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Celebrating 20 years of Xbox

It was on this day 20 years ago that it became clear that Microsoft was ready to fill the void left by Sega.

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In the 90s, Microsoft was known basically for four things: Windows, the Office suite, the Internet Explorer browser, and Bill Gates. Sure, they tinkered with games from time to time, and Microsoft Flight Simulator was actually launched back in 1982, long before we knew Super Mario and even before the NES or Sega Master System were launched. They also had their own Sidewinder controller and the über-hit Minesweeper for Windows.

But like any other company, Microsoft wanted to grow and stay relevant in its segment and watched in horror as the gaming market exploded after the arrival of PlayStation. Sony was strengthening its grip on people's living room, becoming a threat towards PC as an entertainment center and Microsoft had to act if it wanted to remain competitive. Among other things, they made sure the Dreamcast had a built-in Windows CE for easier PC conversions, but hardly anyone remembers that anymore and the Dreamcast hardly praised the world with incredible sales either.

Celebrating 20 years of Xbox

But they also had the game development tool DirectX and Microsoft landed the idea that they needed a console of their own. A DirectX Box, if you will. The console began development in 1999 and went by the working name Midway, a famous naval battle in which the Americans beat Japan. Early on, the creators, led by Seamus Blackley, Robert J. Bach, and games division head Ed Fries (the Phil Spencer of this era, if you will), made it clear that it would be a PC-compatible console with unprecedented performance and functionality.

This led to its launch as the first games console with a built-in network card as standard (the Dreamcast had a modem for dial-up internet, PlayStation 2 and GameCube only offered internet as peripherals), as well as a standard hard drive and advanced plans for a real online service called Xbox Live. Performance would also be far superior to what the competition offered to make it stand out from the crowd. However, this made the console very expensive to produce, and several people involved have subsequently testified that the project was nearly abandoned.

Fortunately, this did not happen and Microsoft eventually settled on the name Xbox, short for DirectX Box. However, there were other problems to be addressed, and it proved difficult to find a controller manufacturer, which led to the use of rather primitive technology, with the result that the controller became physically huge. Now known as The Duke, it only accompanied the Xbox for a limited time before being replaced by the more diminutive Controller S, which is in many ways a clear predecessor to today's Xbox controllers.

Celebrating 20 years of Xbox

When it comes to the controllers specifically, it's also worth mentioning that they had significantly longer cords than we've been used to up until now. Microsoft was a Western company and knew that the controllers that came with Nintendo and Sony consoles were too short. You couldn't put the console under the TV bench and play leaning comfortably backward on the couch, the cord just wasn't long enough. Also, the cords had a safety solution, which at least came to my rescue several times when I or friends were about to trip over them. To sum up, the Xbox was in many ways an innovative console that pioneered many of the things that are standard today.

Then we have the not insignificant factor that a console needs games. Nintendo had plenty and reportedly Microsoft tried to buy them out, something that ended up with them being laughed at. There were also attempts to buy out EA and Square Enix, among others, which were also unsuccessful. However, several smaller developers were acquired, not least the Mac studio Bungie, then known for Myth and Marathon. They were working on the strategy game Halo: Combat Evolved, which was later changed to and released as a first-person shooter that made history.

Microsoft also developed a good relationship with Bethesda, which led to their own games having various kinds of exclusives for all Microsoft consoles since then. Finally, it's worth mentioning that the lovable Japanese madman (and genius!) Tomonobu Itagaki of Tecmo took an early liking to Xbox and invested heavily in Xbox with great games like Dead or Alive 3 and initially Xbox 360 before leaving the studio with the release of Ninja Gaiden II.

Celebrating 20 years of Xbox

In 2001, the Xbox was released and was first shown at the CES trade show in January 2001. It was the somewhat unlikely duo of Bill Gates and Dwayne Johnson who premiered the console, and in fact, Dwayne Johnson has had a relationship with Xbox ever since, including launching his own Xbox Series X mini-fridges before Microsoft decided to do the same.

Well, it was exactly 20 years ago today that Microsoft released the Xbox, on 15 November 2001. The debut games were actually quite good, but while there were highlights like Dead or Alive 3 and Project Gotham Racing, it was Master Chief and Halo: Combat Evolved that stole the show and ensured the console was in demand. The big draw for the Xbox, however, was performance, and it literally drove in circles around its main competitors, the PlayStation 2 and GameCube. This meant that for the first time we could get real PC graphics on a console.

