I have written articles for this blog about most of the biggest consoles in modern gaming since Nintendo entered the scene in the late eighties with the NES, inspiring Sega to come out with the Genesis and Sony to come out with the PlayStation. But I have yet to dive into the history of Xbox, although I always planned to do so because it has a fascinating history of its own that is not only significant in the way that it helped the video game industry evolve in the 21st century but is also pretty amazing considering Nintendo and Sony were already dominating the market by the time Xbox came along and breaking into an industry with titans like these is never an easy thing to do.
Before Microsoft released the Xbox, the tech corporation founded by Bill Gates and Paul Allen in 1975 was best known for being a pioneer in the PC market and for being the company behind the Windows line of operating systems and the web browser Internet Explorer, and these things eventually made Microsoft one of the richest corporations in the world, not to mention one of the Big Five in the information technology industry along with Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook.
However, none of those four companies scared Microsoft as much as Sony when they came out with the PlayStation 2. While Microsoft had been involved in the game industry for a long time thanks to the existence of PC games, Microsoft and Sony were two tech companies that seemingly operated in different spheres. Nonetheless, Microsoft saw the PS2 as a threat to PCs because of its position as not only a video game console but as a CD player and a DVD player. The fact that video game consoles began doing things that PCs could do inspired Microsoft to enter the video game industry itself.
The Microsoft employee who first proposed that the company should create a game console was Ted Hase, who was part of Microsoft’s DirectX team. Microsoft DirectX is an API (application programming interface) company founded in 1995 which specialized in tasks involving video and game programing on Microsoft platforms, including APIs like DirectMusic, DirectPlay, DirectDraw, Direct3D, etc. Hase sent out a PowerPoint presentation to his fellow employees in 1999 advocating for Microsoft’s entry in the home console market.
Microsoft’s leaders thought it was crazy to enter the game industry. They were already the biggest tech company in the world so it seemed like an unnecessary risk. But the DirectX team of Otto Berkes, Kevin Bachus, Seamus Blackley and Hayes knew that with Microsoft’s financial backing they had the power to build a machine to rival the PS2.
The console’s working title was originally “DirectX Box” and this got shortened to “Xbox,” but they failed to come up with a better name so “Xbox” stuck. When gamers and industry insiders first learned that Microsoft was coming out with a game console there was a lot of skepticism that any company could break into an industry already dominated by Sony, but Bill Gates himself backed it and took to the stage at the Game Developers Conference in 2000 to explain how powerful the Xbox would be compared to the PS2.
When the Xbox first came out in 2001, it was the first American video game console to hit the market since the Atari Jaguar, which had a short unsuccessful life from 1993 to 1996. The Xbox wasn’t particularly attractive with its bulky exterior and giant engraved “X” and it could have easily been mistaken for a second-rate PlayStation wannabe. But Bill Gates was right. It had a lot of horsepower and its software had beautiful graphics. Plus the system had access to a Windows-based operating system (rather than Windows itself, so as to differentiate itself from the PC gaming experience) and some very good launch titles.
As a matter of fact, of all the console’s software, the game that turned out to be the biggest gold mine and would be largely credited with the console’s success was the first-person shooter Halo: Combat Evolved. Microsoft’s decision to purchase game developer Bungie to secure Halo as an exclusive Xbox title would turn out to be one of the smartest things the company did. Huge open worlds that players could navigate while driving tanks using a variety of weapons provided a multiplayer experience like no other, especially as the online service Xbox Live was implemented in 2002 to allow for online combat against players around the world. The sequel Halo 2 was even more popular. The Halo series popularized online console gaming and absolutely set the standard for the genre. Xbox Live, now known as Xbox Network, distinguished Microsoft from Sony and Nintendo in a huge way and allowed the Xbox to become popular and eventually gain respect from the gaming community.
In addition to Halo, the Xbox had many other outstanding titles that gamers and critics loved. Some of the best Xbox games were Fable, Ninja Gaiden, BioWare’s Jade Empire and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Bethesda’s Dungeons & Dragons-inspired open-world RPG sequel The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, the racing games Forza Motorsport and Project Gotham Racing, the critically loved but commercially unsuccessful Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, Capcom’s Steel Battalion, Sega’s Panzer Dragoon Orta and Jet Set Radio Future, Double Fine’s Psychonauts and Starbreeze Studios’ The Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay which was a tie-in prequel to the 2000 film Pitch Black (both starring Vin Diesel).
The follow-up to the Xbox was the Xbox 360, which was released in 2005 and capitalized on the strengths of the Xbox with better HD visuals and better multiplayer online services. It was first unveiled to the public on MTV in May 2005 and later that month at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) with launch and software info. The Xbox 360’s Xbox Live service offered the ability to stream music, TV shows and movies via Xbox Music and Xbox Video and a more limited free service when you subscribed to its “Silver” tier. Plus it was backwards compatible with Xbox games. It became one of the most successful game consoles ever with a total of 84 million units sold.
