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Here’s To 20 More! Looking Back at Xbox

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Let’s Celebrate the Xbox 20th Anniversary

Where Sega failed and Nintendo chose a different path, Microsoft and the Xbox have dared to go toe to toe with Sony’s PlayStation. Armed with a PC gamers perspective, the initial Xbox team, led by Seamus Blackley, was able to launch a line of gaming consoles catered to the most hardcore crowd. Through the highs of becoming the best place to play western RPG’s and their current renaissance, and the lows of the red ring of death and a disastrous launch for the Xbox One, Microsoft’s console is home to millions of gamers around the world. Despite nearly constantly fighting an uphill battle, for twenty years the Xbox has endured feast and famine and through sheer force of will, Microsoft has forced themselves into an indispensable position in the modern gaming landscape. 

Pre-Release (1999-2001)

In the late 1990s, a Microsoft Direct X engineer and former Looking Glass Studios designer Seamus Blackley was on a flight from Boston Massachusetts to Redmond Washington. On that flight, while tinkering with a brand-new laptop for which he was very excited, Blackley was struck with an idea. Having worked in game development before and now working on the biggest game development platform in the world, Blackley was intimately familiar with the shortcomings of the PC platform. The reason that consoles were capable of delivering similar visuals and performance to PCs was because of the standardization of hardware. On consoles, developers knew the exact hardware that the consumers had access to and were, therefore, able to optimize their games to that hardware. On PC, developers were forced to build their games to be scalable. Supporting hundreds of different PC configurations and choosing what hardware would not be supported has naturally always complicated game development. Blackley’s idea was simple: build a console using PC components. After working hard to convert his peers to the cause and being the squeakiest wheel at Microsoft, Blackley got a meeting with Bill Gates. In that meeting, the Xbox was born.

Moving into an already overcrowded market was going to be difficult. Sony was already talking publicly about the development of what would eventually become the PlayStation 2, Sega was well on their way to putting an end to the Saturn and moving on to the Dreamcast, and Nintendo’s GameCube loomed large on the horizon. But Blackley’s concept of consolizing a PC to allow Microsoft’s new Xbox project to enjoy the standardization of console hardware but also the tools of PC development was enough to give Gates the confidence to enter what would be a new market for the tech giant. As it turns out, the combination of the utilization of PC hardware, pre-existing knowledge and relationships of the PC space, and the fact that Microsoft themselves had already developed the Direct X platform was all enough to force everyone to pay attention. After almost three years of development, an unimaginable amount of blood, sweat, and tears, and one killer collaboration with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson the Xbox was released on November 15, 2001.

The First Generation (2001-2005)

The Xbox launch lineup was nothing to scoff at. Made up of games like Oddworld: Munch’s Odyssey, NFL Fever 2002, Fuzion Frenzy, and Project Gotham Racing the Xbox hit the ground running, but there was one game that was the reason to buy an Xbox. Halo Combat Evolved started development as a mac exclusive and was first revealed at Apple’s Macworld 1999 event. During development, Microsoft acquired Bungie, the studio behind Halo, and the team set to work on transitioning Halo from a mac game to an Xbox game. Halo Combat Evolved was the first of many exclusive games, both first and third party, that would become the foundation on which the entire Xbox ecosystem still sits today. Without that lineup of stellar exclusives during the first generation of Xbox, there wouldn’t have been the single most obvious reason to buy the hardware and the platform may have died an untimely death. 

Unfortunately, Sega’s Dreamcast failed remarkably quickly. After about 18 months on the market, the first company to enter the sixth generation became the first to bow out of the race, opting instead to become a software developer and publisher on their former competitor’s platforms. Just 10 years prior, under the purview of Tom Kolinski, Sega had brought the once impervious Nintendo to their knees. Needless to say, there was no such thing as a sure thing in the console market. The Dreamcast was discontinued in March of 2001, but the Xbox would take its place just nine months later. By implementing one feature that was pioneered by Dreamcast into the Xbox, Microsoft would speak directly to hardcore gamers and more importantly, allow them to speak to each other. Despite its not being used at launch, an onboard high-speed modem was a huge signifier to gamers everywhere Microsoft had come to play.

