With PlayStation 2 dominating the console market, software giant Microsoft - renowned for its Windows operating systems and PC gaming titles - takes its first, bold steps into the console gaming arena with the US launch of the highly anticipated and much vaunted Xbox.
Its release signals the start of an epic rivalry between Microsoft and Sony, two corporate giants jostling for marketplace supremacy like a pair of combatants in a coin-op beat ‘em up. Console gaming would never be the same again…
A New Beginning
Despite the countless millions pumped into its aggressive marketing campaign, Xbox’s birth was anything but idyllic. By the time it hit the shelves, PS2 already boasted an impressive back catalogue, which included PS2-exclusive, multi-million selling franchises such as the Grand Theft Auto series.
Microsoft’s task was made even harder when Sony inevitably dropped the price of PS2 on the eve of Xbox’s launch - a tactic which helped the machine almost triple its previous year’s sales figures from 6.4 million to 18.5 million, further hampering Microsoft’s early efforts to gain a convincing foothold on the market.
But Xbox wasn’t without its own fair share of merits, not least its excellent online capabilities, built-in hard drive and vastly superior system specs which provided developers with some exciting new possibilities. "Shipping a console with a hard drive was a big step," explains Jaime Griesemer, a designer at Bungie Studios.
"For games that took advantage of it, the hard drive virtually eliminated load times, allowed for much higher resolution content and huge amounts of audio. Also, you can't really do downloadable content without a place to store it. It was crucial to Halo. We couldn't have had those giant levels, thousands of lines of dialogue, no load times and checkpoint saves without it."
Perhaps one of the most significant reasons why Xbox didn’t achieve an even greater level of success was franchise exclusivity, a factor which was to prove a major stumbling block in Xbox’s attempts to establish itself as a viable alternative to PS2. After the staggering success of PSone franchises such as Gran Turismo and Tekken, PS2 had an inherent advantage over its rival.
PS2-exclusive sequels such as Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (which would go on to sell some 14 million copies worldwide) only served to highlight the chasm that Xbox needed to span.
"PS2 built up a massive head start over Xbox by coming to market fully 17 months ahead of it in Europe, and about 14 months in the US," explains Kristan Reed, the editor of GamesIndustry.biz sister site Eurogamer.net.
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