OF ALL THE PLACES DENISE Chaudhari expected her college degree to take her, she never would have guessed an office within Microsoft. Her career path still came as a surprise to her.
Setting her sights on illustration, Chaudhari attended the Rhode Island School of Design, where she switched tracks to industrial and product design, and graduated with her Bachelor of Fine Arts in 1992. With degree in hand, she searched for jobs but found few available. "As a woman in industrial design, there weren't a lot of doors being flung open. Those opportunities just weren't there. I was one of five women in my class who graduated with a degree in industrial design," she says.
In 2000, she stumbled into an interview in Microsoft's model shop. On the day of her interview, she wound through corridors toward her meeting spot when a friend spotted her and flagged her down. "What are you doing here?" he asked.
"I'm interviewing for a job in the model shop," she told him.
His eyes lit up. "You need to meet this guy," he said.
This guy was Jim Stewart, who introduced himself to Chaudhari and explained that he headed up industrial design on Microsoft's forthcoming game console. Her heart sank into her stomach. She knew little about games, she admitted. Stewart's face lit up. "He really liked that I didn't have a background in games," Chaudhari recalls. "He liked that I was coming to this with a fresh perspective. There were a lot of egomaniacs in the industrial design department, and he separated himself from that and was excited about getting to pick somebody on his own."
Stewart and Chaudhari discussed her education and background in industrial and product design. She had worked at Hasbro before seeking her fortunes elsewhere, so she knew her way around tools and model-making techniques. There was just one sticking point. Microsoft's salaried industrial designers turned their noses up at the Xbox. They believed it doomed to fail and refused to work on it, leaving him unable to draw from the department. Therefore, he needed to hire a contractor, but only a certain type of contractor would do.
"Microsoft had just been through the whole backlash with freelancers," Chaudhari remembers.
The backlash began in 1987 when Microsoft hired independent contractors for certain projects. As freelancers, they worked on-site with salaried employees, reported to the same managers, were responsible for the same tasks as full-timers, and expected to work the same core hours. The differences lay in pay and benefits. Whereas full-time employees received pay through Microsoft's payroll department, contractors went through the company's accounts payable department. Although they worked full-time hours, the paperwork they signed made clear they were ineligible to receive benefits; and like all freelancers, they were responsible for setting aside earnings to cover taxes.
In 1989, the Internal Revenue Service audited Microsoft and performed its 20 factor test, a series of criteria that laid out what separated independent contractors from full-time workers. Per those guidelines, the IRS informed Microsoft that their freelancers were full-timers in all but name; Microsoft classified them as independent for tax purposes. After the IRS reclassified these workers, Microsoft offered some of them full-time contracts, while it gave others the option of terminating their contracts or signing new paperwork under the new Microsoft-owned employment agency.
''I talked to Seamus a little about it, too. It feels like validation for what he and I did.'' -Denise Chaudhari
A group of reclassified workers applied for Microsoft's Savings Plus Plan (SPP) and Employee Stock Purchase Plan (ESPP). Everyone inside and outside Microsoft had heard stories of employees becoming millionaires through stock options. Now that they were in the fold, they wanted the same benefits as everyone else.
Not so fast, the company replied. While top brass had no choice but to view these workers as employees, they could not apply for SPP because they were paid through accounts payable, a separate entity from the payroll department. Eight freelancers brought the case to the attorneys of Bendich, Stobaugh & Strong in 1992, who filed a lawsuit stating that Microsoft mislabeled their clients as independent contractors. The district court dismissed the case in 1994, only for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to rule in favor in 1996 and '97.
"Large corporations have increasingly adopted the practice of hiring temporary employees or independent contractors as a means of avoiding payment of employee benefits, and thereby increasing their profits," said Justice Stephen Reinhardt of the Ninth Circuit in the matter of Vizcaino v. Microsoft, named after Donna Vizcaino, one of the eight independent contractors involved in the suit.
The case remained embroiled in hearings and other legal hang-ups for years as parties negotiated settlements. In the meantime, Vizcaino v. Microsoft held significance for managers like Jim Stewart looking to hire contractors like Denise Chaudhari, for whom the court case would take on greater significance later.
"Jim needed somebody who was an independent contractor who had their own company, but he couldn't just hire a freelance person off the street," she says. "He had a lot of regulations. He's like, 'Do you want to start an LLC?' And I said, 'Uh, yes, I do.'"
