I'd been tentatively dubbing it the Ybox for years, but it appears that Microsoft have decided to call the successor to their Xbox video game console the Xbox 360, most likely because they decided it sounded cooler than just "Xbox 2." (Don't you get it? 360 is more than 2! Like, 180 times more!)

The console was recently unveiled at a highly mediatized glitzy Hollywood/MTV style party featuring many celebrities, mainly from the movie industry (e.g. Scarlett Johannson) and the music business (e.g. some semi-famous rappers whose names I've forgotten). The party also featured a live performance from guitar pop (sorry, I mean "new wave rock 'n roll") group The Killers and another act, and the whole thing was hosted by Elijah Wood. And oh yeah, there was the Microsoft Xbox 360.

T H E   B E A S T

After trying to build up hype for the better part of the evening, the console was eventually unveiled to a big fanfare of Philbin-esque lazers and emphatic music. The first thing you notice is that Microsoft have indeed been browsing web forums all this time and taken a "clue," if such a thing can be found in the BBS's of the Interweb. Both console and controller are smaller and sleeker, acknowledging the complaints of over-emphatic MS-haters everywhere. Also, even though "radioactive green" remains the theme colour for Xbox, with the big "On" button being backlit when the console is switched on, both the console and controller are now white. MS also draws inspiration from its competitors, since the Xbox 360 controllers will be wireless like the WaveBird and the console was shown standing on its edge like a PlayStation 2, to which it is similar in size. Indeed, given the Xbox 360's attractive design and the fact that Sony's PlayStation 3 will be as much a media center as a console, the "small, cool design" factor may be playing in Microsoft's favour this time around. You can check out a picture here.

As the console's design shows, Microsoft have apparently grown out of the "more is better" mentality that presided over the making of the first Xbox, including under the hood. Even though a custom three-core IBM PowerPC CPU running at 3.2 GHz and a GPU clocking at 500 MHz from ATi are impressive, it's an evolutionary move up the generation ladder of video game consoles, and it certainly doesn't try to best the "revolutionary" Cell architecture that will power the PlayStation 3. As previously mentioned, the Xbox 360 doesn't have any controller ports since it's all wireless, although it has two memory card slots and three USB ports on the front. The only out of the ordinary feature is the hard drive, which is removable so that you can take it to a friend's and plug it in his console—why have memory cards then? Or the Internet, for that matter? No, the main appeal of the removable hard drive is that you can upgrade it. The console will ship with a 20GB drive.

Live! was a big seller for the first Xbox, so this one will come Live!-enabled out of the box and have an Ethernet port. It is "Wi-Fi ready," but that just means you'll be able to go out and buy a Wi-Fi antenna. You will be able to connect your Xbox 360 with digital cameras, MP3 players and (unsurprisingly) Windows boxen to download music and pictures into it. A very attractive feature for some is that the Xbox 360 will support HDTV out of the box. Of course, all of this bodes well for console gamers but, as we know, what makes and breaks a console is its software library. It's an infallible rule that a console with bad hardware and great games will always outsell a console with good hardware and few games. Except if it's the Dreamcast.

T H E   G A M E S

Microsoft have learned from the first Xbox's slow take-off that hardware isn't everything, and are now boasting tremendous developer support for the Xbox 360. I won't bore you with the full list of companies and games (mostly sequels, of course) being developed, because those lists are usually quite illusory. However, on top of attractive first and second party titles, Microsoft can certainly count on the good relationship they have built with the games industry over the Xbox's lifespan, and it's unlikely that any major developer won't develop for Xbox 360.

What was more telling were the games that were playable at the launch party. What impressed me the most was the multiplayer version of Perfect Dark Zero, if only because I'm a huge fan of the original Perfect Dark on N64 (and its ancestor GoldenEye 007) and I had come to believe from all the silence and delays that the game was vaporware. PD0, as I'm sure it will grow to be known, looked pretty damn good (Far Cry good) although the framerate was choppy. Saige informs me that, predictably, PD0 was only in alpha when shown, and will therefore be much better optimized by the time it hits store shelves. I didn't play it, I only got to watch other people do it on TV, but I saw nothing to contradict my hopes that the multiplayer will be up to the great legacy of its predecessors. I was a little worried about level design when the players complained that they couldn't find each other, but I remembered that they're French band Kyo, and that these guys, on top of being bad musicians, are morons. The two so often go hand in hand, don't they?

Besides Halo 3, not much is known about what the killer aps of the console will be: that information will probably have to wait for E3. However, it's pretty likely that Xbox 360 will have a hefty library from all the big name players in the industry.

T H E   F U T U R E

The future of gaming? Wasn't that the Phantom's motto? Anyway, the future for the Xbox 360 is looking pretty bright so far. Good hardware, plenty of games, Internet play, a glitzy launch party to appeal to their frat boy target demographic... Analysts seem to agree that Microsoft and Sony are on an equal footing for this one and that the battle for #1 will be very hard, with all bets off. However, if I may venture a prognosis this early in the game, I'd say Microsoft are playing it safe, and that in this case it's playing it too safe. Allow me to speculate.

