Xbox at 20, in the words of the people who made its first games

Guardian Technology 16 Nov 2021 09:30

Twenty years since the launch of the original Xbox, its manufacturer Microsoft remains the new kid on the block: no new competitor has entered the home games console field since. Before 2001, Sega and Nintendo were the main competitors to Sony’s ascendant PlayStation. Microsoft shoved both aside to eventually become Sony’s direct rival, and the battle for the space beneath your TV continues to this day.

What separated the Xbox from other consoles of the time was not the power of its hardware or the appeal of its infamously chunky, almost brutalist design. It was the relationship between it, and the developers who made its games. The Xbox was easier to make games for than Sony’s or Nintendo’s consoles, and Microsoft went to previously unheard-of lengths to ensure that the Xbox’s launch titles were as strong as they could be.

“People used to say that Microsoft was stealing the exclusives. There’s a certain truth to that,” says Lorne Lanning. In the summer of 2000, Lanning was overseeing development of Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee – the third game in the lauded Oddworld series – for PC and PlayStation 2. But the studio was slowly sliding towards crisis. Threatened with budget cuts by publisher GT Interactive, the studio’s engineers were also finding the PlayStation 2 extremely difficult to program on. “The PS2 got supercomputing capability into an affordable consumer electronic box. But the expense of that was that no one knew how to use it,” Lanning explains. What’s more, Sony’s response to the developer’s tribulations was dismissive. “The attitude was kind of, ‘You’ll figure it out’.”

While Oddworld Inhabitants was struggling with Sony, Bizarre Creations had its own problems with Sega. Since 1997, the Liverpool-based racing-game studio had been working on Metropolis Street Racer for the Dreamcast. But by the autumn of 2000, it was increasingly clear that Sega was on the wane as a hardware manufacturer – despite the company’s protestations to the contrary.

For both developers, Microsoft offered greater financial security and a more collaborative development environment. When Lanning’s team encountered problems with the mathematics required for the jump between 2D and 3D game development, the Xbox team sent several engineers to the studio to help them resolve the issue – something that game publishers, let alone console manufacturers, hardly ever did. “They left their families and came down for months,” Lanning says. “They helped us to deliver.” This approach wasn’t exclusive to Munch’s Oddysee either. “There were always some Microsoft staff practically living in our office to get everything finished to the right quality bar,” Chudley says. “We were always made to feel special by the Microsoft team members, and felt (internally) that we were only second to Halo, which was clearly their flagship title.”

Fans take photographs of a person dressed as a character from Halo 3 at its UK launch in 2007.

While the Xbox’s team’s assistance was essential in getting the launch roster into shape, it’s important to note that the Xbox itself was equally crucial in facilitating these tight development turnarounds. “The Xbox was really easy to program. After making our first PS2 game, it was like a breath of fresh air,” says Richard Garcia, whose company Monster Games produced NASCAR Heat 2002 for both PS2 and Xbox. “We felt that the Xbox was the first console with modern architecture and enjoyed programming it.” Bizarre’s Martyn Chudley agrees. “The Xbox hardware was exceptionally easy to code for – you could get great performance straight out of the box, unlike the PlayStation consoles which were powerful but notoriously complex.”

Lanning, meanwhile, sometimes questioned whether Microsoft fully understood the appeal of its own console. Like the PS2, the Xbox supported DVD video, but when Lanning saw Munch’s CG-rendered cutscenes running on the console’s development kit for the first time, they were so badly compressed as to be virtually unwatchable. This led to an intense meeting with Microsoft. “I started saying, ‘What DVD means to the public is higher video quality,’” he explains. “And someone said, ‘Well, do you have any marketing research data to support that?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, for Christ’s sake!’ I just totally lost it.” Moments like this made Lanning doubt Microsoft’s ability to handle a console launch. “When I heard things like that, at times I’d think ‘Maybe it’s not going to succeed.’”

Lanning’s fears were not without basis. The original Xbox was a money pit for Microsoft: it lost somewhere over $5bn on it, according to Robbie Bach, who was in charge of the Xbox business at Microsoft at the time. But it laid the foundations for the Xbox 360, which made billions in profit, and helped to bring online gaming and first-person shooters from PC to consoles. Microsoft and the Xbox have been a driving force in console gaming for the last two decades.

Other games flopped where Halo soared. One such was Arctic Thunder, a snowmobile racing game developed by Inland Productions and published by Midway Games. A coin-operated arcade game that was ported to the Xbox, Arctic Thunder was “compromised in almost every way from the beginning,” according to its producer Ken Allen. “The designer for the coin-op version was not accustomed to the kinds of constraints that come with developing for home consoles (tight budgets, timely feedback, immovable deadlines, change control, etc) so his involvement created a lot of friction and increased development costs,” Allen explains.

The Xbox lines up alongside its rivals at the Tokyo Game Show in 2001.

After Munch’s Oddysee, the studio never worked exclusively with Microsoft again. Its next game, Stranger’s Wrath, would be multiplatform, as would all its following releases. Lanning cites Microsoft’s internal restructuring and the departures of major figures in the Xbox’s development, such as project visionary Seamus Blackley, as reasons behind the shift away from an exclusive partnership. “The culture was changing. And that was changing terms and agreements and things,” he says.

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