But sales didn't go as well as Microsoft had hoped. As we all know, it struggled against the PlayStation 2, which went on to become the best-selling console of all time (more than 155 million units sold). Relatively soon after launch, Microsoft butchered the price and made huge losses on each sold unit, compensating those who had bought at the higher price with free games and an extra controller. The losses were not helped either by the fact that piracy of the Xbox was something out of the ordinary. Not only could it play pirated games with a simple flick of the wrist, but it was also possible to swap hard drives and load pirated games onto them, as well as run emulators. This made the console very popular in PC circles and even today many people use their old Xboxes as emulator devices for classics - which is, however, completely illegal and obviously not something we encourage.

Celebrating 20 years of Xbox

Sales-wise, the console kept pace with the GameCube globally, but in the West, it was clearly bigger than Nintendo's alternative, and this was a time when Western gaming was growing after the Japanese had totally dominated to console since the mid-80s. A total of 24 million Xboxes were sold, 16 million of them in the US. Although 53,65 million PlayStation 2s were sold in the US, Microsoft had gained a foothold with the Xbox in the by far the most important gaming market in the world, which is probably why they confidently chose to retire the console after just four years and release the Xbox 360 which came to dominate that generation in the West.

The legacy of Xbox is best found online today but also in the PC architecture. In the past, it was taken for granted that consoles were proprietary devices built for games, quite difficult to develop for, not compatible with predecessors, and operating in a universe of their own where released games were finished and completed products. For Halo 2, however, more levels came as DLC, which was the first time we were introduced to the phenomenon on the console in a major way (although there were similar ideas for the Dreamcast), as well as the obviousness of a cohesive online system. Xbox Live was launched in 2002 and remains the foundation of online services for consoles today, and it would be four years before Nintendo and Sony tried something similar with consoles that support the internet out of the box, have built-in storage, and a proper online service. Since the last generation, Sony has also moved to PC architecture with the Playstation consoles, a journey that began with the Xbox.

The very fact that the Xbox was so insanely more powerful than the competition when it was released is also something I think we can see traces of in the way Microsoft has chosen to work with the Xbox One X and Xbox Series X. While it's not nearly the same difference from the competition anymore, I think you can see that Microsoft has figured out that it's important to them to have the best performance and sees it as part of the Xbox DNA.

Celebrating 20 years of Xbox

The fact that western games got such a huge boost in the early 2000s must also be said to be something Xbox contributed to. Previously, console role-playing games were Japanese adventures, whereas today most people think of titles such as The Elder Scrolls, Mass Effect or World of Warcraft. The shift towards Western games would certainly have happened anyway, not least with the help of Rockstar, but would likely have been a more distinct PC flavour, while consoles remained more Japanese.

In addition, popular game series like Fable, Forza and Halo debuted on Xbox, and Rare was bought in 2002 in what must be considered the gaming world's first truly shocking takeover. As we all know, they've recently had a huge resurgence with Sea of Thieves, which is by far their most successful title ever.

For my own part, one of my very oldest friends got me an Xbox during a trip to the US in 2001. I already had American converters at home, as I was importing games heavily for both the Dreamcast and PlayStation 2 at the time. I was mainly looking for Dead or Alive 3, but the buddy refused (thankfully) to buy the console for me unless he could buy Halo: Combat Evolved too so he could try it out.

Celebrating 20 years of XboxCelebrating 20 years of Xbox

As a result, I was able to enjoy these two titles just weeks after their release in the US (the console didn't arrive in Europe until five months later). The graphics in both titles were some of the most mind-blowing jaw-droppers I've ever had, along with Sonic the Hedgehog on the Mega Drive, Wipeout on the PlayStation, and Soul Calibur on the Dreamcast. It led to wonderful memories and an endless number of sweet Halo nights with my friends, while my apartment became something everyone wanted to visit to see the new Xbox. I was even interviewed by our local newspaper.

I had already started to move my gaming online during the Dreamcast-era, and with Xbox it became permanent. It made it easier to hang out with mates and be able to talk to them in an era when phone calls were still expensive. I could even use Xbox Live instead of the phone to communicate with people I got to know online and my girlfriend who lived 600 kilometers away at that time. And online I've stayed ever since, and that's probably the great legacy of Xbox for me personally, 20 years later.

What are your best memories from Xbox?



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