I want to preface this article by saying it is equal parts self-reflection, Xbox brand history, and Xbox Live history. I have been gaming since the early 1980s, have owned more games, consoles, and PC components than I can count, and have been a part of several fantastic gaming communities over the years. However, the Xbox brand and consoles hold a special place in that gaming history for a number of reasons primarily of which is Xbox Live. As I reflected on the 15th anniversary of the Xbox late last year, and now the 15th anniversary of Xbox Live, I felt it was time to pay homage. If you’d like to understand a piece of why the Xbox brand is special to some and why it’s important to the gaming industry, or simply care to indulge me for some strange reason, please read on.
A Brief History of the Original Xbox and Xbox Live
By the late 1990s, the cartridge-based Nintendo 64 had lost Nintendo its top spot in the industry, Sony’s PlayStation had earned the market share lead, and Sega was preparing to launch what would become their final console in the Dreamcast. Forward thinking at the time, the Dreamcast would offer online play using a 56K modem over their platform “SegaNet” shortly after launch. As I lined up on 9/9/99 to pick up my Dreamcast (admittedly in a line that I wish was much longer), my excitement for the console, particularly the online component, was palpable.
I had grown up with the early internet and online gaming, and was fascinated by the possibilities. I built my first PC in 1994 after seeing Doom for the first time, and later modified it with a NIC card to be able to connect to the internet via a blazing fast 14.4K modem. My early experiences with games like Ultima Online, Quake, Command & Conquer, and many more, while laughable today, built the foundation for my love of online gaming. While I adored those games, it’s fair to say I had my fair share of problems running them consistently given the complications of the early online experience.
So, a few years later when the Dreamcast was the first console to offer the capability to connect to the internet for online multiplayer, I was fascinated. Gamers fondly remember titles like NFL2K1, Quake 3 Arena, and Phantasy Star Online, but sadly SegaNet was short lived. As has been well documented, the PlayStation 2 released in 2000 and was essentially the death knell for the Dreamcast. While the PlayStation 2 was a fantastic system in its own right, and included advanced technology like a DVD drive at launch, online capability was not at the forefront of Sony’s design methodology for the PlayStation 2.
A year later in 2001 we saw the release of not one, but two consoles. Arriving first on November 15th was the Microsoft Xbox; Microsoft’s first foray into the console market. Just three days later on November 18th, Nintendo launched the Gamecube; Nintendo’s first console to feature an optical drive. While the Xbox was the newcomer and had no known AAA franchises out of the gate, it did have a few things going for it. It was the most powerful console when it released. It was the first console to have an internal hard drive. It supported HD output in 720 via component cables, 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, and had an Ethernet port. Oh, it also launched with this small, unknown title named “Halo : Combat Evolved” that seemed to be getting rave reviews.
The story behind Microsoft entering the console space and the Xbox’s development is fascinating (I highly recommend reading Opening the Xbox by Dean Takahashi), but it’s the Ethernet port and hard drive’s significance that I want to focus on for this article. You see, thanks to some visionaries within Microsoft, they had already been building the backbone to Xbox Live prior to the Xbox’s launch. Given the state of the console market at that time, this proved to be very forward thinking. The Dreamcast was dying out and simply couldn’t compete with the other three, Nintendo had zero focus on online play, and the PlayStation 2 wasn’t built with it in mind. This gave Microsoft a distinct advantage in that despite being the newcomer, they could offer features nobody else could. They wanted to provide fluid online gaming via the broadband connections that were beginning to blossom in the market, while also allowing players to download additional content for their games via the internal hard drive, neither of which had been done with a console before. While this wasn’t a play at a large percentage of the gaming market at the time, and they were criticized for restricting players to broadband connections only, it spoke heavily to early adopters like myself who couldn’t wait to get their hands on this new capability.
It’s important to remember the time period here. Online gaming was used by very few people at the time. Social media as we know it today and the smartphones we primarily access it with, were non-existent. Broadband was inaccessible to the vast majority of the world and even the people who had access to it, weren’t readily subscribing to it. In fact by all accounts, Bill Gates himself was hesitant to agree to the Xbox being broadband only. So when a newcomer in Microsoft enters the gaming industry and says “This is the future and we’re providing it to you now”, people for right or wrong, were skeptical.
Microsoft showcased Xbox Live during the 2002 E3 Conference and began beta testing with players in mid-2002. I was fortunate enough to be part of the initial wave of testers and still remember the excitement I felt when I first received my kit. While it may seem trivial today, first booting up a game, entering multiplayer, and speaking to other players with live chat felt revolutionary. From that moment on, I was completely hooked on online play and wanted to experience as much of it as I could.
