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Happy 15th Birthday, Xbox

View profile for Andy Moseby
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Fifteen years ago this week, Microsoft’s whopping 8lb 8oz baby – the original Xbox – was born.  We played a hand in the delivery, too – advising on the UK launch which took place in March 2002.

Before the Xbox, the name Microsoft meant operating systems, server stacks and PC software.  The only games it released weren’t really games at all: Solitaire was designed to stealth-teach PC users – who, at the time, were used to command-line DOS inputs and not a visual file system – how to drag and drop.  Minesweeper helped users become adept at precision mouse movement and both left and right mouse button clicks.  Hearts was a way of getting people used to the NetDDE local network technology.  The only reason these weren’t dropped with subsequent iterations of Windows was because the testers enjoyed playing them too much; any time Microsoft tried to remove them, complaints would flood in.

The Xbox changed all that.  “Xbox was cool,” said Jeff Pobst, then lead technical game manager for Xbox’s Advanced Technology Group, in an interview with Russ Pitts (part of the excellent article “The Birth of Xbox Live”).  “And to have a part of Microsoft that was cool had not really happened before.”  Although never really embraced by Japan, the original Xbox shipped over 24 million units – more than the Nintendo GameCube but barely making a dent on Sony’s all-conquering PlayStation2, which launched a year prior to the Xbox and went on to sell over 155 million units.  However, although the Xbox lost the sales war at the time, it arguably did more than any other console to change the infrastructure of modern gaming.  The Xbox was the first console with an in-built hard drive, which did away with the need for memory cards and allowed players to use custom soundtracks from ripped CDs.  The real gamer changer, though, was Xbox Live.  Whilst the PS2 and Sega’s Dreamcast had network capability, the Xbox simply did it better.  The Xbox Live UI was intuitive and innovative - the friends list and in-game voice chat were new features which are now integral to any online gaming platform - and Microsoft’s servers were (unsurprisingly, given its history) faster and more stable.  Downloadable content made quick and easy?  You have Xbox Live to thank for that.  Pre-game matchmaking lobbies?  That was Xbox Live too.

Pitts tells the story that in conceiving Microsoft’s networked gaming platform, J Allard (Microsoft’s former CTO and “chief experience officer”) had in his mind the cheesy 1980s TV commercial for the Atari 2600 where an entire family huddled around a machine cheering and laughing whilst playing home versions of popular arcade titles.  During beta testing, where 15,000 beta kits were released, Allard regularly participated in online competitions and one night heard a female voice he didn’t recognise.  Asking who she was, the woman replied she was just chatting to other testers whilst she watched her son playing the game.  “It was magic,” said Allard.  “It was flawless.  Here I was talking to a 40-year-old woman that doesn't play games sitting on the couch with her 15-year-old kid and talking to people around the world all day as the kid tried to work his way up the leaderboards. It was that Atari ad.  We did it.”  

I was given an Xbox as a leaving present before I joined Kemp Little (cheers, Olswang!).  It was a great hulking beast of a console which managed to secure a large range of quality exclusives - something which has continued such that I’ve been forced to own both the latest Sony and Microsoft console every iteration since.  My favourite titles?  Well, I was never a huge fan of the Halo series (blasphemy, I know, but I could never get past the Flood, so I rage quit and never went back).  I played the hell out of Full Spectrum Warrior, though.  Pschyonauts also needs a mention, as does Freedom Fighters (essentially ‘80s classic Red Dawn in game form) and Gun – little remembered now, but I’m a sucker for Westerns and this was the best cowboy-em-up since Kane on the Commodore 64 until Red Dead Redemption came along.

Join me, then, in raising a glass. Happy birthday, Xbox. You were an ugly-looking brute of a thing whose power unit caused a number of fires. But I loved you.