
He and his team conducted focus groups, but also made some controversial bets. They pushed for gamer tags (an idea game developers strongly disliked) and the friends list and a social but secure online environment. Xbox Live launched in November 2002, and one need not look further than its 46 million subscribers to know how well those bets paid off. Multerer and his team won a Technical Emmy and a Microsoft Technical Achievement Award (the company’s internal Nobel Prize of sorts).
Multerer was then asked to come up with a way for developers to build games for Xbox. He left Xbox Live in good hands, and a short while later XNA was born. XNA is a sort of gateway drug for programmers, an approachable set of tools based on .Net Framework to help them develop video games (and, hopefully, to hook them on coding).
One of XNA’s goals was to make computer science more fun for students by making it easy for them to write code and run it on their own Xbox. It was used in hundreds if not thousands of universities, and is the basis for the most popular casual game-building engines out there.
“I still get these people who are now well into their computer science careers, or maybe they’re writing games, or maybe they’re doing something else, and they don’t know who I am and we get introduced, and start talking, and I say, ‘Yeah, I started XNA,’ and they just kind of freak out,” Multerer says. “It’s cool. I’m incredibly proud of XNA and I think we nailed almost every objective we had.”
When I suggest to him that it seems he has something of a Midas touch on his projects, he talks about timing.
“I feel very fortunate to have been in the position to do those things,” he says. “I guess I was just in the right place at the right time and focused on finding the next interesting thing I could do.”
I ask Multerer if he’s offended by the word geek, and when he says he’s not, I ask him if he’s always been one. The answer is a resounding yes.
Our talk covers some serious ground, like a nerdy variation of around-the-world on the basketball court. He’s a fan of Web comics. Some of his favorites are the Oatmeal, Scenes from a Multiverse and Dinosaur Comics. He also enjoys The Non-Adventures of Wonderella, which features a neutral-neutral superhero.
“Have you ever played Dungeons and Dragons?” he asks.
I have not, so he explains the game’s alignment, a system for categorizing people, creatures and societies on axes of lawful and chaotic, good and evil. Neutral-Neutral means she’s in the middle of both axes, which means she’s a superhero that will gladly fight crime – unless her favorite show is on television.
Multerer can also work his favorite element, Tellurium, into the conversation (“I could go on and on about Tellurium”) and of course, the works of Tesla (“I think Tesla’s greatest invention, although not his sexiest, was the transformer”).
He grew up in Wisconsin on a small farm, and at age 12 begged his parents for his first computer. He started coding, mostly little games, but computers had to share top billing with his other hobby, rockets. Multerer competing through high school with the National Association of Rocketry. He went to college at the University of Wisconsin at Madison for mechanical engineering, and everywhere he looked, he saw ways to introduce computers to do the engineering simulations.
“My professors had no idea what to do with me. It was mechanical engineering. Most of them didn’t even have computers,” he says.
After college, he worked in general engineering for a while, but was bored by the theoretical. He craved application. Multerer moved to Seattle on a whim, started Zephyr Design, creating tools for desktop publishing. He did a little bit of everything for the tiny company, even the packaging, and would sit at home watching movies while he duplicated and shrink-wrapped products. Eventually he sold off Zephyr’s software to Adobe before coming to work for Microsoft.
Multerer said after working for years on Xbox One, it was great to see it go out into the world.
"It was a challenging project and we were all ready for any issues that might come up. None did, so we've been enjoying the games and reconnecting with our families," he says.
In the short-term, Multerer is taking a much-needed sabbatical. He will be catching up on several personal coding projects he's been neglecting and helping his wife launch her new startup Silk Words (an interactive romance fiction site for women launching in February). He will teach his oldest, Indigo, how to make a website. He will help his middle daughter River, 7, write a song. And Tesla?
“It’s Tesla’s turn to build a robot,” he says.
And after that?
"I can't really talk about it, but I'll be working on exciting things," Multerer said.
Editor's note: Boyd Multerer left Microsoft in December of 2014.Photos by Brian Smale / © Microsoft