When MCV caught up with the UK top Xbox execs recently, they were in high spirits.
A lot of that had to do with the fact their Xmas party was just hours away. The UK team were ready to toast another year of hard work.
But there was another cause for celebration – the little matter of Xbox 360’s fifth birthday.
60 months. 260 weeks. 1826 days. However you break it down, Xbox’s achievements have been significant.
Microsoft’s UK and Ireland entertainment and devices general manager Neil Thompson describes the half-decade as “phenomenal” – he needs only the tiniest of prods to passionately run through highlights.
When 360 first hit on December 2nd, 2005, the aim was to “redefine high-definition gaming and the whole entertainment experience in the living room”. Over the five years “we’ve used Live, plus expanded features such as Avatars and entertainment experiences up to Kinect, to grow and grow and grow”. The ambition is still there, too - now, “we’re extending that experience onto phones – people are really connected to Xbox.
“It’s been an incredible five year journey,” he concludes. Chart-Track data shows console is still growing – this year the Xbox 360 is the only one to show year-on-year growth in the UK. “We’re really happy people keep coming back.”
X MARKS THE SPOT
So that’s the recap out of the way. But this huge success wasn’t really assured back in 2005, was it?
“We were always confident – but we were up against some formidable competitors and it’s a growing, evolving business so you can never be 100 per cent sure,” says Thompson.
Certainly, while 360 was exciting and innovative back in 2005 (if you want a reminder of the other great things 360 introduced to the market look right to ‘Five things 360 did first’), it was a real test of the industry. It effectively cut short the original Xbox’s life cycle, and aggressively advocated online connectivity and hi-def visuals.
“Microsoft is tenacious,” says Thompson. “We learnt a lot from the original Xbox – we did a lot of great things, and had much to learn from.”
360’s biggest gift to the market is in changing how both Microsoft, and the world outside it, approach hardware and software, he says.
“When we came to the market with 360 we always said the next round of the console generation would be defined by software and services,” says Thompson. Consumers are just as exited by software and firmware updates as they are physical gadgetry. For 360, the services Microsoft has added to Xbox, plus moves great and small to expand its audience – from something incremental like Lips up to total overhauls Kinect – help explain the 360’s successive growth.
“And Live is arguably the pre-eminent online entertainment service in the world. It has constantly innovated and it’s hugely relevant today given what many are saying about the potential of cloud services and online storage.”
Thompson says Microsoft and Xbox have also built credibility over the last five years, especially in the trade.
“There was a lot of hard work by the team here, and innovative development by the product team – but most importantly a lot of collaboration and support from retailers both when the 360 came out and onwards.
“We’ve built this business in a positive way for all involved – whether that’s consumers, retailers, publishers, Sky or the movie companies.”
Proof positive could be found when Kinect rolled out last month.
“It was an incredible moment for the whole company, because it involves lots of technology made at various parts of our business, some of it researched before the 360 even existed,” he says.
What has changed at Microsoft during the five years of 360?
“We’re more assured in terms of understanding what a platform and a business needs to do. I think publishers and retailers appreciate we have become more predictable in certain ways. I know it doesn’t always work that way – and I’m aware there are some retailers who wanted more info up front about Kinect stock. But we are more knowledgeable as a business, and we can help people in a smarter way than maybe we could five years ago. On a personal level that is definitely true.”
Plus, Xbox has taken a more proactive role, both on a local trade level and globally, as a force championing the credibility of games.
“We also feel a lot more responsible for the health of the whole industry. When you’re an emerging player in something like the games business you are so focused on trying to become significant and credible that it’s hard to think about the wider market,” he says of the original Xbox. But during the 360’s tenure that changed.
“There has been a huge effort to do more for interactive entertainment over the last five years, and that sense of responsibility has grown in our business.”
FIVE THINGS 360 DID FIRST
1. DIGITAL DISTRIBUTION ON CONSOLE
Although the original Xbox started small with Arcade games, they became a full part of the Microsoft business in 2005, with the 360 dash directing players to quirky and casual games. In time, as Microsoft has lowered the file-size limit, that service has grown and grown to include original downloadables of all sizes alongside user-made indie games and former retail hits on-demand.
2. FREE DOWNLOADABLE DEMOS
The specialist press had to grit their teeth, but all the consumer had to do was press a button. One great benefit of the 360 being ‘always on’ and broadband-ready meant regular access to tasters of games both new and old.
3. GAMERSCORES, ACHIEVEMENTS & MICROSOFT POINTS
Game pundits ten-a-penny will tell you these days about the ‘gamification’ trend, but Microsoft was the first to acknowledge in-game achievements with metascores and a cross-game system of bragging stats and badges. Meanwhile, ‘Microsoft Points’ introduced the first virtual currency to consoles.
4. MULTI-CONFIGURATION GAMES HARDWARE
Everyone’s done it since, but 360 originally launched in different flavours – with and without a hard drive. Microsoft has since offered a range of different size storage options, with a basic 4GB on-board storage in the latest lower-end version.
5. HD VISUALS AS STANDARD
We take it for granted now, but Microsoft’s big insistence on championing high-def content paid off and tapped into the cultural switch towards new digital and sleek TVs. Sure, the 360 didn’t support the full-whack 1080p at first – but Microsoft quickly added HDMI outputs as standard.