On a bright, fresh November morning Microsoft fired the first salvo in the latest round of the console wars by launching the Xbox 360. The hardware sold out in mere hours, generating interest far beyond the normal restraints of the video games industry. The launch was an event, a celebration of the next step in gaming evolution and a call to arms. Sony’s perceived rule of the industry was at an end, Microsoft has taken over. What made the Xbox 360 console and launch different from those that had come before? Here are some ideas that may answer that question.
About six months before the Xbox 360 launched J. Allard spoke about their plan to launch the console as close to simultaneously as possible, in each of the three main markets. Many branded this idea a good sales gimmick and something worth contemplating for future launches. Instead Microsoft did it with Xbox 360. No other launch has managed to achieve the feat Microsoft seemed to have found relatively comfortable. By comparison PS2’s launch in North America came almost seven months after it had gone on sale to the Japanese public. More pleasing about the launch than it’s relative synchronicity, was the simple fact that Microsoft stuck to their launch dates. So often the postponed launch date is the bane of a new console and of the fans ardour. In this case anticipation was only heightened by Microsoft’s ability to deliver on their promises. A next generation console feasibly a year in advance of it’s competitors, available now – not some unspecified date in a hazy future, that is a success story if ever I heard one.
For the millions who have flocked to the Xbox brand, the 360’s launch day was justification. Justification that Microsoft, unlike Sega and other companies who have fallen by the wayside, had not only the financial muscle but the willingness, the temerity to challenge and beat Sony. What the Xbox 360 has done so successfully is define the breadth and scope of Microsoft’s vision. With every new shipment of the console selling out the moment it goes on sale, consumers’ desire for the Xbox 360 has not waned in the two months since launch and has proven that the launch dates were merely the tip of the iceberg. It has also put to the sword lamentable comments that have suggested the Xbox 360 is the ‘Dreamcast 2.0’. Although it is fair to say that the Xbox did not make Microsoft a lot of money, here they are again, building on the successes that the Xbox did have. Prepared to take an approximate $126 loss, according to BusinessWeek, in order to provide gamers with a quality console at a reasonable price, on their terms. This time they, and not Sony, are the first out the gate. They, and not Sony, are in control of the market when the other enters.
Microsoft’s determined release date, their ability to forge forward with the plan for Xbox 360 and their position as the only next generation console on the market have created a unique market position. Everything that occurs from now on will happen faster for Microsoft than Sony. Pipeline distribution -- which has already been sorted out by adding a third vendor to build the hardware, user base creation, developer familiarity, all of these facets will have been faced and ironed out months in advance of it’s two competitors. When PS3 and Revolution do set foot on the battleground, they will face a far more mature, dominant competitor with several distinct advantages.
Where to begin? The look of the Xbox 360 is the most notable aspect at first glance. Placed on end, it is far sleeker and sophisticated than it’s lump-of-plastic predecessor. The power button has become symbolic of the brand and offers a compelling contrast to PS2’s on/off switch and the weak LED lit Reset button. The cool cream-coloured surface favourably defines the silver disc drive. But of course this is only the default design, with ever increasing numbers of well built faceplates available the Xbox 360 can be customised to the owner’s tastes. The faceplates are a great method of expressing individuality that could only previously be enjoyed in-game. It shows the level of thought about and emphasis on the gamer Microsoft put into the design of the Xbox 360. This separates the console from the identikit boxes found next to a household TV, assuming that is you keep any of them with what the Xbox 360 can do.
Before even touching the gaming possibilities of the hardware, it is important to realise that the Xbox 360’s multimedia connectivity tag is fully justified. Plug in almost any MP3 player or digital camera, through one of the two USB ports, and instant access is granted to an elegant interface that allows easy navigation through your music files or photos. Connect your PC to the Xbox 360 and your options increase even further, with the ability to share music, movie and image files between the two platforms through a simple, free download of Windows Media Connect. This furthers the sense of uniqueness Microsoft offers by allowing the user to set personal pictures as a wallpaper, stamping your own identity onto the machine. As with the Xbox, the 360 can rip CDs to the hard drive and you can then use these tunes in any game, either through in-game options or by using the dashboard overlay.
Much has been made of the proposed format for the PS3 disc drive, Blu-Ray, yet Microsoft rightly opted to continue with the current format. Attempting to guess future industry standards in any area let alone electronics is incredibly difficult, akin to pretending you know next week’s lottery numbers, and the loss that can be incurred from incorrectly guessing would be tantamount to product suicide. By accepting the present and leaving potential for future developments, Microsoft has guaranteed that the Xbox 360 will be relevant from day one.
This leads us to the gaming possibilities. The Xbox 360 is, according to those in the know – including no less a name than id engine genius John Carmack, easier to code for than the PS3. Microsoft’s ability to offer a stable, familiar development environment with exceptional tools has already proven to be a boon for developers. The multiple-core nature of the 360 CPU (it has three cores running at 3.2GHz) has greatly increased the processing power through SMT (Simultaneous Multi Threading). This allows the CPUs to do two things at once, in effect creating the equivalent of six cores. In conjunction with procedural synthesis, the ability through recursive algorithms to generate random and unique models, the Xbox 360’s cores allow the developer far more scope to extend their gaming visions into areas such as Mass Effect’s ‘advanced story rendering’. On the graphical side, ATI’s GPU is incredibly flexible, creating the potential for post-processing effects that the Xbox so badly lacked. Even parallax mapping is now possible. What this means to the layman is that textures (such as wooden floorboards) will have more apparent depth and realism with less of an influence on the speed of the game. In essence, the ability to create ‘real’ images in fantastic worlds of incredible depth and variety with random variables.
