Where did the original Xbox innovation go?
As you probably already know, yesterday the reveal event for the next Microsoft console, Xbox One, took place. But I want to take a step back and ask this question: where did the original Xbox innovation go?
This topic has been puzzling me for quite some time. When Microsoft entered the console crowd back in 2001, it faced an extremely hard task: fighting for a place in an industry with two giants, Sony’s PlayStation 2 – who had already been launched more than a year before – and Nintendo‘s GameCube. Both companies were very well-known to the public and had ties everywhere in the gaming industry, from developers to retailers. And yet, despite some inevitable hurdles, the Xbox brand eventually succeeded and thrived throughout the years, so much that Xbox 360, the original Xbox successor, was able to cut heavily into its archenemy, PlayStation 3: the latest sales reports tell us that the two consoles are pretty much even at 77 million pieces; for comparison, PlayStation 2 sold 155 million consoles and the original Xbox around 24 millions.
Now, make no mistake: this triumph didn’t exactly descend upon Microsoft. As any good farmer would tell you, it’s all a matter of sowing in the right way and then harvesting the results, and Microsoft planted a great seed with the original Xbox. The platform was the most powerful of all consoles; it had some amazing features like the ability (in some games) to play your favourite songs, thanks to the built-in hard drive, and of course Xbox Live was a terrific innovation.
At a time when online gaming on consoles was something closer to a dream rather than reality (Dreamcast had more than decent online capabilities, but by the time the Xbox launched worldwide it was already dead), Xbox Live proved to be the necessary step forward and one that hardcore gamers wholeheartedly approved. I remember being excited by its features, from the unique Gamertag (even PC online services had no such a thing, with Steam following about a year later) to the friends list, but perhaps the single most important one was the voice chat, enabled in all games. This allowed the development of an online community, leading to the creation of websites, forums, clans and groups solely dedicated to play together (or against each other) on Xbox Live.
I can testify personally, as I was part of this from the beginning. This vision enticed me and not only I participated with great pleasure in some fantastic multiplayer matches and tournaments while being the leader of my clan, but I also met some fantastic people who would later become my friends. My associate in the Worlds Factory project, Stefano Modena, is one of these: I remember fondly our sessions in Rainbow Six 3, which were full of laughs and yielded a lot of fun for us. There were many games, however, and the exclusive roster was nothing short of stellar, with several games portraying the unique “ONLY ON XBOX” branding on their cover: Halo, which single-handedly carried the Xbox flag and opened a new era for console shooters; Project Gotham Racing; Dead or Alive; Ninja Gaiden; Fable; Otogi; Panzer Dragoon Orta; Forza Motorsport; Crimson Skies; Steel Battalion; Jade Empire; Oddworld: Stranger’s Wrath; and again Amped, Top Spin, Rallisport Challenge, Kingdom Under Fire…
Not to mention those games that were ported from the PC thanks to the hardware’s affinity with personal computers, and never appeared on the competing consoles of that generation: Moto GP, The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (1&2), Doom III, Half Life 2, Deus Ex: Invisible War, The Chronicles of Riddick, Sid Meier’s Pirates and many others.
The bottom line is that the first Xbox allowed unique gaming experiences. Granted, PlayStation 2 and GameCube both featured masterpieces of their own, but these games on Xbox were objectively superior in terms of graphics and/or online capabilities, often both. As a result, most hardcore gamers couldn’t but embrace the Xbox brand, at a time when mainstream barely even knew what that name meant.
Recently, however, Microsoft seems to have lost that way of innovation.
Xbox Live is no longer at the forefront of online gaming; in fact, many would argue that the premium Xbox Live Gold fee isn’t justifiable anymore, since PlayStation Network is free and almost bridged the features gap, and there are many free services like Steam, Origin and others on PC which enable similar or more advanced features. Even MMORPGs on PC are abandoning the fee requirement with the Free-to-Play revolution, and these games offer dedicated servers and constant streams of new content, whereas most of the titles on Xbox Live are still based on peer-to-peer technology.
The high impact exclusives, called killer applications back in the day, slowly dwindled and in the mean time Sony upped their game by building a world class roster of first party titles like Uncharted, Infamous, Heavy Rain, God of War, Motorstorm, Killzone, Resistance, Littlebigplanet, and soon The Last of Us and Beyond: Two Souls. Overall, it does not seem like Microsoft is pushing the boundaries of gaming anymore, but rather pursuing other roads, such as reaching out the traditional audience with tools like Kinect and the promise of the ultimate multimedia device. We all saw the presentation of Xbox One yesterday, and it involved a lot more TV than gaming – even going as far as announcing a Halo live action TV series with Steven Spielberg working on it.
I love TV series, and this could be incredibly cool, but what does it have to do with Xbox One? The only Xbox One exclusives shown were Forza Motorsport 5, which looked pretty good, and Quantum Break from Remedy Entertainment. Now, knowing Remedy’s track record I am faithful it will be a great game, but yesterday’s trailer was so and so at best. Then we were treated with some video montage of EA Sports games and eventually Call of Duty: Ghosts, and all these games will appear on every possible platform on the planet, yet Microsoft announced with pride some DLC exclusives.
There was a time when Microsoft didn’t announce DLC exclusives, but rather big, innovative titles that often couldn’t be found anywhere else. Now, they did say that the new console will get 15 exclusives in its first year, but for all we know they could be all XBLA games. Of course, I’d love to hear much different things coming E3, but for now it’s unsurprising to read the opinions of dissatisfied gamers all around the Web. The first round can safely be claimed by Sony, whose first unveiling was all about games, and its PlayStation 4 that already received so much praise from developers all over the industry.
Microsoft should tread carefully: while it is understandable for them to try and reach a larger audience, hardcore gamers are very vocal and rarely forgiving; on the other hand, mainstream users are a lot more volatile, as Nintendo is discovering with their WiiU console, and it would be wise to go back to some the old traditions of the original Xbox.