The Xbox 360 is very good at what Xbox does. Like the original, the Xbox is basically a PC-like machine with some of the competition's ideas grafted on. The machine will sell, like Xbox, because it's being marketed as hip and has got good developer support thanks to Microsoft's top secret (but by no means exclusive) "truckloads of cash money" technique. The 360 name is fitting: a pretty twirl, and then it continues in the same direction.

Meanwhile, even though their next machine, codenamed "Revolution," will probably just be an evolution, Nintendo will woo their usual, shrinking but dedicated fanbase of kids and adepts for whom Nintendo's obvious damn love for their craft makes their fantastic games must-haves, and they will end up at a profitable but ultimately irrelevant #3. (In my Nostradamus-like fantasies, this is after they lose the portable market to the PSP.)

On the other end of the spectrum, Sony got the dominance over the market not by fighting over the people who buy videogames, but by selling consoles to others. When the original PlayStation came out, it wasn't marketed to people who had a Super Famicom or a MegaDrive, it was marketed to their older brothers, or even to those who beat them up in school. Then, after the PlayStation's developer support had rendered all the other consoles irrelevant, those gamers that every company tried to woo while Sony ignored them, went out and got a PlayStation. When the PlayStation 2 came out, Sega laughed at Sony because the launch lineup was so poor that people were buying the console to use as a DVD player and not as a console. They laughed! Well, while Sega was laughing its way to bankruptcy, conveniently overlooking the fact that even if they were just using them as doorstops, people were buying PS2's and not Dreamcasts, developer support once again switched to Sony and the race for #1 was over.

The Xbox 360 is a lot like the Dreamcast in that way: good console, good games, experienced company at the helm, right down to wanting to sweep the rug from under Sony's feet by launching early. And like the Dreamcast, the Xbox 360 has no real ambition. Oh of course, they want to be #1, they talk about that, but does the Xbox 360 really seem ambitious to you? Not to me. Sony doesn't just have that Cell processor or better support from Japanese developers. They have ambition. It used to be that video-games were for kids, and PlayStation brought it to teenagers. PlayStation 2 brought it to young singles. PlayStation 3 will be a digital VCR and PlayStation 3 is going to sit in the family living room. TiVo was very talked about, but how many people have actually bought one? About as many as there were DVD players when the PS2 came out, I'd bet.

I'm not just talking about combining video games and other media, in a ploy to increase the PS3's appeal and play in the hand of Sony's media empire, although it is what it is. I'm talking about making video games as popular as movies. Video games, fundamentally, have always been a clique thing. Sure, a clique of about 100 million people, but for a mass media, out of a first world population of 1.5 billion that's a clique. That's because, unlike a movie where you can just sit down and, if it hasn't been directed by Jean-Luc Godard, you can hopefully see what's going on, video games are hard to figure out. Just ask your mum, video games are practically impossible to just pick up and play if you aren't already familiar. Why? Because video games rely on metaphors to convey information, not on images, sounds and text like movies, books and the Internet. We got so used to those metaphors that we don't notice them anymore, but they're what's daunting the older generation.

Oh sure, there are less metaphors in a Mario game than in a Final Fantasy, and you may even think that anyone in the world can just pick up and play Mario. Just move him around with that joystick, hit that button to jump and that one to kick. Sure. If a mustachioed plumber jumping from platform to platform to collect hovering stars instinctively makes sense to you. To you, a bar on the top-left corner on the screen instantly means how much life a character has left. To anyone else, they don't even see the bar. The Sims got little more than a nod of recognition by the gamer community but, since it relies on metaphors of the real world that any person can understand, it appealed to people who weren't privy to the video game clique and became the best selling game. Ever.

You may think it's stupid, but it's a fact that video games have a learning curve which is too steep for appeal on the scale of movies. But Sony want to change that. Given its utterly revolutionary nature, the EyeToy went almost completely unnoticed by the gaming press, because it is ultimately that: a toy. We're gamers, man, that camera stuff is funny for a couple seconds, but I've got items to collect, XP to gain and bosses to beat. Yeah. Except that the EyeToy is the first time since Pac-Man that anyone can figure out how a videogame works in under ten seconds, and enjoy it in under thirty. My grandmother figured it out quicker than she figured out my iPod, and she enjoyed it more, too. Sony aren't marketing the EyeToy as the potential revolution that it is, because they're waiting for developers to find new game ideas and for the parents of current PS2 owners to buy that new WhatsitStation 3, but it's one element which, along with others, will make the PlayStation 3 conquer new markets, then conquer the old one, leaving the Xbox 360 in its wake.

Heh. Of course it's completely silly for me to think I've got the whole scenario figured out when none of these consoles are out. It's obviously going to go down a different way, but that's how I've looked at the Xbox 360 since it was unveiled, and how I think of the future of videogaming in general. Of course, this may be negated by the upcoming E3 where most details about the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3 will be unveiled, the Xbox 360's holiday launch and the events that will unfold, but right now I'm sticking to my silly script.



  • CNet
  • The Register
  • xbox.com and xbox360.com
  • TV