What's in the Xbox?

It is the most eagerly anticipated arrival in the electronic games’ market since Playstation 2. The official website proclaims it as a “future-generation videogame system that delivers the most powerful games experiences ever” with visual effects “that blur the lines between fantasy and reality.”

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By  Kieran Potts Published  October 29, 2001

Introducing the Xbox|~||~||~|It is the most eagerly anticipated arrival in the electronic games’ market since Playstation 2. The official website proclaims it as a “future-generation videogame system that delivers the most powerful games experiences ever” with visual effects “that blur the lines between fantasy and reality.”

Needless to say, interest in the United States has been raised to near-fever pitch; shelves have been cleared in the malls and lain empty for months in impatient anticipation. Developed from the input of hundreds of gamers and game creators, the Xbox promises to do for videogames what MTV did for music.

The hype has not revolved solely around spotty high school children either. The curious thing about the Xbox, you see, is that it has been developed by Microsoft. The company has long-monopolised the PC software industry, but now it wants to conquer the $20 billion-a-year world game console market too.

While the company has been involved in minor ways with the development of game-stations in the past (notably with Sega’s Dreamcast), the Xbox nevertheless represents a radically new departure for the company. Many an industry analyst has speculated whether the venture will lead to success or failure.

The console itself is sleek, powerful in its look, coloured in a deep shade of black and adorned with a large X and a ‘jewel’ in its centre. The guts of the thing, however, are little more than a streamlined PC — albeit one with an impressive spec. The unit will include a 733 MHz Intel Pentium III processor (audio is separate from the CPU), a 250 MHz graphics chip from NVidia, 64 MB of memory, a built-in 20 GB hard drive (an industry first), a CD/DVD player, and an Ethernet connection for broadband online gaming. Memory, audio and visual settings can be adjusted through the on-screen ‘Dashboard’ and, just to be a real bore, parents may even adjust the levels of violence and other mature content permitted.

This impressive spec will enable developers to push the boundaries of game software like never before. Superior graphics and audio quality — say the development team — will stand the Xbox in a league of its own. The visual effects will be the closest thing to reality any games console has ever achieved.

Jed Lengyel, a Microsoft researcher working on Xbox, gives an example: “If you’re in a racing game and you want to stop and walk towards a tree, the tree should look as real close up as it did far away.”

In games of old, if you moved in close to an object, the pixels would enlarge to reveal no detail at all. Lengyel explains that, with 6.4 gigabytes-per-second system memory, more RAM than any other console, and the raw power of the Graphics Processing Unit, the possibilities to reach further into the depths of virtual reality are endless. Trees will be made up of individual leaves while grass will blow in the wind and be trodden with footprints.

Seamus Blackley, head of Microsoft’s Xbox division, says the company has spent extra effort in putting together a system that makes it easy for software writers to exploit Xbox features and create new programmes. “One of the basic premises of the Xbox is to put power in the hands of the artist,” he says, “which is why Xbox developers are achieving a level of visual detail you get in a movie like Toy Story.”

With 256 stereo audio channels and full Dolby surround-sound support, the Xbox also gives cause for excitement in terms of its audio profile. The music changes every time you perform a different action (shoot, kick, walk, die, and so on), gradually merging one audio stream into another.

In theory, you could move from drum-and-base to jazz, with a sound track of drum-and-base with elements of jazz somewhere between the two. If that is not good enough, then you can always upload your own tunes.

There is little doubt, therefore, going on component and audio-visual specifications alone, that the Xbox is technologically superior to all of its rivals, including the present market leader, Sony’s Playstation 2. Furthermore, in the future, extra graphics capabilities built into the Pentium 3 and 4 will give the console massive scope to mature.

However, most avid gamers will tell you that the success of a console will depend first and foremost upon the number and exclusivity of the games it supports. The market is driven by the software, not the hardware.

By the launch, up to 20 games will be available for the Xbox but, although this is impressive for a new platform, there is still a long way to go before it competes with the 300 or so titles offered by PS2, of course. It may well catch up; all told, over 150 developers are creating Xbox games at present.

Indeed, Microsoft has struck some significant, exclusive deals with game developers. Warner Bros and Universal Interactive Studies have agreed to produce movie-based Xbox games. Warner will develop an action-adventure trilogy based on Steven Spielberg’s highly anticipated movie, A.I.; the games will have their own plot, different from the movie but drafted by Spielberg himself. Xbox also has exclusive rights to develop games based on martial arts legend Bruce Lee.

