If Backwards Compatibility has taught me anything, it’s that diving back into the warm waters of nostalgia is still a beautifully fulfilling endeavour. Plus, I’m clearly partial to a cheap game or two. Scrolling through the timeline, I can find many a moment in the Xbox lineage that brings a reminiscent sigh of content from within. It can be easy to forget where these happy thoughts emanated from, what with the pixel-perfect visuals and world maps twice the size of Aruba that come as standard these days. Cast your mind back to the late ‘90s, however, and it may all just come flooding back...
It’s 1999, a man is sat avidly working in his office when several of his colleagues decide to pay him a visit. These colleagues happen to be Seamus Blackley, Ted Hase, Kevin Bachus and Otto Berkes: members of the Microsoft DirectX team. With these gents came an idea and the man they had to pitch this idea to was Ed Fries: head of internal game publishing for Microsoft at the time. The idea? Make a games console, make it a PC, hide the operating system and call it the DirectX Box. Boom.
To say this was a bold move would be an understatement. Competitors within the market had seen success with consoles that ran their own, dedicated operating system and were doing very well. At surface level, the DirectX Box was little more than a PC in a box. A big box at that. Proposal in hand and hearts in mouths, the team pitched to the man himself, Bill Gates. Despite pitching against another internal team within the company who felt the tried and tested console design strategy was the way to go, Gates ultimately sided with Fries and co., primarily due to the team’s intention of using Windows for the OS. So, he wasn’t particularly thrilled when the team decided to remove Windows from the system. In an interview with IGN, Fries labelled that discussion with Bill the “Valentine’s Day Massacre” and “the weirdest meeting I’ve ever been in”. Rather you than me, buddy.
The Xbox brand is born… against the marketing team's wishes
Fortunately, for their health, Gates came to see the benefits. The final design specs meant that the console would not be able to port over PC titles quickly for launch, though did make it easier for third-party companies to build their game ports around the console’s architecture. Indeed, many of these creative titles are now household names, but we’ll get to that. First, they needed a name. The team took the simple route for the time being and went with ‘Xbox’, a shortening of its birth alias. The Microsoft marketing department had their own ideas about what the console should be called; a whole bunch in fact, as they wrote a considerable list of alternatives and sent them out to focus groups, including ‘Xbox’ as an example of exactly what you shouldn’t call a console. Well, as you might have guessed, the name resonated more than any other, leaving members of the marketing team with egg on their face and little choice but to go ahead with it. Fools! It’ll never catch on...
Concept locked; chin-scratching complete. Time to get to work. The team partnered with Nvidia to fill the console with specs that had jaws hitting floors. Here come the numbers – a 32-bit, 733 Intel Pentium III core processor. 64MB of RAM, doubling anything else currently on the market and even a built-in 8GB hard drive for game storage and saves; the first of its kind on console. The console even had the ability at launch to output at HD 1080i if need be, though many titles were unable to take advantage of this futuristic tech. A magnificent beast to say the least, but like any great system, you need a great controller, and that was an entirely different beast altogether...
The mantra of technology has changed little over time, with the general consensus still being ‘squeeze more into less’, and the Xbox was no different. Compare the original to its successors and you’ll see how sleek and streamlined the new models are despite sporting the crazy tech specs we see as normal today. For the time, the Xbox was quite impressive in its size/spec ratio, though the same could not be said for its launch controller, the Duke. It sported a generic design, with shoulder triggers and a diamond face button layout, but it was just so damn big.
Responding to questions on Twitter, Blackley was reminiscing about the Duke, stating that “the Dreamcast was our favourite console at the time, and it had a big controller that docked a tomagachi. So that made it seem less insane!” Fair point. The Duke particularly struggled in Japan, where the bulk of gamers had smaller hands than their Western counterparts and struggled to adapt. It was a tricky one, as apart from size, there really wasn’t anything wrong with the Duke at heart. From compromise, the ‘S’ controller was born, which received greater acceptance from the global audience. It may have been just too late for the console’s launch back across the pond, but there were still many who loved the Duke in all its chubby glory and now gamers had the gift of choice at their disposal. Funny how things work out.