Stewart decided Chaudhari was perfect for the job: Designing a controller for the Xbox. "Do you think you can do that?" he asked.
Chaudhari didn't hesitate. "I know I can."
She left the interview employed and exhilarated. She had just turned 30, loved designing things, and, though intimidated at the prospect of working for a multibillion-dollar corporation, believed in her skills. Designing a controller for a game console was another job. More than that, it was a worthy challenge.
"There was a lot of opportunity without this albatross of having too much experience. I kind of went into it thinking, It'll be a good exercise if nothing else. I couldn't believe it. I was getting to do something that I had very little experience in, but I knew I could do the job. That was the conversation that he and I had: Ergonomics was ergonomics, model making was model making, design was design. What's the difference?"
DENISE CHAUDHARI COULD FEEL MEN'S eyes sticking to her like insects on strips of flypaper. Making her way through Microsoft's model shop, she focused on learning her way around her new workspace. "I was so daunted because here I am in this high-end situation, the highest-level corporate that you can get," she says. "Top-notch designers working on Microsoft projects, and here I am like, 'Hey, I'm just kinda showing up. I'm a girl and you don't even know me.'"
''We went, 'Oh my god. They used the wrong measurement. They're using average hand size, not grip size.' We raised our flags. Everyone raised flags. But they dug in.'' -Bill Fulton
She took comfort in touchstones. There were tables set up for crafting models. There were many saws, from handsaws to bandsaws and other heavy-duty equipment. Across the room, her gaze settled on a boxy machine that resembled a microwave. Chaudhari recognized it as a stereolithography apparatus (SLA), commonly referred to as an SLA machine, used to convert liquid plastic into solid objects.
"It was like Frankenstein's machine to me, and out comes a case for a controller," she remembers. "I was like, I am in the wrong place. 'I'm in over my head here. This is going to be a problem."
Chaudhari figured keeping her head down and concentrating on her assignment was the optimal strategy for survival. The vastness of the model shop with its panoply of sophisticated tools and workstations and designers left her overstimulated and anxious.
She squared her shoulders and continued on toward her office. She had worked in male-dominated cultures before and knew how to get by. "In my career now, I'm a UX/UI designer. I never went to school for that. Someone said, 'Can you design an app?' I'm like, 'I'm sure I can.' You do what you have to do as a designer to make a living, and you find your way. And you fake it. You ask yourself, 'Can you do this? Yep. I can do it and figure it out as I go.'"
Certain run-ins shook her confidence. As she walked down a hallway one afternoon, a man with dyed hair marched up to her. "Who are you?"
"I'm Denise," she said.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
"I work on Xbox."
"No, you don't," he replied.
"Yes, I do."
"What do you do here?"
"I'm working on hardware," she began.
"We don't make hardware here," he said. "We make software."
"I was like, 'Well, stop by my office sometime, because I'm making Xbox hardware. That's what I'm here for, and that's what I'm doing,'" Chaudhari recalls.
Later, the man introduced himself properly as J Allard, one of several masterminds behind the Xbox. Allard popped into Chaudhari's office semi-frequently, often with another, much taller man with broad shoulders and red hair alongside him. "Seamus Blackley was around all the time, talking loudly, evangelizing right from my first day at Microsoft," she says. "I remember thinking, Oh my gosh, who is that guy? He's clearly important."
Chaudhari's first encounter with Blackley was memorable. "I think Seamus just showed up one day and started telling me how it was going to be. I remember thinking, 'Uh, okay,' but he and I quickly became friends."
''If these guys had thought about it for a minute, controller design is one of the most important things of the entire project. They didn't know that because they weren't even gamers, let alone console gamers.'' -Seamus Blackley
The problem, Chaudhari knew, was more than being one of thousands of employees on Microsoft's campus. Being a woman in a hardware department complicated matters, but that wasn't the main source of her sudden and often brusque encounters. No one knew her because she was a contractor, meant to show up, fulfill her contract, and then leave. Her office contained no identifying markers like a nameplate. Like Chaudhari, it was a spare, meant to be used, emptied, and refilled with someone else.
"People just stopped by, and it was always scary to me. I was trying to be under the radar, but they sought me. Jim didn't take me from office to office and say, 'This is Denise.' He said, 'Here's your project. Here's a place to sit. It's an open office that you can use, go do it.' So when people sought me out, I was kind of like, '… hi.'"
