On March 10, 2000 at the San Jose Civic Auditorium in San Jose, California, Bill Gates, Microsoft's Chairman and Chief Software Architect, wasted little time in getting to the point: the company would be releasing a new platform that promised to take users in "directions that we can't even imagine." The platform? The not-so-secretive Xbox, the working name of the company's first console game system, scheduled for release in the fourth quarter of 2001.
Microsoft's vision, according to Gates, is to "empower people through great software -- any time, any place and any device." Citing the steady growth in games over the years (an estimated 200 million games sold in 1999 alone), Gates explained how a platform such as the Xbox can succeed in the marketplace by offering new opportunities for gaming. He continued to show how far Microsoft and the industry as a whole had come by comparing the technology of two games: 1981's Olympic Decathlon (Microsoft's first game) and Digital Anvil's Freelancer (published by Microsoft in 2000).
Gates' speech helped illustrate the reason why Microsoft decided to enter the console gaming market in the first place: the rapid rise in technology coupled with the decline in costs allowed them a "window" of opportunity. The air was not initially filled with optimism, however. When Bill Gates was approached with the idea in late 1998, he was concerned whether or not the Xbox could be twice as good as something already out there. After learning about the proposed features it would have, Gates' initial concerns were alleviated and the project began the process of becoming a reality.
The Xbox, despite rumors to the contrary, would not simply be an extension of the company's PC experience wrapped up in a console. There will be no load times, no software installation, no device conflicts and no worrying about meeting the minimum system requirements. But this isn't your typical console system, either. A number of innovations were announced to make it stand out from not only the current batch of consoles, including the Dreamcast and PlayStation 2, but from every console produced before it.
The platform has a custom 733MHz Intel CPU along with a Microsoft/NVIDIA-designed GPU capable of performing more than one trillion operations per second. This frees the CPU to do other things rather than being bogged down with polygons or textures. The throughput also promises to deliver photo-realism in terms of visual quality, and Gates himself beamed that the technology is three generations better than the latest graphics chip out on the market (as of March 2000).
Sound was also major focus for the Xbox, as consoles were perceived by Microsoft to have failed in seizing the opportunity to offer high-quality audio for users. In a concerted effort to address this, the Xbox will have a 64-voice I3DL2 audio processor that promises to deliver movie-like sound. Memory, the bane of most console systems, was targeted as well: the platform will ship with 64MB of unified memory with a 200 MHz bandwidth to the CPU. The most intriguing feature, however, was the fact that all Xbox consoles will come equipped with an 10GB hard drive.
Other than Nintendo's 64DD console add-on for the Nintendo 64 (available only in Japan), gamers have not had the ability to save large amounts of data or experience new level add-ons, characters or similar enhancements. Now sports games can offer detailed statistical tracking, meaningful career modes and endless roster updates. Persistent online role-playing games can offer new worlds and dynamic updates that are so necessary to keep users from being bored. In addition, the hard drive will also allow for unique gameplay experiences no one has even considered yet.
The console system will have four built-in controller ports making use of USB connections, but the nature of the game pads or peripherals have yet to be determined. Microsoft's SideWinder group is said to be working on the controllers, but it is unknown how many buttons they will have or what innovations they will bring to the table, if any.
The Xbox was designed to be developer friendly with a broad set of tools provided by the company and the same level of support experienced by PC developers. The operating system will be a kernel of Windows 2000, meaning the OS will be streamlined to take advantage of the fact that the Xbox is a console system only; there's no need for features such as Plug and Play, for example, on a dedicated machine.
The rest of the features are as follows: a custom A/V connector that has been designed to support a resolution beyond HDTV, a 10/100 Mbps built-in Ethernet port to take advantage of broadband technology, an expansion port that will be used for a 56K modem add-on (the unit will not ship with a modem), and a 4X DVD drive with movie playback. The hardware will not be manufactured by Microsoft directly, and it is uncertain what the Xbox will look like at this stage of the game.
While the Xbox remains to be seen, all initial signs are positive. Electronic Arts has agreed to publish titles on the system, and the rest of the publishers reads as a who's who list in the gaming industry: Eidos Interactive, Infogrames, Fox Interactive, Activision, Capcom, Hasbro Interactive, Konami, Sierra On-Line, Midway, Bungie, Acclaim, Koei, THQ, Ubi Soft, Take 2 Interactive and Lionhead Studios.
The strong backing by key publishers is very encouraging for third-party support, as is the financial resources of Microsoft, who can afford to get behind the system and aggressively market it to compete with the rest of the console systems. Of course, a number of questions must still be answered.
Will dedicated console users take to an unfamiliar company (at least in the console market) as a source for their gaming needs? It may be hard to sway an audience comfortable with the names Sega, Nintendo and Sony in their living rooms. And yet, the PlayStation proved you don't necessarily need to have an established console history as long as the games are there. And these games will be extremely important, as the company has targeted the traditional console audience between the ages 16-27, rather than older PC users.
Another question is whether or not the market can support three console systems, let alone four. History has shown time and time again that users gravitate toward two platforms, leaving the others to wither and wilt away. Can the Dreamcast, Xbox, PlayStation 2 and Gamecube all peacefully coexist and be profitable? It's doubtful.
Perhaps the biggest question is whether the system can meet its scheduled release date. After all, the hardware must be finalized, the development kits must be released and developers must start working on delivering content. The process to sign-on with the XBox involves getting on the DirectX 8 SDK list and e-mailing Microsoft at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Microsoft has created a games division (www.microsoft.com/games) dedicated to supporting the Xbox system, and their goal is to publish approximately one-third of the titles themselves. The number of expected launch titles is unknown at this time, but Microsoft is committed to delivering a balance of genres that emphasize quality and depth. Since two-thirds of the games must come from third-party companies, they are key to the Xbox's success in the market. ~ Scott Alan Marriott, All Game Guide