Bill Gates, Chairman and Chief Software Architect of Microsoft stands in New York’s Times Square with the new Xbox video game system. Photo by Jeff Christensen Click for a larger image. (300dpi)
REDMOND, Wash, Nov. 13, 2001 — The line began forming eight hours before the doors of the temporary gaming arena opened inside the Universal City Walk mall. Soon, the queue stretched around a large retail store and into the parking lot. Among the more than 300 people in the human chain, some planned to skip work or school the next day. A few diehards brought pillows and wore backpacks with a change of clothing — all for the first opportunity to experience Xbox before it hit stores.
Microsoft staged a pair of 48-hour, non-stop Xbox Unleashed events — complete with blaring rock music, big-name DJs and free food — earlier this month in Universal City, Calif. and in Midtown Manhattan to give gamers a preview of the company’s new gaming system. Before the doors closed, more than 5,000 people went out of their way to try what many already consider the future of gaming.
If so, the future is here. After two years of research and development, Microsoft unleashes Xbox to gamers across North America this week. Xbox arrived on store shelves with specs — including a built-in hard disk, and a high-speed Ethernet port and three processors (one each for central, graphics and media processing) — unmatched by any other home console and a list of game developers and game titles that reads like a Who’s Who of video games.
And to ease the concerns of avid gamers, Microsoft predicts there will be plenty of games and systems available to keep Santa’s sleigh weighed down.
“Someone finally stepped up and made the box we wanted,” says Matthew Forys, a 25-year-old systems administrator and computer-store operator from Riverside, Calif., who was first in line at the Universal City event. “Xbox does what Microsoft said it would do. It’s stable. It’s powerful. It’s fast. It does multiplayer like no other console, and it is ready for online gaming. I can’t think of anything gamers want that is not in Xbox.”
Gamers, Game Developers Integral to Design of Xbox
It wasn’t by luck that Microsoft determined what to put in Xbox. The company, already a fixture in the PC and online gaming world, worked with gamers and game developers to ensure it was taking the right steps with Xbox. Microsoft asked thousands of gamers from around the world for input on everything from the design of the game controllers — there’s one for Japan and another for the rest of the world — to the length of the controller cord. It measures a whopping 9.5 feet (2.9 meters) — the longest of any console — to ensure it reaches from the entertainment center to the couch.
“Xbox was not invented by Microsoft in a vacuum,” says J Allard, general manager of Xbox Platform at Microsoft. “We went to the game-development community and asked, ‘What would you like to see in a video-game system if there were no limitations?’ We did the same with gamers. Xbox is a realization of this effort. It’s the system everyone has dreamed of. Xbox gives unbelievable power and freedom to game designers, allowing the designers to deliver unprecedented experience to gamers this holiday.”
In the case of Aaron Nicoletti, dreaming may be an understatement. The 18-year-old diehard gamer has been scouring the Internet for the past year looking for every scrap of information about Xbox.
“It is better than I could have possibly imagined,” says Nicoletti, who played Xbox games continuously for 16 hours at the Universal City event. “Every detail of the games is incredible. There’s so much detail, I find myself watching the background instead of the games. The movement of the characters is amazing. Everything is fluid. There’s no glitching, no frame rate lost.”
Forys was similarly impressed by the stability of the games running on Xbox. During his 48 hours of nearly constant game play and rotation of games at the Xbox Unleashed event, none of the systems or games that Forys tried crashed. Nor did he notice any degradation in the quality of the games when he and other gamers tried to push them beyond the limits they’ve become accustomed to on other consoles. “We were just pounding the games, trying to push them to the edge. Xbox handled it just great,” Forys said.
The quality and stability of game play on Xbox is the result of the system’s muscular specifications. In addition to the 233MHz, Nvidia-made graphics processing unit (the Xbox GPU) and Xbox media communications processor (Xbox MCP), the system includes a custom-designed Intel 733 MHz central processing unit (Xbox CPU), 64 megabytes of total memory and 256 audio channels.
Combined, Xbox specifications make it three times more powerful than any other gaming console. In particular, Xbox’s three processors share the duties, freeing the Xbox CPU to control the actions and movements — or “physics” — of characters and other on-screen elements. Other specifications make a difference individually. Xbox is the only gaming system with Dolby Digital Surround Sound and three-dimensional sound channels, creating the most realistic sound now possible in a video-game system. Xbox also is the only system that can be used to play games on high-definition televisions (HDTVs) and that offers parental controls built into the hardware.
Even more importantly for many gamers, Xbox is the only system with a built-in hard disk, which eliminates the need for action to stop while new gaming levels or scenes load from the DVD. Details of past sections of game play also are stored longer. If, for example, a gamer’s character leaves a mark on a wall during a battle, proceeds to another level of a fantasy world and then returns to the wall, the mark will still be there.
