Xbox Unveiled

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Xbox Unveiled
Can Sony and Nintendo Survive?

Originally Published on February 17, 2001

Born from an idea from Seamus Blackley and nurtured to realization by Kevin Bachus, Microsoft’s Xbox has grown from ominous rumors and speculation to a full-fledge game console in just under two years. A game console so powerful in fact that Sony is already starting to sweat, and SEGA has bowed out of the hardware business altogether, even before the Xbox materializes. Subscribing to the motto “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em”, SEGA has instead opted to develop software for the upcoming Microsoft console slated for release this Fall.

While the specs for the Xbox seem to change almost as often as Bill Gate’s bank balance here are the latest reported hardware specs as of the date of this article along with the specs of the current PS2 and the upcoming GameCube from Nintendo.

  Xbox PlayStation2 GameCube
CPU 733 295 405
GPU 250 147.5 202.5
RAM 64mb 40mb 43mb
Memory Bandwidth 6.4gb/s 3.2gb/s 3.2gb/s
Polygon Performance 125mb/s 66mb/s 6-12mb/s
Simultaneous Textures 4 1 N/A
Pixel Fill Rate 4gb/s 2.4gb/s N/A
Compressed Textures 6:1 None 6:1
Storage 2-5x DVD
10gb HD
8mb memcard
4x DVD
8mb memcard
1.5gb 3″ disc
? memcard
Controller Ports 4 2 4
AudioChannels 256 48 64
3D Positional Audio Yes No No
Broadband Yes Upgrade Optional
DVD Add-on Yes No
HDTV Yes No N/A
Max. Resolution 1920×1080 1280×1024 N/A

Ultimately, what this means is that the Xbox is going to be as powerful, if not more so, than many gamers’ current PC’s (including mine), and at an estimated cost of $299 the Xbox will be cheaper than a PC video card upgrade featuring a comparable GPU nVidia chipset.

The Revolutionary Xbox But having the ultimate hardware is nothing if you don’t have games to play on it. Microsoft has known this from the beginning and has designed their entire licensing and development strategy to make it easy to develop for the Xbox. Ed Fries, head of the first party games division for Microsoft is the guy given the daunting task of creating the library of Xbox games and with his vision of 100 Xbox titles within the first year of the console release this is no easy task. Of course Microsoft is only looking at 20-30 titles from their development staff and relying on the rapidly growing list of third-party developers to fill in their ambitious library.

Anyone who has ever owned or played console games may have noticed a lacking presence of Microsoft console titles. In fact there are none. But Microsoft is confident that their experience and enormous resources, both in technology and pure talent will carry them to the top of the console gaming market. Microsoft is also adamant that they will not be porting PC titles over to the Xbox as filler material for their software library. Only carefully selected PC titles will make the transition to the Xbox, and those that do make the selected cut will still undergo major renovations to make sure they fully utilize the power of the console system.

Third party developers are the life support system for any hardware manufacturer and Microsoft is no different. Many people are alarmed at the lack of Japanese support from such giants as Konami and Capcom who are notorious for delivering some of the finest console games available today. While no names are given, Kevin Bachus claims to have plenty of Japanese support lined up, and with a system as powerful as the Xbox it should only be a matter of time before the big-name developers are jumping on the Xbox bandwagon.

Meanwhile there are many third-party companies chomping at the Xbox-bit. Oddworld Inhabitants recently pulled their much anticipated sequel Munch’s Oddysee from the PlayStation 2 line-up (much to the anger of Sony fans), and signed an exclusive contract with Microsoft to deliver Munch and the rest of their Oddworld titles on the Xbox.

Bungie Studios' HALO Other big publishers like Acclaim, Activision, Eidos, Fox Interactive, Interplay and many others are already hard at work preparing some amazing titles for this next-gen console, but perhaps one of the most talked about titles coming this fall is Bungie Studios’ HALO. This game promises to push the very limits of the Xbox, offering some of the most amazing visuals and online multiplayer gameplay ever seen on any system.

There is really only one thing remaining that truly separates the console and PC gaming community and that is online gaming. Ever since games like Quake 3 Arena, Everquest, Ultima Online, and other similar titles captured the social and competitive aspects of electronic gaming the world has never been the same. Online play can make or break a game, and it can certainly dictate the future success (or failure) of a console system.

The popularity of the SEGA Dreamcast soared once online games were released to take advantage of the built-in 56k modem, and with the recent release of their broadband adapter games like Quake 3, and Phantasy Star Online are quickly becoming as popular as online PC titles. PlayStation 2 owners were equally as dismayed at the absence of a modem in Sony’s latest next-gen system. While a broadband solution is promised as a future upgrade for PS2 owners there are no plans for an online solution to those without DSL or cable modems.

Microsoft remains one step ahead of both systems by offering broadband support right out of the box, and for those of you who are Cable/DSL access-challenged, a traditional USB modem will be offered as a peripheral. Another major and insightful design decision is the inclusion of four controller ports. SEGA and Nintendo figured this out years ago yet Sony didn’t see fit to clutter the face of their console with two extra controller ports. Instead, they chose to release a multi-tap that must be purchased separately for three or more gamers to play their games.

One thing is for certain. Launching exactly one year after Sony’s PlayStation 2 system is going to require that the Xbox demonstrate a very noticeable improvement in both hardware design and overall game quality. There are many people who feel the PS2 did not offer significant improvements over the Dreamcast, and it is those people who will be on guard when it comes time to spend another $300 for a new system from a company with no proven track record in the console industry.

As the media hype and consumer interest continues to grow throughout the year only time will tell if Microsoft’s Oct. 26 launch of the Xbox will follow in the footsteps of great systems such as the PlayStation or soon be forgotten like the Atari Jaguar or Panasonic 3D0. Microsoft certainly has all the ingredients for a successful system with plenty of quality games and developers already onboard. With SEGA dropping out of the console wars and a growing library of disappointing PS2 titles, it seems Nintendo’s upcoming Gamecube may be the only system Microsoft has to worry about.

Mark Smith