Retro: When The Xbox Nearly Failed

There was a time when the Xbox very nearly failed. We don’t mean PlayStation portable levels of failure (which in fact is quite the success) or the Sega Saturn but of the levels of the 3DO, the Virtual Boy and countless other consoles. Its almost forgotten now how the Xbox nearly crashed out of the 128 bit race before it had even got started but you can still see some signs of it on websites around 2001 and message boards that are still active.

Before the Xbox launched Sega were still just about in the game, Sony had launched the incredibly popular PS2 and Nintendo were drumming up interest in their Gamecube and GameBoy Advance. We’d seen before with the likes of the CDI, 3DO and other consoles that only the big boys ever seemed to survive. Sony somehow managed to to squeeze their way into the market before almost gobbling it all up for themselves. No doubt thanks to having the money and resources to make sure they succeeded.

Then along came Microsoft, not a small company by any means but their only success had been their Windows operating system and pc related software. Ideas like WebTV had failed to make an impact or get into peoples living rooms and even their Windows CE OS for the Dreamcast was lacking. Sure they had the money but at the time they didn’t have the street cred to make it big in gaming, in fact many people hated Microsoft or M$ as they were known. Microsoft were more known for having a less than stable OS, being ruthless in business and not having much experience in the gaming world. Their top games were stuff like Flight Sim, they’d never made action or platform games before.

The Xbox launched, but it wasn’t a positive start. The machine was HUGE for a start and weighed as much as a small car. After the sleek lines of the N64 and PSone came this behemoth, made to look even worse thanks to the Xbox demo pods. The pods were normal machine pods except they had made the console stick out from them, making it look even bigger, like it couldn’t fit on a normal shelf. The pods brought about another problem, over heating. Thanks to the lack of vents and hot lights most consoles would over heat and shut down. We are not talking Red Rings of death here but seeing a line of consoles flashing showing they are hot was not a good start. Microsoft’s gaming credibility had hurt it, from gamers expecting to install games on the built in hard drive to having buggy titles crashing with talks of blue screens of death. People really thought the Xbox was a PC in a box, in a lot of ways it was but Microsoft’s public perception was really harming the launch of the console.

Then came the controller, almost as big as the console itself most gamers felt like they were holding a rock with smarties pushed into it for buttons. It wasn’t as sexy as the PS2 controller and had a range of problems from small buttons to a terrible Dpad. Then we come to the games. At times it felt like the Dreamcast 2 which depending on how you look at it is either good or bad. With a whole host of Sega games ported to the console you could be forgiven for thinking it’d fail just like the Dreamcast. A whole host of other pretty games came out such as Blood Wake, Fusion Frenzy and Artic Thunder, but these were all terrible. 4 games in the end sold the Xbox, Halo: Combat Evolved, Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee, Dead or Alive 3 and Project Gotham Racing. PGR was basically MSR+ a game Dreamcast fans had already enjoyed. DOA3, whilst incredibly pretty was not too dissimilar from DOA2. Oddworld was a game hyped to the extreme, but sadly was a huge disappointment. Only Halo saved the Xbox. One utterly amazing game came and told everyone what the Xbox was about, without it the Xbox would have been dead in the water. Games like Wreckless sure looked nice but between the pretty graphics and ported games you had a lot of crap gameplay or shovelware coming to the system. However Halo may have stopped the Xbox from being dead in the water but it couldn’t hold up the weight of the console for long.

A year before the PS2 had launched for £300/$299 but this was the PS2 with a huge amount of hype and it allowed you to play DVDs out of the box. The xbox launched for the same price but in that year things had changed. People didn’t want to pay £300/$299 for a console now, especially as they could get the PS2 cheaper by now. This is the day the Xbox nearly failed. The Gamecube had just launched for £139/$200, much cheaper than the Xbox and it came with a range of amazing titles for launch with a few more to follow in the coming months. Halo surely was amazing but a console can not live on one title alone, especially as it cost much more than the established PS2 and the cute Gamecube.

Microsoft thought fast and slashed the price, angering early adopters and making keen gamers worried. The price had dropped by a huge amount, £100 only a short few weeks after launch in the UK and a few months after launch in the US. Early adopters were compensated in the UK with games and controllers but this sort of price dropping scared most gamers, especially as there was little on the horizon games wise and the Xbox was failing in Japan. Microsoft had spent a lot of time and money marketing the Xbox in japan but it had not been selling, even at a much cheaper price point than even the US, gamers in japan were not interested. Traditionally a console lived or died on its japanese support at this time, not only because of the number of consoles that’d sell but because developers would only support the leading platforms in their home country.

Things looked bleek but they were about to get worse. As gaming news sites and even the press starting discussing the Xboxs failure Microsoft decided to try to tempt gamers with more free games. You could now, just weeks after the price cut pick up an Xbox with Jet Set Radio Future and Sega GT 2002 for free. Things were looking increasingly desperate for Microsoft, they were haemorrhaging cash everywhere trying to get the Xbox to sell. It surely was only a matter of time before Microsoft pulled the plug on this failed experiment? Only Microsoft could afford to lose half a billion dollars trying to launch a console with it not selling at all in Japan, Europe struggling against the Gamecube and PS2 and America still seeing it as a distant 3rd. This was the time when the Gamecube was out selling the Xbox. Message boards were filled with jokes about Microsoft giving away Free Xboxes just to sell the games or how it has sunk faster than the Mega CD. The press was filled with negative comments, not a good word could be said about the Xbox. Even Halo, as amazing as it is couldn’t help and was looking like a future cult classic. Only a year earlier we had seen Sega drop out of the console race, with this still fresh in most peoples memories how much longer could Microsoft hold on for and how much money were they prepared to waste?

It seems they didn’t have to wait long. Whilst it wasn’t a quick or sudden turn around things started to pick up. The launch of Splinter Cell is probably the point where people began to take notice. It looked gorgeous on the Xbox as an exclusive title and really showed what the machine was capable of. Xbox live was just around the corner with beta testers trying it out and giving some great feedback. The Xbox never did make its money back and it was a long slow struggle before it beat the Gamecube in sales but Microsoft had managed to turn things around. Price cuts and free games certainly helped as well as a redesigned controller and some amazing looking and playing games due to come out. Any other company releasing a console like this would have pulled the plug after the first price drop. Even a company like Sony would have. Only Microsoft’s arrogance and bottomless money pits allowed them to push on and become the huge success they are today. Its easy to forget that at one point no one expected Microsoft to succeed. The Xbox never did beat the PS2 but there was a time when it looked like it wouldn’t even last a year.