It’s Good to Play Together: 10 Years of Xbox
Nobember 15, 2001. 10 Years ago today, Microsoft released the Xbox. It was a gamble for the software giant… could they capture customers in the living room where Sony and Nintendo (and previously Sega) had dominated for so long? Could they design hardware that would not only play games, but encourage developers to create games?
As Microsoft has demonstrated for decades, It was all about the software. This philosophy lead to their acquiring of an Apple game studio, called Bungie, in 2000. Bungie had been hard at work designing what would become the most influential game series of the decade. Halo.
Let’s take a look through some of the key moments in the Xbox lineage’s history, starting with the most important moment: The release of Halo: Combat Evolved alongside the first console.
November 15, 2001: The Xbox and Halo: Combat Evolved
When development began in 1998, the first idea was to take Microsoft’s graphics technology, called DirectX, and develop a machine that would use it while plugged into a television. The DirectX Box, as it was first called, was going to take a version of Microsoft’s windows product and bring it to the living room. This was not the first time Microsoft attempted this… it teamed up with Sega in 1998 when it was developing the Dreamcast and it was successful (to a point, anyway).
With development underway, the name was eventually shortened to just “Xbox” and that remained the title of the unit, even after internal debates about it. The name tested well with focus groups, so it stuck.
In 2000, Microsoft bought the then Apple-Centric developer Bungie Studios, who was in development of a game called “Halo.” The game took on several forms before it became a first-person shooter, including a Real-Time Strategy game (similar to Age of Empires or Starcraft) and a third-person shooter (similar to Gears of War). Bungie created environments that were quite extraordinary at the time, and the first-person perspective became the clear choice as the features of the game slowly panned out. FPS games were tough to work on consoles before that time, with Goldeneye on the Nintendo 64 being the only real hits in the genre. Bungie and Microsoft ironed out the control issues that resulted in the lack of a mouse and keyboard, and launched Halo: Combat Evolved with the console.
It was a watershed moment. The term “Killer App” was thrown around. Copies sold out everywhere. The system was sold out everywhere.
The game captured the imaginations of gamers everywhere and opened up the living room to LAN parties for the first time in history.
…all of this happened without online play, which now seems so odd when looking back on the game. Today, Halo is perhaps known best for it’s online multiplayer, and yet the first Halo never had online support.
Other games that launched with the Xbox that saw success were well known series such as Dead or Alive, Project Gotham Racing, Jet Set Radio, and Fuzion Frenzy. Later, other influential games and series ended up on the system, such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Grand Theft Auto, Half-Life, and Madden Football.
Then, Microsoft took console gaming in a direction that was largely unexplored: online.
November 15, 2002: Xbox Live
Microsoft finally had a use for the Ethernet port on the back of the console (aside from Halo LANs). Xbox Live launched as a subscription based online gaming service. Users bought a starter kit that had their code for service, a microphone, and the first major title: Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge. The flight simulator was a major draw for online gamers, and the subscription service reached it’s first million subscribers in just two years.
Xbox live quickly evolved into the Xbox’s most important and most copied feature. Friend’s lists, online voice-chat, downloadable content… it all was adopted from the PC model onto a console in a way that was easy to use and instantly satisfying. Games were updated and re-released to support the service, content cards were sold, and the service was integrated into the Xbox by a dashboard update.
Through those two years, people wondered when the system’s key franchise would hit the online arena. So far it was a huge success… but the sequel to the 2001 mega-hit would take the service in a direction that even Microsoft didn’t expect.
November 9, 2004: Halo 2
The Xbox’s biggest hit would not surface for three years, long after the first Halo was released. Halo 2 was a hit on unprecedented levels. No previous console game on any platform had the hype, fervor, or impact that Halo 2 had when it was released. The game was so important to Microsoft that it was virtually restarted in 2003 after the ambitions of Bungie proved to bee too much. The workers at Bungie crafted the game to make the most use out of Xbox Live. It was so tightly integrated, in fact, that the Xbox 360, which was released in 2006, was dependent on the Xbox Live code that Bungie designed. For years following the 360’s release, the Live service was tough to update because it would break Halo 2’s online functionality and stop the hundreds of thousands of players who were still playing it from logging in. It wasn’t until 2010 that Microsoft finally decided to kill Halo 2’s online, in order to Xbox live to “cut the cord”. Players of Halo 2 held out long after Microsoft shut off the original Xbox Live, keeping some servers online.
Halo 2 became the original Xbox’s most popular and purchased game, with 6.3 Million copies sold by the time the next game, Halo 3, was released. It broke entertainment records the night it was released, and even had an award-winning advertisement campaign featuring “I Love Bees“, an alternate reality game (or ARG) that is regarded as the best tie-in of its kind and is still emulated by many different products and entertainment properties.
As 2006 approached, and news of the upcoming Xbox 360 finally hit the news, the original Xbox saw a drastic drop in development. Most software developers had moved on to 360 development, predicting widespread popularity long before it was released. As of May 10, 2006, the original Microsoft sold over 24 million units. It was an unprecedented success for the Direct X experiment in the living room.
And the best was yet to come.
November 16, 2005: The Xbox 360
The Xbox 360 was, in part, another huge gamble by Microsoft. They already had a hit on their hands with the original Xbox, and a software base that was impressive for the company’s foray into console gaming. This time, they gambled with a timeline that was critical for the success of the console, as well as a feature set that was unprecedented for a console’s release. They wanted the Xbox 360 to come out a year before Nintendo or Sony would release their next systems, and they wanted Xbox Live to be the primary feature of the system.