Chaudhari didn't blame Stewart. He was always kind, but always busy and distracted, too, and likely unaware of how one might feel as a veritable ghost within Microsoft's halls. Her situation was less than ideal, but she resolved to make the most of it. "To me, it was always about proving my way as a designer. It wasn't because I was a woman or they were men, but that I was questioned about my ability. I leveraged that and one-upped my work to prove myself as a designer."
In some ways, Chaudhari's job seemed simple. While she didn't think of herself as a gamer, she grasped the basic functions of a controller. She knew from buzz around the campus that Microsoft had set its sights on beating Sony, and she knew about the PlayStation 2. She had another advantage: Horace Luke, who lead the design of Xbox hardware, had done legwork for her.
Determined to make Xbox the de facto choice for gamers and developers, Luke visited dozens of households to observe how consumers interfaced with game consoles: where they put them, how close or far they sat from their television screens, how they held controllers, and the composition of peripherals like controllers. He noted that the DualShock, Sony's controller for the PlayStation, connected to the machine via a single cord that measured six feet, five inches from controller to connector. Through focus tests, he and his department settled on a nine-foot-long cord with an in-line breakaway cord. If someone tripped over a cord, the cord would separate at the breakaway without pulling the Xbox and potentially a television down with them.
Luke had also sketched out concepts for the Xbox's controller. Chaudhari looked over his sketches. Xbox executives had approved them; all she had to do was build a comfortable, ergonomic shell. She started by measuring and cutting models from RenShape, a foam-like board that's dense, yet soft and pliable. "It doesn't have a grain, so you're not fighting against the grain when you're shaping things," she says of RenShape. "I was a traditional model maker. That's how I assessed a design for me to know what I had to work with. Even today, I have to put something in my hand. I checked out the SLA machine, but I wouldn't have known the first thing to do with it."
Next, Chaudhari blew up Luke's rendering of the Xbox controller and printed it out to fit over her model. It was blocky and awkward, so she fired up the shop's bandsaw and removed material. She fit the rendering to her model again, went back to the band saw, shaved--over and over until it met her standards. "My aim was to make something that felt really good when you held it. I wanted it to feel comfortable: when I put my two fingers on the trigger, there weren't any sharp edges; there wasn't any place where I was feeling pressure."
Luke and other designers had settled on some characteristics of the Xbox controller prior to Chaudhari joining the department. Six buttons on the face, two triggers on either side of the top, two ovular slots on top--one for the headset gamers would use to communicate on Xbox Live, and another for memory cards onto which gamers could copy save files for when they wanted to visit a friend who also had an Xbox--and two thumbsticks, like the DualShock. Unlike the DualShock, the sticks were offset, with the left stick above the directional pad, so the two sticks were catty-corner from one another. Chaudhari set the sticks and buttons according to Luke's illustrations. Occasionally, J Allard or Seamus Blackley appeared in her office--sometimes together, sometimes separately--and told her to do this or that differently. Chaudhari would listen, then seek guidance from Jim Stewart.
"I'd go to Jim's office and say, 'J and Seamus just told me we have to do the sticks like this.' And Jim would be like, 'Okay, well, see what you can do.'"
Also of paramount importance, Blackley and Allard stressed, was the positioning of the six face buttons: A, B, X, and Y, like on Nintendo's controllers, but with Black and White buttons added in, and arranged in two rows of three buttons each. "Mortal Kombat was the end-all-be-all," Chaudhari recalls. "Seamus and J were like, 'Fighting games, fighting games, fighting games! The six-pack is going to go up here!' I had never played a fighting game, so I was like, 'Okay, you want the buttons up there? The buttons can go up there. That's fine.'"
Chaudhari faced one insurmountable hurdle. No matter how much RenShape she trimmed off, the controller's shell had to be large enough to accommodate its comically large circuit board. "It was huge. Without a lot of experience in controllers or games, I was like, 'Well, this is what it needs to be. You want to put this board inside a case, so they have to go together.' It was pretty straightforward from my perspective."
As the project wore on, managers instructed Chaudhari to decrease the size of the controller's shell. She explained, repeatedly, that she could only make the shell so small and still fit the circuit board. "We took the model I started with that was pretty large, and we just cut it down every single day."