The most progressive aspect of the Xbox, however, is the significant contribution it will make to online gaming. Microsoft will offer a new piece of hardware — the Xbox Communicator — that lets you talk to other online players during a game, therefore eliminating the need for a keyboard. In the Xbox future, gamers in all four corners of the Earth will be able to chat happily before kicking the living daylights out of each other in Dead or Alive 3.

With this new technology, Microsoft believes it could even break into the online gaming market in Japan where this segment of the industry remains relatively undeveloped. Xbox aims to bridge the gap between console-based and online gaming more than PS2 ever managed to do. The service will launch mid next year.

Yet, there is no denying that Xbox faces a steep uphill road to becoming one of the world’s leading videogame console manufacturers. The optimum time to launch a new platform would have been when everything else on the market had already been around for two years or so.

Right now, though, there is a lot of competition out there. PS2 has already grabbed the market for second-generation consoles, 10 million consoles having been shipped to date (1 million customers bought the PS2 in its first week of release in Japan alone). Between Playstation and Playstation 2, Sony has 60 per cent of the global market and is in almost one-third (30 million) of all homes in the US.

PS2 is also compatible with broadband networks and has announced major online partnerships with AOL, Realplayer, and Macromedia, and will therefore be direct competition with Microsoft’s Internet strategy. Sony is also working with Japanese communications giant NTT DoCoMo to launch Playstation games on mobile phones. Finally, the new Gamecube from Nintendo — aimed at a slightly younger market (8-14 year olds) — will also be released at the same time as the Xbox (it has already been launched in Japan).

In the light of this, it is widely believed that both Gamecube and Xbox will struggle to make inroads on PS2’s lead, at least in the early months, as Sony is likely to release new games for its console in a bid to stifle the competition.

On the other hand, a void has been left in the console market with the discontinuation of Sega’s Dreamcast games player. The manufacturer has opted to rationalise its business, concentrating on software development only. Indeed Sega announced in May it would be creating Xbox versions of its top-selling Sega Sports franchise, as well as Crazy Taxi and House of the Dead.

Ultimately, it is too easy, when discussing next-generation console battles, to talk as though one platform will make it and the rest will fade into oblivion. That is unlikely to happen. The degree to which the Xbox can chip away at the market shares of Nintendo and Sony, however, is still very much open to debate.

Let us not forget, also, that Sony had never released a traditional console system before the Playstation, and it went on to outsell both Atari and Nintendo. In this industry, it is innovation, rather than experience, that accounts for everything.

So far, while the Xbox has certainly made the loudest noise and stimulated the greatest hype and speculation the world over through its powerful, yet unrevealing, $500 million publicity campaign, none of the three big players have overall made a bigger splash than the others. In the future, however, the Xbox has the greatest potential for revolutionising how we entertain ourselves, just as the Playstation did six years ago. The technology behind the Xbox means that our computers, televisions, hi-fis and game consoles could increasingly be integrated into singular multi-entertainment systems.

Indeed, while it is obvious that Microsoft is thirsty for the lion’s share of the massive — and growing — games market, there is also an ulterior motive for development of the Xbox: it is the perfect medium through which to develop PC-based hardware. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year, Bill Gates declared, “If there’s an area where breakthroughs in hardware and software could really change the [PC] business, it’s got to be videogames.”

On the other hand, Microsoft has been criticised, in light of its drive to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, for using the Xbox as a Trojan-horse to enter the living room.
Revealingly, the Xbox has been marketed completely independently of the Microsoft brand name. The company has evidently tried to distance the Xbox name as far as possible from a trademark increasingly resented as ruthlessly monopolistic and nepotistic.

Certainly, Microsoft believes there is a sizeable, untapped gaming market here in the Middle East, waiting to be exploited. Mr Saeid Marashi, HRD Manager of Microsoft in the Middle East, told T2, “In terms of research here in the Middle East, we have done our homework and are confident that a huge gaming market exists.”

Mr Marashi is excited about the possibilities for the Xbox in the region, saying, “The Xbox has evinced a lot of interest in the Middle East and expectations are very high. The tremendous reality of a superior gaming console that is equipped with fantastic features is what gaming enthusiasts […] are looking forward to.”

Whatever happens — whether the Xbox becomes a leading game console the world over, or not — there is little doubt that very soon the word ‘Xbox’ will be as closely associated with videogames as the words ‘Nintendo’, ‘Playstation’ and ‘Sega’.


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