Monday, May 19, 2008

Editorial: Xbox 360 at Half-Life

No, I'm not talking about Valve's franchise, I'm talking about the lifespan of the Xbox 360 console itself. Assuming the Xbox 360 has the same 5 year life cycle as the original Xbox, it will reach it's half-life about mid this week.

Half-way through this generation all ready, and the Wii is leading in hardware sales, the Xbox 360 is leading in software sales and online gaming, and the PlayStation 3 is struggling at playing catch-up, but does have some solid exclusives on the horizon.

So what's to come for the Xbox 360, and where's the Xbox franchise going?

The Xbox 360 certainly started off strong, having a 1 year head start on its competition. The Xbox 360 was the first console to feature a standard first-party Wireless Controller, a detachable HDD (something I didn't realize the usefulness of until I bought it), and it integrated the Xbox LIVE service, adding in the different classes of Membership so everyone could experience Xbox LIVE, but only Gold Members could play Multiplayer games. It launched with average calibre games, but the Xbox 360's games library quickly grew into the largest and best selling software library of this generation thus far.

Microsoft also played a very interesting strategic move with the recently ended format war. Upon launch of the Xbox 360, for obvious reason, they couldn't go with Blu-ray Disc, so instead they openly supported HD DVD, but to keep the costs of the console down _and_ to play it safe, they released an HD DVD drive as a separate add-on for the console; the Xbox 360 still used a simple DVD drive by nature.

Of course, Sony fanboys slammed the Xbox 360 for this, and totted their victory in the format war, but really, at what cost did this come to Microsoft and the Xbox 360? The HD DVD drive was not a huge seller for the Xbox 360. Ever. And while some may argue that HD DVD would have established a much better foothold had it been the default drive in the Xbox 360 console, the fact remains that Microsoft came through that format war without any major loss.

Look at it this way: What would have happened had Blu-ray Disc lost? The PlayStation 3 would be a console with an obsolete format at its core; it would have failed utterly as a media platform _and_ a game console. The Xbox 360, on the other hand, can keep on trucking and the majority of its customer base was completely unaffected. Microsoft's primary media focus has always been the Xbox LIVE Video Marketplace, so for anyone really looking at this situation, they'll see that Microsoft played the format war conservatively and intelligently. Despite the PlayStation 3's boost in hardware sales as a result of winning the format war, as of this typing, the Xbox 360 is still outselling the PlayStation 3 in overall global sales figures by roughly 6 million units. That's because at their core, these machines, while having other media potential, are really about the games, they are video game consoles, and right now, the Xbox 360 is leading with exclusive interactive entertainment.

Exclusive console titles like Halo 3, BioShock, and Mass Effect brought a huge measure of success to the Xbox 360 last year, and in the foreseeable future, Xbox 360 gamers have a lot to look forward to. Exclusive titles like Gears of War 2 and Fable II will drive the console forward, pushing the hardware and expanding the subscriber base of Xbox LIVE. Should the PlayStation 3's exclusives actually pay off this year, it might finally pose some real global competition for Microsoft, which would be great for Xbox 360 gamers as it would force Microsoft to reduce console costs even further, and perhaps to bring out additional features to both their console and Xbox LIVE to remain innovative.

With a grand total of 19 million consoles sold worldwide, 2nd place behind the Wii, there's no question that the Xbox 360 has been a huge success for Microsoft, and rightly so. Throughout its entire run, I'd say the biggest hitch with the Xbox 360 has been its unfortunate hardware quality issues. The three flashing red lights has been the most common and publicised of these, leading to the now popular term, RRoD, however there have been numerous other issues with the console as well, such as faulty DVD drives as well as problem graphic cards. While all hardware, especially factory manufactured, mass-produced hardware, sees a certain percentage of failures, the Xbox 360 has a very high failure rate, and even though Microsoft extended their warranty and took a financial hit to compensate, a piece of hardware should not be released with these kind of issues en mass. Of course, as a company, Microsoft looked at the situation from a business perspective, releasing early to establish a customer base to prevent their own catch-up period they experienced with the original Xbox last generation. And despite the problem hardware, financial loss, etc. that strategy did pay off very well, as evidenced by both hardware, exclusive software, and cross-platform software sales figures.

And that's where the Xbox 360 stands at its midway point; a lot of success and innovation, but also some set-backs and lessons learned. So what's next for the Xbox brand? Well, no one knows for sure and there have been no official announcements, but realistically the Xbox team is working on the third Xbox console as I type this. So, to close off this editorial, what would I like to see in the next Xbox console, what improvements, aside from the standard hardware increases, to the design and functionality? In no particular order:

- Lighter download rights management restrictions
- A slot-loading Blu-ray Disc drive (we've heard rumours of Microsoft talking with Sony about Blu-ray Disc, and I bet this is for the next Xbox console)
- Built in Wi-Fi
- The ability to use traditional flash drives for storage/back-up
- A few extra buttons on the Controller (bring back the White and Black while leaving everything else)
- Internet browsing capability
- Mouse/Keyboard support
- Reduced cost for an Xbox LIVE Gold Membership

While some of those are only wish list items, I do believe that several of them would be key to the next Xbox console's success. Here's hoping for some exciting announcements in the future.

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