Expecting backlash over the controller's size, the design team approached Mitsumi, the Japanese manufacturer that supplied circuit boards for the DualShock. Sony's controller held two circuit boards connected via a ribbon cable. Splitting the board gave Sony a smaller, slimmer controller. When Chaudhari asked Mitsumi if its engineers could design a similar two-board array for the Xbox, the atmosphere turned chill. Mitsumi was a Japanese company. So was Sony. No way would Mitsumi help an American company gain an advantage, or even equal footing.
When she wasn't coordinating with Microsoft's electrical engineers to finalize the placement of buttons and sticks, she shaved millimeters off her models. Blackley's daily office visits to check on her progress grew more frequent until he appeared almost daily. Each time, Chaudhari would hand him the latest model and ask him how it felt in his hands. Each time, Blackley replied that it was comfortable, but too big.
''I tell my husband, 'I'm getting my 15 minutes.' Not that I would have cared if I never did, but here they are.'' -Denise Chaudhari
Others disagreed. Following standard practice, Microsoft's usability engineers arranged for focus groups to come in and test the controller. Chaudhari and others sat behind one-way mirrors and watched groups of guys pick up the controller and play. Then, a usability engineer would ask them questions. Chaudhari remembers overwhelmingly positive feedback. "We had a usability tester who would sit down and ask them questions and they loved it. It was the greatest thing ever. So of course, I'm sitting back there with my feet kicked up like, 'Sweet.' We thought it was the greatest until Microsoft Japan got hold of it. Then the roof caved in."
Blackley disagreed with the focus groups, but he knew they weren't the core problem. They were a symptom of the influx of faux-gamers who had taken interest in Xbox since Bill Gates had given it the thumbs-up and were now trying to wrest control of it away from those who had championed it since the console's inception. These sycophants were so swollen with pride in the feedback they received that it never occurred to them to factor in how everything from the console's form factor to the size and shape of its controller would be perceived anywhere other than in the United States.
"If these guys had thought about it for a minute, controller design is one of the most important things of the entire project," Blackley says. "The same importance as the graphics chip. They didn't know that because they weren't even gamers, let alone console gamers."
"Seamus and I were not invited to be part of that design process," adds Xbox co-creator Kevin Bachus. "The guys who designed the functionality were 'gamers.' They were like, 'We loved how the Sega Genesis had six buttons on the face instead of the four on DualShock. We love the thumb controllers on DualShock, and the expandable memory card system on Dreamcast.' They weren't game developers, so they weren't thinking, 'This isn't what a game developer would want.' It never occurred to them, having never worked in the games industry, that people might have an issue with it."
Other members of the Xbox team concurred. "My hand is almost exactly the size of a Japanese person's hands. And kids! God, we're going to have 14-year-olds playing; they don't have huge hands!" says Don Coyner, who spearheaded the console's advertising campaign. He wondered if Todd Holmdahl, who helmed the hardware design team, was biased because of his size: roughly seven-foot-two with monster-sized hands.
"Sometimes these people, who were really smart, sometimes got a little... arrogant is the wrong word because they're really nice people," Coyner explains. "I don't mean to trash them. It was more like there was this lack of complete understanding of how important some of these things were. The size of the controller signals that you are idiots. This signals to gamers that you guys don't have a clue. Little things like that could have tanked us."
The retail partners Coyner was working so hard to line up recoiled. "You have incredible lead times for retail displays, and they'd say, 'That's the controller we have to put on retail displays?' The first touch they have of Xbox was when we sent those things out, and they were like, 'You think customers are going to buy this thing? I can't even put my hand around it.'"
"I hated it. I have small hands," says Stuart Moulder, a product manager within Ed Fries's games group. "I got hold of the Duke controller and said, 'You cannot ship this in Japan. You just flat-out cannot do it. Nobody in Japan is going to use this controller. They will kill us if they hold this controller because this controller proves that you do not get it."
The controller's prodigious size earned it the nickname "Duke" after the son of Xbox hardware developer Brett Schnepf. (Schnepf passed away in August 2020.)