On November 15, 2002, the one year anniversary of the Xbox’s launch, Microsoft officially launched Xbox Live as a service. The Starter Kit was $49.99 and included 12 months of the service, the Xbox Live Communicator (chat headset), and a disc of software to sample including the full title Revolt! (which peculiarly enough was never officially released). Epic’s Unreal Championship was one of the flagship titles for the service along with 1st party sports games and over the next year, Microsoft released fan favorites like Crimson Skies, Mech Assault, and Project Gotham Racing 2. By mid-2004, Xbox Live membership had grown to over one million users, but it was the launch of Halo 2 in the Fall of 2004 that would turn the world upside down.
Halo 2 launched on November 9th, 2004 and ignited what many believe to the online FPS phenomenon on consoles. Halo 2 was the most played game on Xbox Live for years, was the best-selling game on the original Xbox, and is still talked about fondly whenever early online gaming is mentioned. It introduced the concept of matchmaking and online lobbies, and in my opinion, is one of the few truly seminal titles for the industry. To this day I, along with many others, reflect on late nights playing Halo 2 online with friends. Today, tens of millions of players, on multiple platforms, play competitive online games daily using parties, playlists, and matchmaking. It was Xbox Live and Halo 2 that introduced these features thus changing the landscape of online gaming forever. It is also credited with more than doubling the membership of Xbox Live in less than a year after its launch.
The Xbox 360 and the Digital Revolution
While the original Xbox built the foundation, and Halo 2 ignited the flame, it was Live on the Xbox 360 that truly took online console gaming to the next level. When it launched on November 22nd, 2005, the Xbox 360 introduced the concept of a connected console as it was designed for “online awareness” for its players from the outset. This included the Gamertag and friends lists that were already present on the original Xbox, but added Achievements and a free version of Xbox Live thus allowing all users to be connected at a base level. The idea of connecting all users to Xbox Live as an integrated part of the Xbox 360 UI was revolutionary, and over the course of the next several years, the teams at Xbox led the way with innovations that we take for granted today.
In 2006, paid downloadable content for games and renting digital movies were features offered to Xbox Live members. It was the first time either had been done on a console. It’s hard to believe it’s been 11 years since the famous horse armor debacle with Elder Scrolls Oblivion, yet reflecting on that time is illuminating. The sheer concept of being able to purchase digital goods with real money was again, not something that many agreed with initially. Yet it is now a fundamental aspect of how AAA games are designed.
Growth of Xbox Live continued into 2007 and by the Fall, two major titles launched that would ignite competitive gaming on the platform. Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4 : Modern Warfare launched just two months apart in the Fall of 2007 and each became a cultural phenomenon in their own right. They became the most played games on Live for years to come, sold tens of millions of copies, and brought worldwide exposure to competitive gaming on Xbox Live. In particular, Halo 3’s relationship with Major League Gaming paved the way for professional gaming on consoles. While I’m a Halo guy at heart, I have poured hundreds of hours into both titles and they are still put on a pedestal today by the gaming community as being some of the greatest shooters ever made.
That same year, Microsoft would add a Marketplace tab to the Xbox 360’s UI representing the first digital storefront on a game console. While a shell of the digital marketplaces we now interact with, it was another aspect of Xbox Live that was ahead of its time. Again, to put the time period in perspective, this is when Netflix was only just introducing streaming and Blockbuster Video was alive and well.
2008 introduced one of the most remembered and beloved additions to Xbox Live in the Summer of Arcade (or Winter of Arcade should you have been in the Southern Hemisphere). Indie developers, some utilizing the XNA toolset, had their titles spotlighted on Live with a new title releasing each week. This program gave us many now revered titles like Braid, Limbo, Castle Crashers, Shadow Complex, Bastion, Brothers : A Tale of Two Sons, and many more.
As the Live userbase continued to grow, and Microsoft’s vision of the connected world in your living room came to fruition, discussions began swirling around the next Xbox. It had been over 3 years since the launch of the Xbox 360 by this point and with the normal shelf life of a console running 4-5 years on average, people began to wonder what the future held. Of course, Microsoft already had plans for the next few years and they didn’t include new hardware. Rather, with so much new functionality being introduced to players through Live, Microsoft felt the platform had outgrown its original “Blades” user interface. They wanted to show players just how much content Live had to offer and to always make players feel as though there was something to do when connected. But most significantly, introducing a new UI wouldn’t require new hardware. Rather, this would be a software overhaul to introduce Xbox users to functionality that was either in development or already built. Enter NXE.