“By incorporating the hard drive into the console, Xbox redefines the gaming medium for designers,” Microsoft’s Allard says. “Xbox games will remember the player’s impact on the world around them, allow for the creation of vast worlds, and allow the gamer to customize their experience through the use of soundtracks. When the Xbox Online Experience goes live, the hard disk will enable scenarios like up-to-date sports statistics, ‘mission-of-the-week’ style gameplay, and new genres of gaming content.”
In addition, gamers can use the hard disk to store music and other media to make soundtracks for their games. And because the hard disk is built into every Xbox — and is not an add-on accessory, as with some game systems — game developers can design all aspects of their games to take advantage of the hard disk. “If the hard drive wasn’t built in, designers would be forced to write games for the lowest common denominator,” Allard says. “Developers who write for Xbox know every system is enabled and can fully utilize the potential of the awesome Xbox hardware.”
Xbox Ready for Online Gaming
Apart from the improved game play, what gamers most anticipate about Xbox are the ‘multiplayer capabilities and high-speed, online gaming, says Stephen Cameron, Web master for xboxaddict.com, one of about 20 independent Web sites for Xbox fans. He estimates that nearly half of the gamers who visit his site say they are yearning to try these features.
As many as four gamers can play on a single Xbox at one time — the most for any gaming system. Gamers also can directly link as many as eight Xbox systems, allowing as many as 32 gamers to compete at once. (Future games will likely support even more linked systems.) Microsoft designed the Ethernet port — which, unlike other consoles, comes standard, right out of the box — to allow gamers from opposite sides of the block or the globe to compete with no loss in gaming quality.
Cameron expects the online capabilities of Xbox to revolutionize video gaming. Although gamers could play online with their PCs, the technical requirements and network configurations made it too complicated for many.
“With Xbox you just plug it in,”
“It’s a lot easier, and it’s going to appeal to a lot more people.”
Microsoft brings more to the online gaming table than the built-in Ethernet port on Xbox, Cameron notes. The success of Microsoft’s online PC games and the MSN Gaming Zone bolster the company’s reputation and provide it a head start over the competition.
Since Xbox owners don’t have to buy an add-on networking peripheral, there’s no additional expense to be ready to play online, says John O’Rourke, Microsoft’s director of sales and marketing for Xbox. As with the built-in hard drive, developers can design all aspects of their Xbox games for online play, assured that every Xbox owner has the potential to take advantage of all the online features the developer builds into the game=.
Microsoft expects the first online games will be available for Xbox in the summer of 2002. That may be all the time that Forys needs to switch the online and multiplayer LAN gaming services he provides at his store, Ultimate PC Realm in Riverside, Calif., from PCs to Xbox. Along with the Xbox he has bought for his home, Forys plans to buy 10 for the store, based on what he’s read about the online potential of Xbox and the multiplayer gaming he experienced at Xbox Unleashed.
He plans to keep the PCs he already has in the store for students and others who use word processing. “For gaming purposes,” he said, “it won’t be too long before we are 100 percent Xbox.”
Ready Supply of Games, Systems
If there are any questions remaining for avid gamers about Xbox, Cameron said, they’re not about the potential of the system. They’re about the games and the availability of systems.
Microsoft will get 1 million to 1.5 million Xboxes into stores through the holiday shopping season. Manufacturer Flextronics is able to produce 100,000 systems a week at its plant in Guadalajara, Mexico. Restocking store shelves should be easier for Microsoft than other console makers, all of which produce their systems overseas and must ship them to North America.
“We are going to have a steady stream through the holidays to keep those store shelves stocked,” O’Rourke says.
Microsoft will release Xbox in Japan on Feb. 22 and in Europe on March 14. The staggered launch will provide Japanese developers more time to produce games. To ensure Microsoft can meet demand in Europe, it will be the first system maker with a manufacturing plant in Europe.
As for games, gamers should find approximately 20 titles sitting next to Xbox on those store shelves during launch this week. These include titles from third-party developers, such as Electronic Arts, Tecmo, Konami and Infogrames, and others from Microsoft Game Studios. (See list for details).
Cameron says he and those members of his staff who have sampled the games are impressed by the number, quality and range of titles available at launch. “There’s a good variety. There’s stuff for young people and there’s plenty of great stuff for hardcore gamers,” he says. “It looks good for the future when there’s a quality selection at the beginning.”
Avid gamers who post messages on the xboxaddict.com site are similarly impressed, Cameron says, particularly by titles such as the sci-fi action thriller “Halo” from Microsoft Game Studios and the fighting game “Dead or Alive 3” from Tecmo. On the 1-to-5 excitement meter on xboxaddict.com, “Halo” has received a cumulative 4.87 and “DOA 3” is getting a 4.79.
These gamers base their excitement on technical reviews and screen shots circulating on the Internet. Forys bases his on actual play. He played 14 games at Xbox Unleashed and was impressed by all of them.
“Now that I know what is possible with Xbox, I can’t wait to see what the future holds,” he says. “It’s really exciting.”