This is the fifth of a five-part series in which N reflects on the definity of Microsoft’s Xbox, released a decade ago. We hope you’ll join us this week in remembering those first bright, moments of Duke controllers, Halo LAN parties, and your first moments screaming at other players online.
What Microsoft brought to the table with the Xbox ultimately didn’t bloom while the console was still on store shelves. Even as a newcomer, the still barely managed to outsell Nintendo’s Gamecube. The Xbox was only on the planet for four short years before Microsoft made a drastic head-start against the PlayStation 3 and Nintendo’s Revolution. The Xbox 360 launched on November 22nd, 2005 and while the novelty of getting a new console wasn’t quite the same as it was the first time around, I still stood in line for thirteen and a half hours for Best Buy’s midnight release in southern Denver. The crowd swelled to over three hundred plus at a point and the console remained sold out for the first five months it was on the market. Microsoft learned a variety of lessons from both consoles that will no doubt carry through the next generation of systems as well.
The Hardcore Aren’t Your Only First Shoppers. Appealing to Core and Enthusiast gamers out of the gate was Microsoft’s strategy in 2001. The console was dark and imposing, when the console idled, creepy voices echoed from the dashboard, and family games felt genuinely out of place on the Xbox when M-rated shooters were the console’s bread and butter. While the Xbox 360 sold well to start with a bright new paint job and packaging, it still controlled the same way as ever with a complex controller and mostly-similar games. When the Wii launched a year later, it went straight for the gut of the casual gamer with motion controls, a space that consoles didn’t usually tackle until the price had dropped considerably. They also made a profit on each box by matching the specs to the original Xbox, rather than being a loss leader with expensive, shiny new hardware.
Microsoft chased this space successfully with the Kinect, but it took them several years to bring it to the market. People started to switch away from the Wii when its hardware began to show the limitations of the Wiimote/nunchuk combination and its standard definition graphics began to look crunchier than ever on high definition televisions. The Xbox 360’s late-to-the-game approach with the Kinect also allowed it to seize top sales in North America in 2011, much like the original console did in 2004 against the PlayStation 2. The console even did a few interface swaps to match the attention of its ever-growing casual crowd.
Appealing To PC Developers Was Super Smart. The original Xbox was essentially a PC in a box, all the way down to the APIs that developers were used to on an Intel/Nvidia architecture that developers were used to. Bethesda bringing The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind to the Xbox, flawed as it was, was an incredibly smart move that made them a lot of money. They showed the rest of the PC gaming industry that the console space was a sustainable place as many had their games easily stolen via the same machines that played them. As a result, many PC-exclusive franchises and developers opened their minds a bit on the concept and made experiences that were similarly great across all platforms. It was this cracked open door that allowed Call of Duty and Ken Levine’s Bioshock to slip through. It brought id Software and Rage over and it’ll bring X-COM over, too. It’s the gaming equivalent of globalization and frankly the only people that lost were the ones who spend far too much on their PC gaming setups.
An Online Platform Is A Necessity, Not A Bonus. The original Xbox ended up costing Microsoft over $4.5b (yes, b) over the course of its short four year lifespan, much of it was an investment in the Xbox Live infrastructure that transcended the original console. But while it built communities and allowed Halo 2 to rule the online roost, the advancements that they made in the Xbox 360 era have transformed the entire experience. With everything from easily available games by indie developers to movies to a unified voice chat regardless as to what you’re doing on your Xbox, Microsoft proved that an online platform like Xbox Live was a requirement to create a seamless experience. Sony tried following up with the PlayStation Network, but even after years of updates, it’s still oddly inconsistent at times, which is to speak nothing of the terrible downtime they had by being merely ‘security compliant’.
Quality Control Is A Really Good Thing. While the original Xbox’s Thomson debacle didn’t ruin their reputation, the Red Lights of Death sure did. While there are certainly some things that can’t be tested, you do need to stop when your very own engineers are telling you that there’s a fatal flaw in the system. Microsoft wrote a check for a billion dollars (yes, b) to extend warranties as consoles failed. Setting up our demo Xbox 360, it was DOA with an E74 error and flashing red lights. It was a premonition of things to come. Microsoft obviously tried to cut a few corners in making their next console profitable much quicker, but it didn’t work, probably costing them more than they ever would’ve saved. Let’s hope a wiser Xbox team can sidestep the issue in the next round as more and more of our games are going to need sturdy and fast hard drives instead of ejectable disc trays.
Microsoft Can Innovate Sometimes. While it’s going to be a loss leader for quite a bit of time, the imagination and ground-breaking ideas that went into the creation of the Xbox and its sequel (and yes, even the Kinect) serve as a warm beacon that Microsoft can, at times, be all that and a bag of chips. While Windows loses ground with the erosion of laptop sales against netbooks, it’s the imaginative Metro interface, brought to life by Xbox guys, that guides their tablet philosophy. When people poo-poo Windows Phone’s distant fourth or fifth-place standing in the mobile OS race, people hold out on the faith that they can pull an Xbox. The Xbox, its very name derivative of another Microsoft product, has become the most innovative thing to come out of the Redmond giant in the past decade. Even Microsoft forgets, through its layers and layers of bureaucracy and salesman CEO, that it can take a risk and push the envelope to create great things.
Here’s to you, Xbox. We look forward to your next ten years.