The New Xbox Experience, or NXE as its known, was introduced in 2008 with the goal of completely redefining how gamers interacted with their console. It offered a complete UI overhaul with a focus on the Live feature set and social aspects of the platform. It introduced avatars; customizable digital representations of you that would interact with specific games and Live features. Microsoft also came to an agreement with Netflix who foresaw digital streaming as the future of entertainment. Using your Xbox 360 you would merely launch an application and be able to watch movies using your game console.
“What we wanted to do with NXE was to go and create the sense that you’re a part of something bigger. Show you what people are doing. Show you all the different ways that you could be online and participating. We want to be Disneyland, not Coney Island, and NXE was the map of the park.”
I remember these days on the Xbox 360 with my friends very fondly. As someone who’s first console was an Atari 2600 nearly 30 years earlier, Microsoft had revolutionized what a game console was in just a matter of a few years. It was now my personal expectation that I would turn on my Xbox, see what my friends were doing, see what new content was available, and consume my preferred form of entertainment. The mindset of the connected console is something we don’t even think about anymore, but to say it was thrilling when it all first came together would be a tremendous understatement.
The next few years would see an expansion of everything Microsoft had built up to that point. They would introduce customizable avatars with paid items in 2009, again something seen as absurd at the outset. The use of avatars was then expanded to both apps and games. This included being able to watch movies with friends over Live using your avatars, tens of games integrating avatars in various ways, and even the first live game show to be run on a console in the beloved (and missed) 1 vs. 100. The growth of digital streaming and digital game downloads continued to expand as well and by 2011, deals also began to take shape to allow live TV to be viewed over Live.
Over the course of the platform’s eight years, Live on the Xbox 360 led the way with a number of firsts for the industry. At launch it introduced achievements which were later copied in various forms by PSN and Steam. It then introduced the first digital marketplace on console, streaming services, party chat, avatars, and a plethora of downloadable content. The impact of these advancements should not be understated and in my opinion firmly cement the Xbox 360 as one of the most important consoles of all-time.
By 2013, what originally began as a side project for a dedicated team of engineers, had surpassed 46 million global users. With the next Xbox hardware imminent, how would Microsoft continue to innovate in the online space? How could they leverage the power of their Azure server network? How could they capitalize on the success of the Xbox 360 by further expanding their reach into the living room and beyond? The Xbox One was designed to be the answer to those questions.
The Xbox One and the Future of the Connected Console
The mistakes made by Microsoft with the launch of the Xbox One in 2013 have been covered ad-nauseam. The prospect of the fully connected living room console never came to fruition and the gamble with Kinect led to a hole the Xbox team is still digging out of (though given the state of Amazon Echo and Google Home I may write an article in the future of what could have been). However, despite those mis-steps, continual improvements have been made by the Xbox team(s) to Live as a platform specifically. Part of the initial vision for Xbox One still exists and the Live Engineering Team continues to expand the feature set of the platform in significant ways.
For the Xbox One, all user data would be stored “in the cloud” thus allowing digital content ownership to exist beyond hardware and without limitation. While this was implemented to a small degree near the end of the Xbox 360’s life cycle, it was still in its infancy at the time. From the outset, the Xbox One was built with the design in mind and thus it would be standard for all users. Using your Live account, you would always have access to all of your purchased content no matter where you were or what Xbox One console you logged into. Given the rise of not only digital media, but digital game downloads industry wide, this was a logical next step.
Windows 10 then launched in 2015 and laid the foundation for the future of the platform. While the Xbox One was designed at a time when Windows 8 was still in service, migrating the platform to a Windows 10 backbone would prove hugely beneficial in a number of areas and open the door to additional features unique to Xbox Live users.
The offering of those features to Live members began rolling out in 2016 and continues to be expanded and refined. One of the most popular features, Play Anywhere, is a service that allows you to purchase a digital license for a title that grants access to both the Xbox and PC. With the unified account over Live, you can play a game on the Xbox, move to PC, and back as often as you like with no loss of progress. It’s a fantastic value and convenience for players who like to game on both console and PC.
Microsoft has also been pushing crossplay between platforms with a few titles already allowing Xbox and PC players to play together. Taking it one step further, they are even opening the door for players on other consoles like the Switch to play Minecraft, Rocket League, and potentially more titles in the future together. Developers have been hugely supportive of the effort with companies like Psyonix applauding Microsoft’s efforts in the area. For games like Rocket League, why segregate the community when they could just as easily all play together regardless of the console they log in with?