Every time he interacted with the Duke, Blackley fought to stay calm. That it had turned out so ungainly was entirely preventable. What infuriated him more was how the criticism affected Chaudhari. Once, he entered her office to find her crying at her desk. "It wasn't her fault that the circuit board was what it was," Blackley says. "She had done a great job figuring out how to make the controller not suck. She was given this impossible job: To make a game controller around this giant circuit board, and she took a bunch of crap with her being the designer."
The testers responsible for overseeing the Duke stood by their results. Cameron Ferroni, one of the program managers on J Allard's team, found the controller a good fit. "I'm a pretty big guy. I could tell it felt big. Yet it was one of those things where, man, the team had done so much research and the research all said that this was okay. And when you started using it, you didn't notice it. Empirically, it was big. But subjectively, it actually fit my hands okay. I could reach all the buttons and it was pretty comfortable. It's weird that after a little while, going back to the PS2 controller was like 'How do I do this? I can't hold it.' And again, I've got big hands; I'm probably somewhat biased. But no one looked at it and said, 'That's not big.' No one was that crazy."
Not every tester stood by the department's results. Bill Fulton, who managed the team, was one of the Duke's most outspoken critics. "Once we saw it, we mocked it soundly. Then we determined within five minutes the mistake they had made."
Fulton and fellow usability researcher engineer Mike Medlock held copies of the Duke. Before long, Medlock complained of pain in his hand. Fulton hated the Duke's design but felt no discomfort. They applied their analytical natures and wondered what it was about gripping something large, besides hand size, that could cause physical pain. Their conclusion was that the designers had gone by hand-size measurements, which flow from the tip of one's middle finger to one's palm. Medlock held the controller with difficulty because he couldn't open his hand, measured by the gap between the tip of the index finger and thumb, far enough to grip it comfortably.
"We went, 'Oh my god. They used the wrong measurement. They're using average hand size, not grip size.' We raised our flags. Everyone raised flags. But they dug in," Fulton remembers.
NOT FOR THE FIRST TIME, Denise Chaudhari wondered why she was wasting her time.
A month earlier, Microsoft Japan had contacted the Xbox team to inform them the controller was suboptimal. The team went into panic mode. Blackley rushed into Chaudhari's office and told her to pump the brakes on the controller's design.
Chaudhari understood Blackley's fear and frustration. He had spent months flying back and forth from Japan, evangelizing Xbox to acclaimed developers like Team Ninja's Tomonobu Itagaki, creator of the Dead or Alive fighting-game franchise. Those same developers told Blackley in a panic that they envisioned having to tell their customers that they would have to play the next Dragon Quest or Final Fantasy on with a massive controller connected to a mammoth-sized console. No one would buy their games, they proclaimed, and their reputation and earnings would suffer untenable damage.
Now, Microsoft's lack of foresight on a single but crucially important aspect of the platform's design jeopardized the entire project in the region where Sony and Nintendo's base was strongest.
That Microsoft Japan's employees and management, an extension of a company they did not own, refused to sell their own company's product didn't faze them. "In the Japanese culture, honor is first," Chaudhari explains. "They were saying, 'It's against our honor to come out with something we don't believe in. If you come out with this controller, we will tell Japanese game developers to not develop on Xbox.'"
When a manager informed Chaudhari that several designers would go to Japan to focus-test the Duke more extensively, she asked about attending. She told Jim Stewart, who grew cautious. "Jim was super-protective of me. He was lovely. He didn't really want me to go because he knew that it was going to be a lot of negative feedback and a different situation than in the States."
Microsoft scrambled to create the "Controller S" ahead of the Xbox launch in Japan scheduled for February 2002. Soon after, it replaced the Duke as the console's standard controller at retail.
A short time later, Stewart left for vacation. While he was away, another manager, unaware of the conversation between Chaudhari and Stewart, informed her of her impending travel plans. " The project managers who knew I was designing the controller, and the usability guy going there to test the controller, said, 'You're going.' I was like, 'Cool, Japan, all right, I'll go.' I mean, the truth is I knew I was doing the best I could do. I had nothing to hide. I wasn't afraid."
Chaudhari brought Stewart up to speed when he returned. Resigned, he sat her down and gave her an idea of what to expect. "He was really concerned. He had a lot of conversations with me about, 'Don't take anything to heart. Understand that it's not your fault.'"
That was how Chaudhari and her colleagues found themselves cooped up in a room with no one-way mirror and only one exit. Representatives from Microsoft Japan had escorted them from the airport to the office and shepherded them into the room. "You can't come out," one man said. "You have to stay in this room. If the gamers see your round eyes, they're going to think they're being set up."