The team behind Marathon enter a sprint
By this point, launch was rapidly approaching. This wasn’t a project that was afforded the luxury of time; in fact, the whole process from conception through to completion was within a rough two-year window. Not easy when the project has no prior tried-and-tested methods to reference. Gates announced the console at the Game Developers Conference in 2000 to a warm reception as he outlined plans for the Xbox to become the worldwide “platform of choice”. The only thing left to announce were the games, with most of this information coming at E3 2001. Alongside an assortment of classics such as Project Gotham Racing and Dead Or Alive 3 came the news that Microsoft had just acquired developers Bungie (a relatively low-profile studio at the time, whose 1994 Apple Mac shooter Marathon pioneered the concept of 'rocket jumping') and with them, a little-known IP called Halo.
For Microsoft to commit to a seemingly random third-party developer with such financial assurance certainly set tongues wagging worldwide. We’re talking millions of dollars here, so someone certainly had a lot of faith. Faith that looked heavily misplaced, with Bungie initially receiving a lot of negative feedback from the media and a bunch of technical issues skewing confidence internally. The Bungie team were working tirelessly to transform Halo from a third-person PC build into an Xbox exclusive FPS space romp, the likes of which the gaming world had never seen.
As launch approached and the world began to see more of the concept art, trailers and gameplay, confidence grew. The Xbox team ultimately opted to push newly titled Halo: Combat Evolved as the console’s flagship launch IP, creating one of the most impressive moments of gaming foresight in history. Upon release, Halo was everything. For me, it’s as key in the launch of Xbox as the console itself. The two share not only a birthdate, but a level of awe and wonder they brought to those lucky enough to experience them.
The world received its first glimpse of the console at CES 2001 in Las Vegas, with Gates welcoming Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson on stage because, well, he’s The Rock. The previously mentioned E3 announcement had fans foaming at the mouth and initial concerns about the console’s size and design fell by the wayside. On November 15th 2001, Gates personally sold the first ever Xbox console in a Toys ‘R’ Us in Times Square, beginning a mass surge of sales, with more than 1 million consoles selling in the first month. Halo matched these figures after only a few months in circulation.
How many classic Xbox games can you remember?
From here on out, the memories will likely take over for many. You had this machine in front of you running these games with incredible visuals and scope. Plant Halo in your disk tray and you were suddenly in this huge, 3D-mapped world flinging Warthogs off the highest cliff face you could find and planting the butt of your assault rifle into an Elite who just emerged from a hangar filled with a hive of other AI characters. It was another world and it set the bar for the modern shooter of today. Heck, it is the shooter of today. You can see the mark of these early Xbox titles upon many of the games you’ll have glimpsed in this issue, and how that influence has helped shape the console space over the past 16 years.
Post-launch, the Xbox carved its own place into gaming history with relative ease. In 2002, the acquisition of development heavyweights RARE began the start of a budding partnership that’s still going strong to this day, what with swashbuckling MMO Sea Of Thieves on the horizon later this year. Shortly following the announcement, the online service teased at launch was finally revealed and made available for testing: Xbox Live. Gamers could now play and communicate with others for the first time in the comfort of their own living room, creating something truly special: an interactive global gaming community. By just 2004, there were more than 100 online-enabled titles and 1 million global users on Xbox.
The games and systems under the Xbox umbrella have grown to a mind-bending level of sophistication and it all came from a few guys back in the late ‘90s. Sure, you might look at the characters from these earlier Xbox titles now and wonder how anyone could be so impressed with polygonal models and cheekbones sharp enough to cut limes on. But it was, and indeed is, the soul of gaming. I might just go dust off the old beaut now. Now, where is my Duke? I mean, how have I possibly lost that?
This article originally appeared in Xbox: The Official Magazine. For more great Xbox coverage, you can subscribe here.