Further along the lines of platform cohesiveness, features like Looking for Group and Arena offer unique ways to connect and compete with fellow Live members. Looking for Group allows you to search for players who are playing the same game and may want to group up for a multiplayer match or to accomplish a goal in co-op. It essentially acts as matchmaking in self-service form and has been a beloved addition to the platform. Arena meanwhile offers the capability to setup tournament play through Live directly. Want to create your own Injustice 2 tournament bracket with people all over Live? Arena lets you do just that.
However, the most applauded recent addition to Live and the Xbox platform as a whole, has been backwards compatibility. Initially unveiled during Microsoft’s E3 conference in 2015, hundreds of Xbox 360 titles are now playable on the Xbox One either by disc or digital download and are fully intact, with many titles still supporting their multiplayer components. The program was expanded further earlier this year at E3 2017, when Microsoft announced that some original Xbox games would become playable on the Xbox One as well. Most impressive however, is that they would even be capable of recognizing the original Xbox discs. The ability for a gaming console to play three generations worth of titles on a single platform is yet another first for the industry.
With so many games available and the community being so connected, game streaming has become extremely popular over the past few years resulting in Twitch growing into a very large player in the industry. Not only was game streaming via console first available on the Xbox One, but Microsoft recently acquired a new player in the market named Beam. Now re-branded Mixer, they introduced low-latency streaming so that viewers could spectate, or even participate, in near real-time. As Mixer is a Microsoft property, native integration into Live was later introduced allowing users to begin streaming their gameplay in mere seconds. Better yet, the capability to co-stream with up to 3 friends was also introduced thus allowing viewers to watch an entire party’s gameplay via a single stream.
Innovation on the platform isn’t restricted solely to competitive or cooperative online play however. Earlier this year, Microsoft introduced Xbox Game Pass which has been heralded as the “Netflix for Games”. By subscribing to a monthly membership, you are granted access to over 100 titles that you can download and play endlessly. Different from a streaming service, Game Pass functions as if you had purchased the digital license for the game directly, thus allowing you to download and play offline without any bandwidth concerns that traditional streaming services suffer from. And just like other subscription services, new titles are added monthly. While the service is still in its infancy, the potential for it is vast. It wouldn’t surprise me to see full game launches or episodic content offered through the service in the future given what we’ve seen in the TV and movie space.
This console generation is only four years old and we’ve already seen a tremendous shift in feature set and capabilities between launch and now. Given the breadth of capability and services offered by the Xbox platform, it feels strange to even refer to it as a “video game console” nowadays, though it’s clear that our expectations of what that represents have completely changed over the past 15 years. Given the expanding boundaries of what the platform offers, and the architecture of modern consoles, it’s no surprise we are beginning to see a shift in the typical console generational cycle as well.
Xbox One X and the Future
The Xbox One X has just arrived and represents the most powerful console ever created. The development teams worked under the mantra of “There is no power greater than X” just as the original Xbox team did many years ago, and it certainly has proven to be the case. Beyond being the most powerful console ever created by a significant margin, it also supports AMD Freesync, HDMI 2.1, and Dolby Atmos. While Atmos is now available on all Xbox Ones, the Xbox One X is the first and only console to support Freesync and HDMI 2.1. It is reminiscent in some ways of the forward thinking represented within the original Xbox (which I wrote more about here ). And while it comes at a time when console generations as we know them are evolving, it is likely the most innovative piece of console engineering we’ve seen yet and will unquestionably expand the boundaries of development for the next Xbox and PlayStation.
As we move into 2018, the future is very bright for not only the video game industry as a whole, but Xbox Live as a platform. Microsoft has led the way with innovations in this space for a long time now and given the current leadership within the company, and the renewed focus on the gaming market, I don’t see that changing any time soon. New Avatars will be delivered in the first half of 2018 which have been designed from the ground up to be hugely customizable and all-inclusive. Mixed Reality is beginning to arrive on Windows 10 now with the market expected to grow in 2018 and beyond. Esports are expanding exponentially and game streaming and sharing are doing the same.
The gaming industry as a whole is healthy, growing, and becoming more community driven than it has ever been. As we move into the next era of online connectivity in console gaming, it seems as though Microsoft, using Live as the backbone, is in an excellent position to capitalize most effectively. I’m just as excited as I was 15 years ago to be part of it as it unfolds.