Evolution of the Xbox: Microsoft's Console Through the Ages

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Like the marque of a classic car, the Xbox brand has been emblazoned across three successive generations of gaming hardware -- the Xbox, Xbox 360 and Xbox One. We can still remember playing on the original Xbox, that first glorious rush of Halo, and then discovering indie classics like Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved on the Xbox 360. And in a short while, the Xbox One hits the shops and opens a new chapter in gaming history.

The time is ripe for a retrospective on the Xbox family as a whole, running from the original to the 360 to the One, where we can ruminate about the design, market performance and key titles of each. Though some of this is too early for the One, obviously, it helps to put the new console in the context of its predecessors, and to emphasise how different and necessary the Xbox brand is to modern gaming.

 

Xbox

Launched: 2001
Units Sold: 24 million
Key Titles: Halo: Combat Evolved, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell, Project Gotham Racing, Dead or Alive 3, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Fable, Ninja Gaiden, Jet Set Radio Future

The original Xbox prototype was cobbled together from laptop components and ran a modified version of the Windows 2000 operating system. It was pitched by Microsoft engineers as a "DirectX Box", named after the DirectX graphics technology developed for PC gaming. Shortened to Xbox, this contender for the sixth-generation console crown entered a crowded ring alongside the Sony PlayStation 2, the Nintendo GameCube, and the Sega Dreamcast. The big green machine was facing an uphill struggle from the outset.

So what set the Xbox apart? More importantly, what kept it afloat? Several things; it was the first games console to feature a hard drive, which removed the need for costly memory cards to save a game (although these were still available, to transfer saves between consoles). It was also the first console to have a built-in ethernet port as standard. Combined with a broadband connection and an annual subscription to Xbox Live, gamers were offered a steady and reliable online experience like no other.

But perhaps the most important thing, the console's killer app, was a little game called Halo. Developed by Bungie, the first-person shooter with epic production values and finely balanced gameplay was a massive hit, and the first game and its sequel were a compelling reason to invest in an Xbox. Other exclusive titles like Fable and Knights of the Old Republic helped to bolster its reputation further.

 

Xbox 360

Released: 2005
Units Sold: 80 million
Key Titles: Gears of War, Halo 3, Left 4 Dead, Crackdown, Mass Effect, Blue Dragon, The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, Bioshock, Portal, Viva Pinata, Braid, Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved

The games market was a significantly different place in 2005. Sega had abandoned the hardware market entirely, making it a three-horse race between Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft, and each company released their seventh-generation consoles based on divergent strategies.

The Nintendo Wii went hard for the casual market with a motion control scheme that was charming but idiosyncratic. The Sony PlayStation 3 aimed for the luxury high-end market, packing a Blu-ray drive and SACD audio components that sent its price spiralling skywards. Which left the Microsoft Xbox 360 to focus on what it knew its customers actually wanted: hardcore gaming. The Xbox Live service was expanded and refined, and the console bundles were aggressively priced to sell.

It wasn't plain sailing at the outset; the early builds of the 360 were plagued by hardware failures caused by overheating, and the "Red Ring of Death" was a common experience. But a series of hit titles like Gears of War, Mass Effect and Left 4 Dead, not to mention the continuation of the Halo and Fable franchises, helped to calm the waters. Another source of buzz was the indie game market that flourished on Xbox Marketplace, where titles like Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved and Braid found a huge audience.

The hardware was redesigned several times, with a long list of available peripherals. A HD-DVD drive could be added, for instance, when the format wars were not yet settled in favour of Blu-Ray. But perhaps the most significant add-on was Kinect, a sensor that enabled users to control and interact with their 360 without a controller, simply by using gestures and voice commands. Released in 2010, it sold a total of 8 million units within 60 days of launch.

 

Xbox One

Released: 2013
Numbers Sold: ???
Key Titles: Ryse: Son of Rome, Dead Rising 3, Titanfall, Forza Motorsport 5, Project Spark

The Xbox One hasn't hit the shops yet, but there's plenty to be chewing over. Continuing the evolution of the brand, it will directly compete with offerings from Sony and Nintendo as part of the eighth generation of video game consoles. Early press reports have described the console as an all-in-one gaming and entertainment system, cementing its place in the living room as a home media and TV platform.

Pop the bonnet of the console and you'll find a dizzying array of technical specs, built around a custom 1.75 GHz AMD 8 core APU, a 500 GB hard drive, and 8 GB of RAM. Microsoft engineers have stated that games are capable of running at 4k resolution with 7.1 surround sound, and that the console is able to monitor internal temperatures and adjusting the cooling where necessary.

The Xbox One also places an increasing emphasis on entertainment and integration with Kinect. It has the option to use an existing set-top box to watch live television programming, which with time will be augmented by an enhanced program guide with support for voice commands. There's also a built-in Skype client and improved second screen support.

But as always, the proof is in the pudding. Whilst the feature set is impressive, and the launch line-up of Ryse, Dead Rising 3 and Forza Motorsport 5 is strong, the big question is whether gamers will embrace the Xbox One with the same enthusiasm as they did the Xbox and Xbox 360. Microsoft have developed some formidable expertise in the games industry, and it'll be interesting to see if they can win over the hearts and minds of the gaming community for the third time in a row.