Xbox Live was launched on November 15, 2002, exactly one year into the Xbox’s time on the market. While it wasn’t the first-time console players would be playing each other online, considering the paltry market penetration achieved by the Dreamcast, for all intents and purposes, it was. The service was immediately intriguing and the envy of PlayStation 2 owners, but it wouldn’t be considered a must-have until the launch of Halo 2 in November of 2004. Halo Combat Evolved was the reason to buy an Xbox, and its immediate successor would become the reason to pay a monthly subscription fee to access Xbox Live. Blackley’s team’s foresight was finally paying off and despite 26 million units sold throughout the original Xbox’s lifetime, a small number when compared to the PS2’s 155 million, Microsoft was clearly onto something and with a new generation on the horizon, the wind was at their back.

Mainstream Success (2005-2009)

Microsoft had no interest in sitting on their hands and riding the relative success of their first console. That eagerness is what pushed the Xbox 360 over the finish line an entire year ahead of their competitors, launching in November of 2005. Halo 2 having launched just one year earlier, Microsoft was left unable to rely on the ace in the hole that catapulted the original Xbox to relevance. But by this time the console had enough name recognition that launching without a Halo game alongside it wasn’t an insurmountable task. Game’s like Need for Speed: Most Wanted, Amped 3, Peter Jackson’s King Kong the Official Game of the Movie (yes that is the real title), Condemned: Criminal Origins, and the console exclusive Call of Duty 2 gave players more than enough to play in the first few months of the 360. But the hits didn’t stop coming, in the first year of the Xbox 360 players were already playing The Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion, Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter, Prey, and Gears of War all before the PlayStation 3 would even be released. 

From the moment players turned on the 360 on day one, it was clear that this was a console that was built around the presumption of an online experience. Microsoft had bet big on their Xbox Live service in the sixth generation of consoles and were doubling down for their sophomoric outing. Rather than automatically booting into a game, the 360 would boot to a dashboard putting the installed operating system front and center. And there, players would find several options that could be navigated by scrolling through the blade-like interface pages. Two of the five blades centered entirely around online-enabled content. Microsoft was intent on dragging the industry into the online era whether their competitors liked it or not.

But it wasn’t all champagne and victory laps at Microsoft, the 360 had a major problem. The original iteration of the 360 was plagued with hardware failures that would cause the now infamous red ring of death (RRoD) to appear. Once players saw those three dreaded red lights on the front of their consoles, they knew it had drawn its last breath and would need to be sent back to Microsoft. As reports of these failures began to pour into Microsoft’s support centers, then vice president of the Xbox division, Peter Moore, devised a plan. Considering the rate at which the early production 360’s were failing, desperate measures needed to be taken. Moore worked out a deal with FedEx to ship an empty box to owners of failed 360’s, then have those 360’s shipped back to Microsoft for repair, after which point the 360’s would be shipped back to their owners. The deal reportedly cost $240 million and was orchestrated off the radar. When presenting the proposed solution to then Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, the entire fate of Xbox hung in the balance. But with the likes of Halo 3 and Mass Effect coming down the pipe, Ballmer approved Moore’s proposal immediately, practically saving the Xbox in one moment.

After the RRoD debacle was taken care of and a solution was in place there was nothing left to do but charge full speed ahead with the success the 360 was already enjoying. 2007 would become (subjectively) not only the best year in the 360’s lifespan but one of the best years in gaming history, and the 360 was leading the way.  As the year progressed players were treated to the likes of Crackdown, Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2, Guitar Hero 2, Forza Motorsport 2, Bioshock, Skate, Halo 3, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Assassin’s Creed, Rock Band, and Mass Effect. All of these games were either fully exclusive, timed exclusive, or played best on Xbox 360. The proverbial onslaught of incredible games released in 2007 helped the 360 to recover from the RRoD crisis and Microsoft was riding high on a wave of earned mainstream success.

The Dark Days (2010-2015)

Like Icarus flew too close to the sun, Microsoft’s unchecked hubris driven by their overwhelming success would be their own undoing. In 2007 after Peter Moore’s leaving the company, Don Mattrick became the new head of the Xbox division. Several of the most successful projects of 2007 were already in their final stages and much like presidential administrations, the influence of Mattrick wasn’t felt at all in 2007 and only a bit in 2008. At E3 2009 everything changed for the Xbox 360. The show opened with literally 15 minutes of The Beatles Rock Band and went on to showcase Tony Hawk Ride, Joy Ride, Last.FM, Sky News (this will be important later), a huge focus on movies, tv, and sports (again important later), Facebook, and what would eventually come to be named Kinect, project natal. To be clear, under Don Mattrick’s leadership a show that announced Modern Warfare 2, Alan Wake, Metal Gear’s debut on Xbox, and Halo: Reach was closed with nearly 30 minutes of Kinect. In just under two hours Mattrick’s leadership was finally clear and with it came a deliberate move away from the “for gamers by gamers” mentality that had propelled the Xbox into its position as the market leader. 

