Microsoft was founded in 1975 by Bill Gates. Throughout the 80’s and 90’s Microsoft became the industry leader in home computer operating systems and one of the world’s largest brands, making their founder the richest man in the world. After watching nearly 2 decades of home game consoles slowly suck away developers and players of computer gamers, Microsoft decided to throw in their own hat in the ring.
In 1998 four members of Microsoft’s DirectX team (DirectX is a series of applications that Windows and Microsoft uses to run multimedia), to create a prototype game console. The four men, Kevin Bachus, Seamus Blackley, Ted Hase, and team leader Otto Berkes, tore apart several Dell computers and put the components back together to run games. They named their device the DirectXbox. Soon they shortened the name to the Xbox.
Microsoft’s marketing team hated the name. But the team was adamant on keeping it. So the marketing team decided to put the upstarts back in their place by leaving the Xbox on the list of possible names pitched to a focus group, just to show how unpopular it was bound to be. The marketing team was shocked when the results unanimously favored Xbox. Thus the Xbox was born.
Many companies in the previous console war had tried to compete with Sony and Nintendo, and nearly all of them were left with hat in hand, begging for coins. But Microsoft and their Xbox had one very important thing that separated them, they had the richest man in the world supporting them.
While the Nintendo 64 had not sold poorly by any stretch of the imagination, Sony had injured them badly. Most of their key developers had been taken by the competition, the main reason for this was Nintendo’s strange decision to forego CD’s and continue to support cartridges.
Licking their wounds Nintendo decided to finally get with the program and support disc-based media… well… sort of. Instead of going with DVD (which both Xbox and the next Playstation would support), Nintendo used mini-discs. Still fearing that hackers would steal and copy games, Nintendo made little half-side discs that would only work in their new console, The Gamecube. It got its name from the fact that it was a cube. A small purple box with a handle… why a handle???
The Playstation had been incredibly successful, it spoke to that same “cool kid” crowd that Sega’s Genesis had. For the Playstation 2, Sony upped the ante. Jet black, with an inlaid sky-blue Playstation 2 on the top, the PS2 was…sexy. It also could play not only PS1 games, but would be able to play music CD’s and DVD movies. At the time DVD was still in it’s early stages, and most homes did not have DVD players. So Sony marketed the console as more that a game machine, it was a home entertainment machine. For the price of a console you also got a CD player, a movie player, and a PS1.
In this latest of the console wars, which Sega had started, Sega would produce its last console the Dreamcast. Sega realized that the Saturn had been priced too high, so they used off the shelf parts to make a cheaper, yet still powerful system. Sega launched the Dreamcast nearly a year earlier than the competition but had a lukewarm reception in Japan.
But in America, the Dreamcast’s reception was much better. It had some great launch titles that are still loved today (Shenmue’s crowdfunded sequel was able to reach it’s funding goal in record time), but because of a lack of third party support Dreamcast was not able to cement a place. After several years of insolvency, Sega announced that it would no longer be making hardware and now mainly works as a games licensor.
Playstation would quickly win the third console war, with over 150 million units sold over its lifetime, making it the best selling console. Within 6 year of launch it had broken the sales records by reaching 100 million units. With an incredibly solid install base, Sony was able to relax for the rest of the war and produce great games by the truckload. Over its lifetime over 3,800 games were made for it.
Xbox would come in second with over 24 million units sold worldwide. While it was far short of the PS2 behemoth, it was still incredibly successful. Xbox would shake the entire industry with a few innovations. One was Xbox live. A subscription service that allowed players to connect and play online. Sega, Nintendo, and Sony had all tried this before, but it never worked out for them. But it worked incredibly well for Xbox. Perhaps it was because Xbox attracted a lot of computer gamers, who were already used to playing games online.
A second industry shaking release from Microsoft would be the game Halo: Combat Evolved. This first-person shooter would reinvigorate the genre for consoles. Until that time, FPS’s had seemed to be a computer only thing. But Halo managed to make the gameplay smooth enough to attract a whole new generation to the genre, but more important was online play. Halo and its sequel would be the main part of many a High School and College LAN party. Tournaments were made where players would face each other in Halo’s legendary multiplayer maps.
The Gamecube would face come in last. It would only sell 22 million units. While it’s not far behind the Xbox, reception of the Gamecube by most gamers was negative. Most kids who had grown up playing Nintendo were now in their early twenties or mid-to late teens. The sexy PS2 and the powerful looking Xbox were, for lack of a better word, “bad-ass”. They did not want a small purple box that looked like a lunch box.
This image was further driven home when Nintendo’s games all looked like “kiddie fare”. The Legend of Zelda’s new game Wind up Waker made Link a cartoon kid. And most people in the core group of gamers quickly discarded the Nintendo character for a new cast of more edgy heroes and anti-heroes.
If the third console war showed us anything it was the primacy of the west, particularly American, Canadian, and European developers, over Japanese ones. Long was past when heads of Nintendo and Sony generally thought American developers could not create games as well as they could. Many of the best-selling and most influential games of the generations would be made by American or European developers.
Undoubtedly the most influential game of its generation is Grand Theft Auto III. GTA3 dropped players in a huge open world and they were given the choice of either doing missions or just running around causing trouble. It was not the first open world game, but it popularized the genre. I remember just spending countless hours exploring the vast city, finding weapons and armor and just shooting people randomly and getting into epic shootouts and car chases with the police. Today, nearly every big game is an open world game, but at the time there was nothing like it.
Japanese games would still continue to be popular. But they did not own the space anymore. In the next few wars, Japan’s space in the video game scene would get smaller and smaller.
Furthermore, Nintendo seemed in dire straits. The company’s finances were in ruins, and I remember rumors of a possible buyout. But in the next generation of consoles, Nintendo would come back with a vengeance.
The beginnings of the Japanese Gaming History
Japanese Gaming History: The End of the First Console Wars
Japanese Gaming History: The First Console Wars
Japanese Gaming History: Nintendo came out!
Japanese Gaming History: The Second Console Wars