Looking Back at the Xbox 360

As this console generation draws to a close, we thought it might be fun to look back at console launches of the past, and tell our stories of what it was like on launch day.

Jumping In

November 22nd, 2005 was a day I remember quite well. In the small town I live in, we didn’t have any crazy midnight launch parties for the Xbox 360, so I was stuck having to wait for the local Wal-Mart to open up at 9am (No, up here they don’t stay open all night) to go and get my new system. I wanted to be sure that I was able to bring one home, so at 6am I took a cab to the store. Small towns like mine generally don’t get very many launch units. In general though, they also don’t see many people lining up. I was expecting two, maybe three people besides myself to be waiting there. Instead there were over a dozen.  Anyone who’s willing to show up at a store before it opens to get a system is either a gamer or the parent of a gamer, so conversations went on about what launch games we were going to get.

It was going to be a rush to the electronics section, so I spent a bit of time weighing my chances on getting there first. I mentally charted the shortest path to the electronics counter, and tried to gauge my chances on whether I could outrun the other customers there. About fifteen minutes before the store opened one of the Wal-Mart employees came out to let us know how many units they had. There were twenty five. Fifteen Premium packs and ten Standard packs. There were only fourteen of us waiting there, so my mental pathfinding exercises proved to be unnecessary. Still, it didn’t hurt to be prepared. The experience was similar to one you’d have in one of the long lines that form in big cities, but there was just something altogether more pleasant about a smaller gathering like this. Nobody got killed, so that’s always a plus.

We all purchased our systems, games, and accessories and went off on our way. Another cab ride home, then a short unboxing, and I was ready to hook the system up to my huge, top of the line 27” CRT TV (Remember in 2005 when HDTV’s weren’t ubiquitous?).

I had about 45 minutes to get set up and play a bit before I had to take another cab to work. The first game I put in was Project Gotham Racing 3, and that would be the only game that I’d play that morning. Even on an SDTV, that game looked fantastic. More to the point, it was just a ton of fun. Bizarre Creations had really outdone themselves with that one, and it proved to be one of the shining stars of the Xbox 360’s launch game lineup.

Trouble Brewing

Not long after the launch, almost immediately in fact, we started to see reports of consoles failing with a three flashing red segments on the console’s face. This quickly became known as the Red Ring Of Death. These were general hardware failures, usually broken solder joints on the processor or graphics chip. At first there were only a few reports of the problem, but as time went on it grew worse. Some reports put the failure rate near the 50% mark. My faithful white launch day Xbox 360, however, was a rock… then it crumbled.  So did the console I received as a replacement. That one only lasted a month. Consoles sometimes fail, that’s just a fact of life, but when half of the consoles you’re putting on the market are cooking themselves, you can’t ignore the problem.

Red Ring Of Death

Early Adopters of the Xbox 360 saw this a lot.

Having one console fail on me was bad enough, but having two of them go out in rapid succession was more than a little annoying. Gamers were complaining about the problem all over the internet. It started off with just the games press, but eventually the mainstream media had picked up on the story. Microsoft’s name and reputation were being dragged through the mud. They had to act. The red ring problem led to one of the biggest warranty extensions to date. It cost Microsoft over $1 billion to support the failing consoles, many of which by that point had expired warranties. Microsoft took the financial hit and supported any of their consoles that developed that fault. It was a good gesture on their part, but it’s something that should not have happened. You’ll have to chalk that up to their inexperience in hardware design. Later revisions of the Xbox 360 used revised chips and cooling, which helped to reduce the failure rate. I now have one of the last white revisions they released and it is still running just fine. It sounds like an angry gnat, but it works. The latest revisions of the Xbox 360 are easily the quietest and most reliable. Hopefully Microsoft has taken their experience with the 360 to heart and won’t repeat the same mistakes with the Xbox One.