"He literally used those words," Chaudhari recalls.
With no other choice, the American visitors settled in to watch focus groups on a closed-circuit television. A translator watched with them. Players picked up the Duke, played, and made comments to the testers, after which the translator gave succinct interpretations.
Chaudhari watched one of the testers say something in Japanese.
"What did he say?" Chaudhari asked.
The translator eyed her. "He asked how the user felt about the placement of the buttons."
The user fiddled with the controller, then replied. The tester responded, and a conversation started.
"What was his answer?" Chaudhari said.
"He said no."
On and on the test went, with each translated answer as closed as possible. "I don't know if you've ever seen the movie Lost in Translation, but I always explain it like that scene where Bill Murray is doing a commercial," Chaudhari says. "He's getting direction from the directors in Japanese, and the translator says, 'He didn't like it.' Bill Murray goes, 'What? Clearly, he said more than that.' I saw that movie the year after I came back from this trip."
Chaudhari suspected there was more going on than the Japanese company's dissatisfaction with their American counterparts. When the Americans and Japanese developers had arrived, both parties had exchanged business cards. All except Chaudhari. "Everybody exchanged business cards. I didn't have one, and that was very suspicious to them."
Japan is a country built on a foundation of respect, etiquette, and honor. One ritual that stands on that foundation is meishi koukan, an exchange of business cards between professionals. Typically, Americans hand out business cards at the end of a meeting as a way for everyone to stay in touch. Meishi koukan is performed first in Japan according to a protocol: The highest-ranking individuals exchange cards first by turning their cards face-up and giving and receiving cards with both hands. Instead of being stuffed into a wallet or pocket, cards are on display for the duration of the meeting.
The Japanese treat one's business card as a physical extension of that person, similar to an avatar. To bend a business card or allow it to grow tattered was the same as disrespecting the person the card identifies. Failing to submit a card of her own designated Chaudhari, a contractor, as an outsider.
"I had to stay quiet and listen to what they say, couldn't offer much input. Just: Go, listen, and come back," she says, describing the trip's objective.
As the test wore on, Chaudhari took matters into her own hands. "I just listened and realized, This is totally futile. We're not going to get anywhere. This is clearly just them telling us they don't want us to launch with what we have. I didn't spend that much time at the test, to be honest. I was like, 'I'm going to check out Japan,' and I left."
Back in Redmond, Microsoft stuck to its plan: Xbox would launch in the fall of 2001 with the Duke. There wasn't time to design another controller. However, the team opted to push back the launch in Japan to February 2002; in the interim, designers would build another, smaller controller. Chaudhari would not lead its design.
That decision came as a surprise to Chaudhari until she saw firsthand what Blackley had pushed back against for months. "Most of Microsoft's industrial designers didn't want to have anything to do with it. They thought Xbox would be a laughingstock because it'll never compete with PlayStation. Nobody at Microsoft thought this thing was gonna get off the ground. Then Xbox was getting a lot of publicity around it. I saw what was becoming a political thing: Now they want it and I'm not a Microsoft employee."
Chief Xbox Officer Robbie Bach remembers events surrounding the Duke a little differently. "Even at the beginning, we knew we were going to have to make a smaller controller for Japan. I think the facts are we couldn't have gotten the smaller controller done in time for launch. We very well may not have had a controller at launch if we tried to make what became the Controller S. What we ended up doing was taking the controller we designed for Japan and made it the worldwide controller."
The Controller S came in at approximately two-thirds the size of the Duke, a reduction credited to its use of a split circuit board--the very design Chaudhari had advocated.
Seamus Blackley saw the company-wide outrage and backlash from Japan as avoidable provided the right people had listened. "For me, Xbox is the story of trying to jump on whatever the worst thing that was going to kill it at the time and not paying any attention to my own mental health."
Blackley had anticipated the noncoincidental surge of interest in the controller. According to him, he had tried to move more political employees over to that design team, figuring they couldn't do too much damage working on a peripheral. "I realized, Okay, maybe that will put them in storage for a minute. Maybe that will give me the ability to make other stuff right. I remember making that decision. If I'd been a little smarter about it, I'd maybe fight it a little just to keep all those guys fighting me while I went and did something else in the meantime."