Some of the best games on Xbox 360 were Bioshock, Gears of War, Halo 3, Fable II, Mass Effect, Saints Row, Dragon Age: Origins, The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Fallout 3, Forza Motorsport 2, Dishonored as well as Infinity Ward’s Call of Duty series, Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto series, UbiSoft’s Far Cry series, Gearbox Software’s Borderlands series, Valve’s Left 4 Dead, FromSoftware’s Dark Souls and PlatinumGames’ Vanquish.
Another thing introduced by Xbox 360 was the Xbox Live Arcade, a video game download service available via the Xbox Games Store, a digital distribution platform that allowed you to download classic games as well as original titles, including many brilliant smaller-budget games like Limbo, Super Meat Boy, Fez, Castle Crashers, Shadow Complex, Braid, Bastion and Pac-Man Championship Edition. This service was so popular that it migrated to later Xbox consoles as well and it gave indie developers some attention that was much appreciated.
Xbox 360 came out around the same time as Nintendo released the Wii, so Microsoft responded with their own motion tracker called Kinect, which allowed you to play games through movement without the use of a controller. It eventually became unpopular due to lackluster software, and it was also released near the end of the Xbox 360’s life so it didn’t make much of an impact. But it was a fun device.
The Xbox 360 was followed by the Xbox One, released in 2013. The Xbox One wasn’t radicially different from the Xbox 360 but it did offer gamers the ability to record and stream their gameplay, plus integration with cable and sattelite TV and even Kinect-based voice control. In fact the Xbox One’s interface was initially based around a standard controller and the Kinect peripheral, but this was abandoned to allow for a system price cut following poor sales. The reason for the Xbox One’s poor sales was the console’s reputation of locking games to users’ accounts which frustratingly required constant server authentication. The way the Xbox One operated was seen as anti-consumer and a backlash was formed.
Despite this rocky start, the Xbox One had some of the greatest software in gaming history. Their amazing lineup included fun games like Prey, Fallout 4, Titanfall, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Wolfenstein: The New Order, Ori and the Blind Forest, Cuphead, BioWare’s Mass Effect: Andromeda and Dragon Age: Inquisition, Capcom’s Monster Hunter World and Devil May Cry 5, Square Enix’s Final Fantasy XV and Kingdom Hearts III, UbiSoft’s Far Cry 4, Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption 2, FromSoftware’s Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, Insomniac Games’ Sunset Overdrive and Double Fine’s Psychonauts 2 as well as popular entries in the Halo, Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty, Gears of War, Forza and Assassin’s Creed series.
Perhaps to remedy the rocky situation with consumers, Microsoft later came out with two other versions of the Xbox One: Xbox One S and Xbox One X. Xbox One S featured 4K video support and HDR, and Xbox One X had better hardware that supported 4K resolution. Microsoft branded Xbox One X as the world’s most powerful console, which was accurate. It had shorter load times, 4K graphics and great performance. Microsoft always was the best when it came to sheer horsepower. Plus the Xbox One X consisted of enhanced versions of first-party games like Killer Instinct, Gears of War 4, Halo 5: Guardians and ReCore and a third-party lineup that was even greater, including Assassin’s Creed Origins, Call of Duty: WWII, Middle-Earth: Shadow of War and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus. In addition to its great software, the Xbox One X also doubled as an Ultra HD Blu-ray player.
The last Xbox consoles to come out were the Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S which were released in 2020. The Xbox Series X supports 8K resolution and 120-frames-per-second rendering, and the cheaper Xbox One S has less graphic processing power, but both consoles share the same software and perform impressively, with real-time ray-tracing and fast texture streaming rates, as well as backwards compatibility with Xbox One games and all the Xbox and Xbox 360 games that the Xbox One is backwards compatible with.
These consoles have had a healthy life with excellent support from some of the best video game developers in the industry, but Microsoft has given hints to their future with Xbox and it isn’t necessarily tied to the console market. Microsoft’s first-party game publisher used to be named Microsoft Studios, but they changed their name to Xbox Game Studios as a way to leverage the Xbox brand beyond consoles to just gaming in general which includes PC and mobile gaming. Xbox head Phil Spencer even stated that he saw Nintendo and Sony as less competition than cloud services like Amazon and Google.
But Xbox Game Studios is currently still very invested in console gaming. The studio has become such a major player in the industry thanks to the popularity of consoles like Xbox 360 and services like Xbox Network that they own many of the studios behind some of their most successful properties, including 343 Industries (who currently develops Halo after the departure of Bungie), The Coalition (Gears of War), Double Fine (Psychonauts), Mojang Studios (Minecraft), Rare (Banjo-Kazooie), World’s Edge (Age of Empires) and ZeniMax Media the holding company that owns several more game developers like Bethesda Game Studios (The Elder Scrolls, Fallout), id Software (Doom), MachineGames (Wolfenstein) and Arkane Studios (Dishonored, Prey).