Life With Xbox

One of the nice things about Microsoft’s decision to integrate Xbox Live into the Xbox 360’s OS is that you’re only ever a button press away from your friends. The Blades UI lets you quickly pull up messages, see your achievements, and send or respond to game invites. The bad news is that you’re also only a button press away from a stream of abuse and profanity. Anyone who’s played Halo or Call of Duty on Xbox Live knows that a lot of players are just jerks. I’ve run into people constantly spewing racial slurs, making crude jokes, blaring loud music through the microphone, and generally making a nuisance of themselves. Nobody believes your schlong is eighteen inches long, and no, you don’t have to show us. The tools to report these idiots are there, and as time goes on they’ve improved. Still, it seems that if you’re going to play a shooter online, it’s best to bring your thick skin.

The original Xbox dashboard. - Image courtesy WinSuperSite.com.

The original Xbox dashboard. – Image courtesy WinSuperSite.com.

While playing online was often abrasive, the rest of the system wasn’t. The initial dashboard was clean, simple, and fast. I was never a huge fan of the Blade UI’s  color schemes or the inability to adjust the dashboard text color. This led to certain color combinations being unusable and biased the dash to a dark-on-light color scheme. For the most part though, the Blades UI was decent. As is the case with most operating systems, over time the feature set outgrew the core design. It got more and more difficult to find anything as new sections were just shoehorned into the existing framework.

In late 2009, Microsoft rebooted the Xbox 360 through a complete overhaul of the UI. Some of the changes I approved of, like the new dark color scheme that was really easy to read. A year later they’d switch back to the current dark on light theme that we have now. No matter how many people complain about this choice, Microsoft doesn’t seem too inclined to do anything about it. So for those of us who see this as a problem, we just have to squint and do our best to make due, hoping that one day they will give us the choice to switch the colors back to dark. I haven’t seen much of the Xbox One’s UI, but hopefully something as simple as changing the colors of the interface is included.

The color of the interface is a minor problem in comparison to the bloat that has crept into the Xbox Experience. With the current ‘modern’ iteration of the dashboard, it’s not uncommon for the system to take 45 seconds to get to a state where you can actually start doing anything on it, and when you finally do get a usable screen, it’s plastered with tiles for things that you mostly don’t care about. Some of these tiles are marked as ads, but let’s face it, the entire dashboard is an ad now. Microsoft has tailored the dashboard to promote their services rather than tailoring it for the overall user experience. That’s not a good way to go. Even though your userbase will grit their teeth and bear it, why would you deliberately try to make their experience worse?

The New Xbox Experience. Quite a radical change, isn't it? - Image courtesy WinSuperSite.com

The New Xbox Experience. Quite a radical change, isn’t it? – Image courtesy WinSuperSite.com

The NXE update also saw the debut of Xbox Live Community Games. This was a section for budding developers to create and post their own games. Microsoft provided the XNA development framework and required a $99 a year subscription to develop, which made it easy for indie devs to get their titles out without a lot of hassle. Despite the influx of titles, I never felt like the Indie section on Xbox Live ever got the attention it deserved. Granted there were a lot of bad games, but there were some notable ones too, like Beat Hazard which eventually made its way to other platforms. In the end, Indie Games felt like a half-hearted effort on Microsoft’s part. Independent developers were essentially shuffled off into their own corner and really weren’t promoted in any meaningful way. The development tools themselves also didn’t allow for developers to create achievements or use Xbox Live’s online multiplayer capabilities. Still, the missteps that Microsoft made on the Indie Games section seem to have been taken to heart for the Xbox One. Their ID@Xbox program seems far better than what developers had to work with before.

The Xbox 360 has had its share of issues. It’s by no means a perfect console, but it is a good example of how a system can improve over time. It’s version 2 of a Microsoft product, the one that typically has a lot of good ideas but doesn’t quite implement them as well as they should be. Despite its faults, I really like it. I believe it is a classic in the making, a system that in a few years will be among the ranks of the NES or original PlayStation. There’s a nice holiday bundle available that packs in a couple of great games, and a lot of the system’s marquee titles can be found in the discount section of your local department store. You might want to consider getting one now, while they’re easily available.