Throughout the remainder of the 360 years, the frequency of first-party games slipped. Mass Effect 2 and Halo: Reach would release in 2010, Gears of War 3 in 2011, and Forza Horizon in 2012. But Gears of War Judgement and Halo 4 were both markedly worse than their respective series standards, and Microsoft would lose the Bioshock exclusivity in 2010 followed by Mass Effect in 2011. The days of Xbox having the best first-party titles and being the best place to play third party titles were gone, and in their place was a new focus on live TV, sports, other forms of entertainment, gimmicky peripherals, and the bottom of an avatar’s shoe for some reason. Xbox’s reputation as a home for hardcore gamers that Seamus Blackley and Peter Moore had worked so hard to build had been completely undone by just two years of the Mattrick era, and the worst was yet to come.

In May of 2013, Microsoft held its own press conference ahead of E3. The conference opened with a sappy promotional video that in hindsight would prove to be emblematic of the direction Mattrick was taking the Xbox ecosystem in. The video opened with Bill Gates talking about bringing gaming to life and ended by describing how the audience would be having a relationship with their TV, and how Xbox would be changing entertainment. The devil of this messaging is in the details, the subtle shift in focus from gaming to entertainment is evident in the opening video package, but nobody would have guessed to what severity that shift would be taken later in the conference. Rather than an explicitly gaming-focused device, the Xbox One was instead designed to be an all-in-one entertainment device. The Xbox One design team was just as focused on TV, music, sports, and movies as it was on gaming. In one fell swoop, Don Mattrick had alienated a vast majority of the gaming audience. After the monumental success of the early years of the 360, Don Mattrick had forgotten who had brought him to the dance. 

Don Mattrick pictured with an Xbox One

As if to add insult to injury, before the start of the eighth generation of consoles, as details about both the PS4 and Xbox One trickled out it became increasingly clear that Microsoft had been beaten on both power and price. Sony’s PlayStation 4 was more powerful, consistently pushing higher resolution images at more stable frame rates making third-party titles objectively better on PS4, and it was all happening for $100 less. All this combined with aggressive digital rights management and the insistence that every user buys a second-generation Kinect made it easy for anyone to almost immediately predict total PlayStation dominance in the years to come.

Don’t Call it a Comeback (2016-Present)

In July of 2013, just five weeks after the disastrous press conference, it was confirmed that Don Mattrick had stepped down as the head of Xbox. For nearly nine months during such a pivotal time, the Xbox division at Microsoft was without a captain, until March of 2014 when the CEO of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, announced that Phil Spencer would be taking on the role of the president of Xbox. But things didn’t improve immediately. Just like Mattrick taking over for Moore, the decisions made, and initiatives begun during the Mattrick era would still be felt for another two years. Those two years also happened to be the first two years and arguably the most vital two years of a console’s lifetime. 

Spencer’s influence was immediately felt internally, but from a customer’s perspective, it wouldn’t be seen until E3 of 2015. Despite Microsoft’s floundering when revealing the Xbox One in 2013 and Sony’s sticking the landing of their revealing the PS4, both companies received one common reaction. Both consoles were missing any sort of backward compatibility, while this was a complaint that would haunt the PS4 for its entire life, Phil Spencer saw it as an opportunity to begin to build back some of the reputation that had been lost during the Mattrick era. Taking the stage at E3 2015 Spencer announced that backward compatibility for Xbox 360 games would be added to Xbox One via a free update. When compared to the unbelievable slew of first-party titles the PS4 was getting, backward compatibility didn’t feel like much, but it was the first hint of light at the end of a very dark tunnel Xbox fans had been in since E3 2009. 

But backward compatibility wasn’t all Spencer had put in motion the moment he sat down in the big chair. Upon its reveal the Xbox One had been criticized for being too big, flimsy, underpowered, and overall displeasing, Phil Spencer made it his mission to fix all that. In 2016 Microsoft opened their E3 press conference with the reveal of a new, slightly more powerful, radically smaller Xbox One S. The new iteration of the Xbox One was clearly what the console had always been intended to be. While it was late to the party by about three years the Xbox One had finally arrived and Phil Spencer’s focus on gaming had stopped the bleeding. 

