X Marks the Spot: Microsoft’s Xbox turns 20

The original 2001 Xbox and accessories.

When Sony’s PlayStation 2 threatened the obsolete Windows PC, Microsoft countered by releasing the Xbox on November 15, 2001. Of course, the Xbox did not run Windows or use standard PC hardware either. Here’s how it happened.

DirectX Box: Counting a Sony Threat

To understand the Xbox and its origins, you need to understand a little about its background at Microsoft. In 1996, Microsoft introduced DirectX, an API that made it easier for game developers to write graphics-intensive games for Windows. Instead of having to write high-level graphics routines, detached from hardware (which affected performance), or specifically target any type of GPU card, DirectX provided a consistent way of programming for a variety of different graphics cards from different vendors. DirectX undoubtedly made Windows a viable gaming platform for the first time.

For at least 30 years, Microsoft’s mission has been to place a computer on every desktop and in every home – of course with Microsoft software. In the 1990s, Microsoft’s success grew to incredible heights thanks to products like Windows 95 and Microsoft Office, both of which made the company a household name. It seemed like the company was on the right track.

During the same period, Sony flew high from the success of its PlayStation console. In 1999, the press widely reported that Sony’s upcoming PlayStation 2 console would be a “Trojan horse after PC”. Sony was planning to turn its next console into a family entertainment hub that could potentially replace the PC at home. Understandably, some people at Microsoft were worried. If you combined various elements of Sony’s plan – including a DVD-playing game console with network connectivity and a DVR with a hard drive – Sony’s system could potentially pose a threat to Microsoft’s mission statement and its bottom line.

Sony PlayStation 2
A threat from Sony PlayStation 2 inspired the Xbox. Evan Amos

A group of Microsoft employees – Otto Berkes, Seamus Blackley, Kevin Bachus and Ted Hase – who worked on DirectX at Microsoft decided that the company should address this threat by making its own game console – a “DirectX Box”. Originally, they planned to make a sleek Windows PC connected to a TV that ran games installed from disks. The group approached Ed Fries, head of Microsoft’s game publishing division. “They knew they needed content for it,” Fries said in an interview with How-To Geek. Fries saw an opportunity to grow Microsoft’s gaming market share with a new console, and he jumped on board the movement to make the console a reality in Microsoft.

As the group hovered the idea for a console around Microsoft, a rival approach emerged that would use embedded chips and Windows CE, similar to a WebTV set-top box. After a showdown between the two factions, Windows won the approach with Microsoft’s leadership.

The original Xbox screen interface.
Instead of Windows, Xbox had a custom operating system with a smart yet simple interface. Microsoft

But after a while, the Windows console team realized that the full-PC approach would not make sense. To make a sleek and efficient console with a low enough price, they would have to cut Windows out of the equation. In addition, the team’s estimates showed that the Xbox project would work with a loss of nearly a billion dollars over time.

They had to present the bad news to Bill Gates. After a tense, hour-long meeting with a furious Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer on February 14, 2000, Gates and Ballmer decided to move forward with the revised console plan that would make the device more device-like and smaller like a Windows PC. The loss would be worth it, they all decided if their console could disrupt Sony’s game to conquer the PC.

But the move was not just about Sony. In the long run, there was potential money to be made. Fries, who left Microsoft in 2004, describes the console industry as one of the rare billion-dollar companies worth spending Microsoft’s time exploring. “This company was big enough, it was big enough to worry about. That’s one of the reasons I think the company is still involved,” says Fries.

Not long after the fateful meeting in February, “DirectX Box” became “Xbox”. It ran a custom lightweight OS that shared some pieces of code with Windows, but it was basically its own beast. Within 20 months, the Xbox team, led by Robbie Bach, delivered a product that could be shipped.

A console built using PC technology

Microsoft built the Xbox using technology similar to a Windows gaming PC at the time. It featured a PC-like architecture with a north bridge, south bridge and an x86 CPU. It also included a hard drive, Ethernet network and a 3D graphics chip from Nvidia. Here are some detailed specifications of the original Xbox:

  • CPU: 733 MHz 32-bit Pentium III
  • RAM: 64 MB, shared between system and video memory
  • Detachable storage: DVD-ROM (4.7 GB single-layer or 8.5 GB dual-layer discs), memory card
  • Internal storage: 8 or 10 GB 5200 RPM 3.5 “PATA Hard Drive
  • Graphics: 233 MHz Nvidia GeForce 3-based NV2A GPU
  • Network: 100 Mbit Ethernet
  • Check: Four ports, modified USB

In particular, the Xbox brought some first places to the console gaming area. It was the first console to come with a built-in hard drive, and also the first gaming console with an integrated Ethernet port. (Although Sega offered a broadband adapter replacement for Dreamcast’s modem in 2000). Xbox also had extensive online game support through Xbox Live, which was launched in 2002.

2001 Microsoft Xbox console with accessories.

Like the PlayStation 2, the Xbox’s DVD-ROM drive allowed it to play video content as well as games. With an IR remote control accessory, you can turn your Xbox into a convenient DVD player.

