Xbox at Ten
Back in 2001/2, I was quite content with my PlayStation 2 and paid little attention to the competition. As far as I was concerned, the Xbox was an unsightly block of black and neon that only Americans were interested in. Microsoft was the name I saw each time my outdated PC wheezed into action and was certainly not a company I equated with fun. Halo was a silly game about a man in a motorcycle helmet lollygagging in space, and why on earth would I need online multiplayer when I already had a multi-tap and more controllers than I had use for. The Xbox was entirely superfluous and I had no intention of making space for it under my TV.
The Xbox didn't hang around for too long, as by 2005 Microsoft were eager to get a head-start on the seventh generation and build upon the valuable lessons of their debut console. Although it failed to challenge the PS2's dominance - it was originally developed in reaction to the PlayStation's ability to lure developers away from Windows - it established the Xbox brand and a slew of exclusive franchises that have been transferred to the 360. The highest profile of these is of course Halo, which was adopted as the Xbox poster child and would later become the harbinger of the online, multiplayer generation. To have Halo: Combat Evolved as the marquee launch title was a risky move, as at that time the FPS was still seen as a strictly PC genre, with GoldenEye (N64) being the lone, high profile exception. That didn't stop Halo from shifting millions of Xboxes and the sequel from becoming the console best seller.
The Xbox first popularised many features that have since become industry staples. In late 2002, Microsoft launched Xbox Live: a subscription based platform for online activity and gaming that has gone from strength to strength. Although the Dreamcast had pre-empted it, the Xbox made online the future of multiplayer gaming and forced Sony to rethink their stance. The Japanese giant had initially be indifferent to online connectivity, but was soon offering a network adapter add-on and would go on to include an Ethernet connection in the PS2 slim, as well as moving forward with a growing roster of online compatible games. Sony had been caught on the back foot, as Microsoft was already dictating the direction in which the next generation of consoles would be headed.
The Xbox also introduced installed hard drives, which removed the need for memory cards and opened the door for DLC and downloadable games; elements that have since become a major part of the gaming landscape. All these extra features came at the cost of streamlined design as consoles became much bulkier, something which was evident in the earlier 360 and PS3 models. However, you can't lay all the blame on the Xbox for the move towards heftier hardware, as Panasonic's failed 3DO was causing shoulders to pop out well before 2001.
Kotaku recently ran a short but interesting article about the similarities between Sega's Dreamcast and the Xbox, and how Microsoft's debut is as close to a DC2 as we were ever likely to get. The obvious comparison lies in the DC games that were ported to the Xbox, such as Shenmue 2 and Jet Set Radio, but there are other, more intriguing ties that bind. Apparently, Sega approached Microsoft in the hope that their console would be backward compatible with DC games, having already worked together implementing Windows CE on the doomed console. It didn't quite work out, but Microsoft did end up learning a great deal from the DC's online capabilities and appropriated many of the features of its controller for their own beastly pad.
I have never owned an original Xbox, nor will I. I am happy to have admired this most successful debut from afar, having saved myself the task of allocating premium living room space to its ample frame. It was a watershed moment for an ever-developing industry, and the beginning of a brand that shows every sign of lasting at least another decade yet.