As the console's launch in November 2001 approached, magazines and websites heaped criticism on the Duke. Microsoft never named Chaudhari as the controller's designer. She weathered the storm until her job was finished. Every preview in magazines and online chipped away at her defenses. By the time she fulfilled her contract and left Microsoft, the pride she took in designing the Duke had shattered like glass.
"I thought, Maybe I don't know what I'm doing. Even though I really did. I think I created something really extraordinary. I'm really proud of what I did. I was proud then and I'm proud now, but there was a little of this, I guess I could have done it better. They know better. By then Seamus and I were friends and he would come to me and say, 'Don't worry about that. That's not on you, that's on all of us.' But because I was an outsider, Microsoft's designers didn't know me."
JIM STEWART FIELDED REQUESTS FOR interviews regarding the Duke from journalists. That job was simple: Microsoft would give no interviews on the subject. Their boilerplate answer was that yes, the Duke was big, everyone could see it was big, and its replacement, the Controller S, would launch with the Xbox in February 2002 in Europe and Japan, and then become the standard controller around the world.
Denise Chaudhari was grateful for Stewart's intervention. Her creation had taken so much abuse that she would have turned down interviews requests even if Microsoft had expressed interest. Despite all the negativity surrounding the Duke, she remained determine to stay positive. "To see my work in magazine articles, see that people were talking about the controller and to be the one who knew what I did--that was really cool and very exciting and totally changed my career path."
As proud as she was, Chaudhari kept her involvement a secret. Joining employees for a drink after work, she asked a favor from them as they entered the pub. "Please don't say that I designed the controller. Just don't talk about it." The last thing she needed was some gamer overhearing talk of her involvement and spewing a 20-minute diatribe or, worse, making an awkward sexual pass.
In August 2001, Chaudhari left Microsoft the same way she had entered, and the same way she had comported herself for the duration of her contract: Quietly.
Years passed. Chaudhari moved on to other ventures in industrial design. Then, in 2017, she got a call from an old friend from Microsoft. "Seamus Blackley wants to talk to you," he said. "Can I give him your number?" Curious and more than a little nervous, Chaudhari consented. Blackley called with exciting news.
"He called me and he's like, 'People want to talk to you. We're relaunching the Duke and everybody wants to know about you. Can I share your contact information?' I was like, 'Yeah, of course.'"
Hyperkin, a manufacturer based in Los Angeles, landed a contract to re-release the Duke for Microsoft's Xbox One. The redesign was mostly similar: Hyperkin kept the nine-foot-long breakaway cord but placed two additional triggers on the top to achieve parity with the Xbox One controller's four-trigger setup, removed the slots on top since the Xbox One made no use of memory cards, replaced the Start and Back buttons with View and Menu buttons, added a rumble feature, and replaced the logo sticker on the front with an LED screen.
Hyperkin released its Duke controller in 2018. Over a few months, Chaudhari went from the relative unknown she had been for nearly 17 years to the subject of interview requests and discussion among gamers online, who delighted in seeing their favorite old-school controller return from its grave.
"I tell my husband, 'I'm getting my 15 minutes.' Not that I would have cared if I never did, but here they are. I'm getting that feeling of, Wow, I was involved in something really awesome, and I can be proud of it."
Chaudhari posted a tweet overflowing with excitement at the return of her "old friend Duke." No one understood her elation better than Blackley. "I talked to Seamus a little about it, too. It feels like validation for what he and I did, and I say he because he was really heavily involved."
That same year, the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, New York, got in touch with Chaudhari and asked if she could donate drawings and other materials related to the Duke to its collection of historical gaming items. "I'm so flattered that people see that there was value in what I did because it was this tiny moment in time that was severed because Microsoft didn't want to talk about it. We had to take feedback on the chin. Now there's a bunch of articles and interviews. My family calls me a celebrity, which is hilarious."
Chaudhari often talks with high school students about her career in industrial design. One lesson she imparts is the power of agency. "One of the things I have found most valuable is the ability to leverage what I've known before, to move it into a new arena. It gave me resilience. It gave me the ability to know I can do something I'm proud of. 'Not everybody's going to love what you make,'" she tells students, "'and not everybody's going to say nice things about it, and that's okay. You're still going to do the best you can do, and you're going to own it.'"