As if that wasn’t enough, Spencer took the stage to close the 2016 E3 press conference in an even greater fashion than it was opened. After recapping the cross-purchasing initiative dubbed “Xbox Play Anywhere” even more hardware was teased. A brief video package was played that would function as a cliffhanger ending to a press conference that wouldn’t be resolved until E3 2017. For an entire year gamers discussed and predicted what exactly Spencer’s Project Scorpio would be. At the start of the show at E3 2017, Microsoft unveiled the Xbox One X, the most powerful console the world had ever seen at the time. And as if that wasn’t enough late in the show Spencer announced original Xbox games being added to the backward compatibility program making three generations of Xbox playable on one console. 

Phil Spencer announces Project Scorpio

By 2017 Microsoft was deep into their turnaround strategy but still faced one major hurdle. As Sony pumped out game after game that were all exclusive to PS4 and all reviewed extremely well the first party studios at Microsoft simply couldn’t compete. The phrase “Xbox has no games” presided over any conversation pertaining to the state of each console. Just like he fixed the Xbox One hardware, Spencer set out to fix the first-party exclusive software problem too. In June 2018 Microsoft announced the acquisition of Ninja Theory, Undead Labs, Compulsion Games, and Playground Games developers of Hellblade, State of Decay, We Happy Few, and the Forza Horizon series respectively. Then in November of 2018, Microsoft acquired inXile Entertainment and Obsidian Entertainment, creators of the Wasteland franchise and The Outer Worlds respectively. In June of 2019, Microsoft acquired Double Fine Studios, creators of Psychonauts and as if to drive the point home in September 2020 Microsoft announced their intention to acquire ZeniMax Media and all their subsidiaries. While it wasn’t a home-grown way of going about making those changes, the problem of Xbox not having games had been resolved.

Finally, in 2021 it seems as though we have reached an inflection point. The bleeding was stopped in 2016 but in 2021 the Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S are making big gains. 2021 has seen the release of Microsoft Flight Simulator, Psychonauts 2, and Forza Horizon 5 with Halo: Infinite just around the corner. Even a year later, the hardware of both the Series X and Series S is stellar, there are more great Xbox games now than there has been since 2007, and the value of Gamepass can never be overstated. Trust can be lost in an instant and take a lifetime to earn back and that’s exactly what Xbox has been going through for an entire generation. Let’s all hope the Spencer era is the longest Xbox has seen yet.

Bleed Green

Being an Xbox fan hasn’t always been easy. As a young child, I had my very own Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64, and PlayStation. It was the Nintendo hardware that I spent most of my time on, that is until the Xbox was released. When I was 11, I bought and played my Xbox religiously. When I was 15, I was lucky enough to have a dad who left for work every morning before 5 am in an attempt to get me an Xbox 360 for Christmas just over a month after its release, he got me that 360 on December 23rd, 2005. When I was 23, I knew my money would be better spent on a PS4, but that didn’t stop me from buying an Xbox One as well. I spent seven years on PS4, but it never quite felt like home. And when I was 30, I stepped away from my job in the middle of the day and frantically failed to preorder a Series X…my wife succeeded. I used to like to think of myself as a rational person who didn’t have any allegiance to the plastic box that I play video games on, but in researching for this article I discovered something about myself. In digging up my memories of the good times and the bad, watching game trailers and E3 press conferences, and even sitting down to play a little bit of Halo on the eve of its 20th birthday I teared up a few times. Xbox has been with me for almost two-thirds of my life; I’m happy to play any game on any platform and would never suggest anything to the contrary, but when push comes to shove, I bleed green. 

News writer and Xbox reviewer. Patrick lives in Minneapolis Minnesota with his wife and their dog Ghost. Patrick studied economics at the University of Northern Colorado and is particularly interested in the market dynamics of the video game industry. When he's not working Patrick can be found walking Ghost through downtown MPLS, binging The West Wing on repeat, or playing hockey. Follow Patrick in everything he does on Twitter @TheLawMorris or on YouTube by subscribing to ColdNorth Productions, you can see everything he does independently at www.coldnorthpro.com.

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