The Xbox came as a relatively large console unit, which was one of the largest ever made up to that point. (Get this, but the plastic for the original Xbox console and controllers was very dark green, not black as normally thought. It’s almost a secret nod to its all-green branding.)

The original Xbox "Duke" controller.
The original Xbox “Duke” controller. Microsoft

In America, the Xbox was originally shipped with a relatively large and complex controller (commonly called “The Duke”). It contained 10 buttons, two analog triggers, dual analog sticks (even both buttons when pressed) and a D-pad. Each controller contained two slots that could hold a memory card or accessory such as a headset accessory.

In testing before the Xbox’s Japanese launch in 2002, Microsoft found that the controller felt uncomfortably large for smaller Japanese hands, so they designed a more compact “Controller S” type gamepad that would later be shipped as a standard model for the Xbox worldwide.

Halo: An American Console Killer App

Since 1986, the US gaming console market has been dominated by Japanese consoles from Nintendo and Sega. In particular, the Xbox was the first American-designed gaming console since the Atari Jaguar in 1993. Fries says this fact resonated with Microsoft staff during the development of the Xbox.

Fries especially enjoyed the opportunity with the Xbox to focus on western game genres, such as first-person shooters, in the console space. “It was not so much about the flag-waving of being Western,” Fries says, “but it was about bringing the Western sense of development, the Western style of play, to the market that had really been dominated by a Japanese style.”

Part of this strategy resulted in the development and release of Bungie’s Halo: Combat Evolved, which was launched with the Xbox as a then-unusual AAA first-person shooter on a home game console. Microsoft bought Bungie in 2000 while glory was in early development, which proved to be an important strategic move for Microsoft.

The cover for Halo: Combat Evolved for Xbox.

“[Bungie] packed so much into that game and they had so little time to develop it, ”says Fries. “They had split-screen four-player PvP. They had Co-Op campaigns – you could go through the campaign with a friend, which most games today do not. They had network multiplayer, even though Xbox Live did not exist, you could still network your consoles together and play. “

In many ways, glory defined dual-analog stick first-person shooter that is common today. Between the impressive story, great graphics and varied play modes, glory attracted dozens of fans, and became a huge success and a must-have reason to own an Xbox. “That’s really why the Xbox exists today,” Fries says. “I do not think we would have continued if it were not for the success we had glory. “

More amazing Xbox games

With a library of 996 games, the Xbox turned out to be much more than just one glory box. It hosted brilliant originals (Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath), high quality ports from consoles like PlayStation 2 (the Grand Theft Auto series), and some amazing ports of PC titles such as Doom 3, Back to Wolfenstein Castle, and Morrowind.

velsagtens, Morrowind on Xbox provided the deepest console RPG experience until then. Mobygames

Here is a short (and incomplete) list of some of the best and most acclaimed Xbox games.

  • Halo: Combat Evolved: The aforementioned dual-stick FPS.
  • Halo 2: The sequel to Halo. It sold over 8 million copies.
  • Burnout 3: Removal: An arcade-style racer with high effort.
  • Fable: A colorful action RPG in a lush world.
  • Forza Motorsport: A realistic racing sim, exclusive to Xbox.
  • Jade Empire: A deep action RPG with mythical Chinese elements.
  • The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind: A first-person action RPG with a massive open world.
  • Crimson Skies: High Road To Revenge: An air combat game with a story.

There are dozens of other great Xbox games out there, which has made it popular with collectors who like to seek out hidden gems in the console’s catalog.

Launch and legacy

Microsoft unveiled the Xbox console design at CES on January 6, 2001 in a playful presentation featuring Microsoft President Bill Gates and Dwayne Johnson (“The Rock”) in his pro-wrestling heyday.

Following its launch on November 15, 2001, the Xbox broke North American console sales records, selling 1.5 million units by the end of the year. Overall, the Xbox came in second place in overall sales among competitors of its generation, selling over 24 million units worldwide against the Nintendo Gamecube’s 22 million and Sony PlayStation 2’s huge 155 million in sales.

One of the weaknesses of the Xbox, according to Fries, was that it was not easy to make a cost-reduced version of the console. Microsoft did not own the intellectual property in the chips (such as the CPU and GPU), which would have made it possible to combine them into cheaper integrated and potentially second-sourced silicon, which reduced the price of the console over time. Also the hard drive added a lot to the overall cost. So Microsoft always sold the original Xbox at a loss.

An Xbox campaign poster from 2001.

In fact, Fries says that one of the primary goals of the Xbox 360 (2005), which began development right after the original Xbox’s launch, was to make the next Xbox cheaper to manufacture over time. “The whole idea of ​​the 360 ​​was actually to cut off the life of the original Xbox as quickly as possible. It was only on the market for four years,” says Fries. , and that was cost-cutting – that was the real goal of 360. “

In that regard, the Xbox 360 performed spectacularly, keeping up with the PlayStation 3 sales numbers throughout its generation. With its sequels, Xbox One and Xbox Series X and Series S, it’s clear that the Xbox brand is here to stay. It all started with a bulky, capable console with a lot of spirit all the way back in 2001.

Happy Birthday, Xbox!

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