The 360 was “always online” in Microsoft’s eyes, and the Dashboard was designed to reflect this. The chat feature now worked across games, so you could talk to anyone at any time. An update allowed for “parties” of up to 8 players, allowing them to chat and jump in and out of games together. A headset now came with every system, promoting the communication aspect of the platform.
A games marketplace was introduced, allowing users to buy DLC, bite-size arcade titles, and themes and gamerpictures. Game demos were also available for the first time on a console without a disc, and eventually movies and music were available for purchase too. All of these features evolved (and continue to evolve) as Microsoft stated their intention for the Xbox to transcend the living room entertainment experience. This only became more clear when Netflix instant streaming was introduced through a massive dashboard update in 2008.
But it was still a game platform, tried and true. The second major blockbuster hit for Microsoft was a title released in 2006 called “Gears of War“. It became Microsoft’s second major first-party franchise, spawning two sequels (with more coming). The game was widely regarded as the best showcase of the Xbox 360’s impressive horsepower, and each iteration only improved on it. Each game was said to be “reaching the limits of the 360’s technological abilities,” but as each game was released, it was clear that developers were getting very good with the 360’s hardware and found new ways to astonish users and critics alike.
The Gears of War series provided a huge platform for players during the long wait for Halo 3. In fact, the series became so popular that it spawned off comic books, novels, action figures, and a movie is n the works. The only thing that ever shadowed Gears of War was Halo, and even then it didn’t matter. Both franchises are some of the most beloved in gaming, and few first-party titles have seen the level of success that either of these two have achieved. Even icons like Mario, Sonic, or just about anything Sony could muster have a hard time topping the level of recognition Halo and Gears garnered in just 6 years.
It wasn’t all blue skies and roses for Microsoft though. The entire xbox division lost money from the 2001 release and didn’t see true profit until well after the 360 launch, and had to invest over $1 Billion during the red-ring of death fiasco. It sold well in Europe and the Americas, but has yet to really have an impact in the historically important Japanese market. While Japan has much less influence in the gaming industry now, it is still a market that Microsoft wants to tame.
September 25, 2007: Halo 3
Halo was absent from the Xbox 260 for two years. People knew it was coming (thanks in part to the monumental cliffhanger ending to Halo 2) but the Original Xbox’s launch title was nowhere to be found until this trailer was revealed at E3 2006:
When it was released, Halo 3 improved upon every aspect of Halo 2. From game play to sales, marketing, and story, Halo 3 was a better game. It took the already fantastic Xbox Live service and made it better. It finished the story started in 2001, and remains one of the most played titles on the Live service to this day, despite other series rising to prominence on the 360 platform, such as Battlefield, Call of Duty, and sequels and spinoffs like Halo 3: ODST, Halo: Wars, and the most recent game in the series, Halo: Reach.
Like Halo 2, Halo 3 broke all entertainment records, sales projections, and was a critical darling. Everyone who was anyone was playing Halo 3 and it was noticed around the world. The President played it. Movie executives avoided release dates, fearing the game would overshadow Hollywood films (which it did, causing much distress by the movie industry). 360 sales doubled thanks to the release of the game, and more novels, movie tie-ins, and other merchandise was announced to coincide with the game.
Halo 3 may very well prove to be the 360’s most important title, similar to Halo 2 on the first Xbox. While other games (including newer Halo games) may have surpassed it in terms of money made or copies sold, Halo 3 was the followup to Halo 2 that was expected, and it moved consoles.
…whew. This post got very long. I only reached 2007 in terms of timeline coverage. I have yet to talk about some of the more recent developments over at Microsoft’s entertainment division. You can read my Kinect thoughts here, and I think I’ll save my Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary thoughts for a formal review. In the mean-time, feel free to hit any of the numerous wikipedia links I’ve included for more detailed info on what I’ve covered.
As a technology advocate in general, I could not let the Xbox’s (or Halo’s) 10th birthday pass without this post happening. The history of the consoles, their games, and the tid-bits that go unknown is fascinating to me.
Through the past ten years I’ve been thrust into worlds and situations beyond anything I could imagine. I’ve lived in Liberty City, Los Angeles, and Panau. I’ve sacrificed everything to save Reach, Sera, and raced across Mobius hundreds of times over. I’ve battled through the Middle East, Pursued Vladimir Makarov, and it does run Crysis. I’ve journeyed across Morrowind, Cyrodiil, and am currently battling through Skyrim. I’ve won the Super Bowl, found Rapture, and will fight back against the Reapers. I’ve skated, boarded, and raced across America. I’ve explored the holy land, owned Rome, and found the Apple of Eden. I’ve unleashed the Sands of Time, fought in math related conflicts, and relived my childhood all over again. I’ve danced, started a band, and am still trying to bowl a perfect game.
I’ve crash landed on an alien ring, and fought with heroes.
While some of these experiences are not exclusive to the Xbox, it was through the Xbox that I had these experiences. The first ten years have been a crazy, fun, emotional, and thrilling ride. With new platforms emerging, more games incoming, and more fun to be had, it is with great thanks that I wish the great people of Microsoft and the Xbox team a “Happy Birthday” and thank them for the experiences they allowed me to have.
Here’s to the next ten years, gamers, because it is ultimately our job to make these experiences worth having. So Jump In, because It’s Good to Play Together.
-Jimmy “I was 15 when Halo was released. God Damn. Has it really been that long?” the G.
This post has a Shenanaganary rating of:
“I wish I was contacted when that banned Xbox commercial was filmed. Crazy cool.”
Wake Up John.