All of these wondrous graphical abilities can be explored by another innovation that Microsoft has been quick to seize on, High Definition television. Although the cost of HD TV is at present prohibitive for the vast majority of gamers, there is no doubt that HD TV’s will gradually drop in price until they replace current technology. This will be aided by the cable and television companies who already broadcast a wide array of shows and movies in HD, in order to transition fully into the medium in the not too distant future. What this will mean is that television will be able to finally display all a developers’ minor touches and masterstrokes in a clarity approaching real.
Continuing from the Xbox, Xbox 360 will dominate console online gaming through Xbox Live. Live was a major reason for the Xbox having such an impact in the market and the Xbox 360 goes a step further by offering out of the box connectivity. There are two different types of services, Silver and Gold, both requite a hard drive or memory card. Silver is a free service that gives you access to the Marketplace where you can download game demos, movies, pay-per-month games and also themes. Everything that requires payment is done so through Microsoft Points, which can be bought through Xbox Live or prepaid cards. The Gold service allows you to do everything the Silver package does, plus you can play competitively online for $50 per year. Even before you get to the retail titles though, there is the fantastic Live Arcade. Live Arcade offers a combination of; old arcade games such as Smash TV, original games like Zuma and the familiar Backgammon/Hearts/Billiards style games for a modest price. Live Arcade greatly increases the number and variety of games available for the Xbox 360 at a much cheaper price.
Another noticeable improvement is the controllers. A wireless controller has long been on the cards for the next-gen consoles but the redesigned ergonomic form is special. Gone are the black and white buttons, to be replaced by more comfortable shoulder buttons that work much better whilst playing a game. Your thumbs rest easily on the altered sticks making for a more accurate and sensitive gaming experience. The bulky triggers have been reduced to allow a softer touch that increases the level of analogue control. Everything about the controller speaks of class; fitting so easily into the hands that you barely notice it’s there when you become involved in a game.
At present the Xbox 360 hardware offers everything you could possibly want from a gaming console and more besides. Microsoft has redefined console gaming and our expectations regarding the industry.
Software is always the key component in determining a new console’s lifespan and success. By launching so much earlier than Sony and Nintendo, Microsoft has given themselves several clear advantages.
Firstly they have got the junk out the way. All launches are never going to have the strongest of software catalogues in place to feed a new owner’s desire. So all the ports and transitional games expected on the release of a new console, will be but a distant memory when the other two consoles debut. Not that many of these games were not strong titles in their own right. Project Gotham Racing 3 is a stunning example of what the Xbox 360 is capable of, with gorgeous graphics and great mechanics that have rightly earned the game multiple accolades. Call of Duty 2, whilst essentially only an update of the original, demonstrated how powerful a tool atmosphere can be in the next generation of computer games, fully immersing the gamer in a superb rendition of the WWII era. Rare’s duo of Kameo and Perfect Dark Zero showed similar promise. Kameo proved that gameplay will not be sacrificed to the beauty of HD gaming and that the potential for vast, involving games makes the coming year so compelling for the Xbox 360. Perfect Dark Zero, whilst displaying many foibles, offered a strong gaming experience but more significantly showed what the synergy of a quality multiplayer experience and Xbox Live can achieve. When you consider that this is only the very first wave, the infant titles if you will, of a console that has such potential, the mind begins to boggle.
Secondly, the most obvious advantage is that developers will have familiarised themselves to a much greater extent with the Xbox 360. So when the PS3 and Revolution hit the shelves, they will be alongside a very strong catalogue of impressive 360 titles. The coming three months alone will have seen the release of: Ghost Recon 3: Advanced Warfighter, Fight Night Round 3, The Outfit, and Prey, and these are only the confirmed releases. On the outer edge of the schedule lurks; Resident Evil 5, Mass Effect, Dead Rising, Gears of War, Splinter Cell 4, Crackdown, Alan Wake and of course Halo 3. Potentially all of these games could be available for purchase by the time Sony and Nintendo check-in to the next round of the console wars. At worst they will be in the latter stages of development. This fact will almost certainly sway a number of undecided gamers toward the Xbox 360, particularly if Microsoft can drop the price of the console at around the same time.
The extra time and familiarity with the Xbox 360 may also create doubt amongst smaller developers about whether the PS3 is worth developing for. Changing the whole structure and method of coding for Sony’s hardware could potentially discourage developers from spending all the extra time and expense required to do so. Instead focusing their energies on the Xbox 360, much in the way John Carmack and id have already done. This would also allow developers to fully explore the Xbox 360’s potential without having to switch back and forth between machines, meaning games of greater scope and ambition are possible – Bioware’s Mass Effect trilogy and Halo 3 being perfect examples.
The coming eight months are packed with triple-A titles that promise to ignite Xbox 360 owner’s imaginations and wallets. With the additional potential of titles not yet exposed to be sleeper hits and cult classics, Xbox 360’s catalogue of games suggests nothing but quality.
In 2005 Microsoft made successful inroads into establishing the Xbox 360 as the premier games console. 2006 has only just begun and already there is a case building that Sony and Nintendo will be lucky to even come close to competing with Xbox 360. If Sony struggle into 2007 as some rumours have suggested, then they face an almost insurmountable task to withhold Microsoft’s challenge for supremacy. Nintendo can rightly be considered the poor third sibling and they will do well to maintain their market share in light of the advances Microsoft have made. It’s a whole new game and Xbox 360 has the ball.