A console revolution: How the Xbox 360 helped change the way we play games

Microsoft this week announced that they will stop making the 360 - more than ten years after the console launched

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Image: Tim Ireland / PA Archive/Press Association Images

Earlier this week, Microsoft announced that they are ending production of the Xbox 360 console.

In a statement, Xbox head Phil Spencer thanked fans for supporting the console for ten years, adding that “while we’ve had an amazing run, the realities of manufacturing a product over a decade old are starting to creep up on us. Which is why we have made the decision to stop manufacturing new Xbox 360 consoles”. Remaining stock will be sold off, and for now the console’s online features will continue to be supported.

Although the announcement was a bit sudden, it in fact comes after an unusually long ‘console cycle’. The Xbox 360 and its closest competitor the Playstation 3 launched in 2005 and 2006 respectively - and their successors didn’t arrive until 2013. In contrast, the original Xbox was launched in 2001 - with a gap of only four years before the 360 arrived.

There were a number of reasons for the long cycle, with the economy certainly one of the prevailing factors. However, the so-called ‘seventh console generation’ proved a particularly dynamic and fascinating era for gaming hardware.

The success of the Wii meant Nintendo were the undisputed ‘winners’ of the generation. But Microsoft were surely happy to settle with a comfortable second place, especially given the 360’s lead over the more direct competitor that was the PS3 (although the gap between the two was reasonably narrow by the end of the generation). After trailing so far behind the Playstation 2, Xbox was established itself as a truly significant player with the 360.

Although the Wii won entire new demographics over to the video games, it was the 360 that best reflected some of the changes and successes of a very significant era in video games. It did, one could argue, live up to its name and offer something of a revolution.

Launch and early success

The 360’s launch was by no stretch of the imagination an ideal one. Unveiled during a rather awkward MTV ‘special’ hosted by Elijah Wood, the Xbox 360 was immediately cursed with a somewhat confusing name (although Microsoft outdid themselves by even more bafflingly naming its successor the ‘Xbox One’).

When the console launched in November 2005, it did so with an underwhelming selection of games - few of which have stood the test of time, bar perhaps something like the excellent 2D shooter Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved. There was definitely nothing major like Halo, which launched alongside Microsoft’s first console and remains one of the company’s most valuable franchises. Microsoft also gambled on the wrong high definition video technology in HD-DVD - especially since it was not built into the console itself, and required an expensive add on compared to the in-built Blu-Ray player of the PS3.

However, the biggest problem only unveiled itself in the months and indeed years after launch. ‘The Red Ring of Death’ are words that will likely still make early 360 adopters shudder. There was a huge failure rate among the early consoles - some estimates putting the number in excess of 50% - with Microsoft ultimately putting aside more than $1bn to deal with the massive levels of repairs and replacements.

It was something of a miracle, then, that the 360 nonetheless established itself as something of a ‘must have’ console for enthusiast gamers in the very same period. It helped that the PS3 launched at an infamously expensive price point ("599 US dollars") compared to the more affordable 360. Over the first and second years, a number of very significant number of games were released on the Xbox. By the time the console’s second birthday rolled around, there were major titles such as Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, Bioshock, Gears of War, Crackdown, Dead Rising, Halo 3 and several others - all games that played a major role in ushering in the ‘high definition’ era of console gaming.

Not only that, but the 360 became the de facto home for many multi-platform releases despite the release of the theoretically more powerful PS3. Unfortunately, Sony’s console proved a challenge for developers to work with. The result was some under-performing PS3 versions of titles such as the Half Life anthology The Orange Box and the action game Bayonetta.

The popularity of the 360 in the West also forced many developers, especially Japanese ones, to go multi-platform after having previously stayed in Sony’s court (the astonishing success of the PS2 played no small part in that). A few years previously, it would have been unthinkable that a major Final Fantasy title would launch simultaneously on the Xbox 360 and PS3. Even niche Japanese titles - like the ‘bullet hell’ shooters of Cave - found a home on 360, partially due to the comparatively high cost of manufacturing Blu Ray discs for the PS3. It was all despite the fact that Microsoft almost completely failed in their efforts to make a mark in Japan itself.

Downloadable content

The online service Xbox Live may have required an annual subscription to use, but it also established itself as far superior to Sony’s free offering, at least in the early years of the consoles. Building on the foundations set by the original Xbox, the 360's Xbox Live became the home for many of the major online titles of the generation - the Call of Duty series chief among them, especially after the launch of Modern Warfare in late 2007. The ‘achievement’ system also proved a huge success for Microsoft, and remains incredibly popular among many gamers - leading Sony to play catch up with their belated ‘trophies’ system.

Online was arguably the area where the 360 made the most notable impact. The console’s digital marketplace Xbox Live Arcade was vitally important, not only opening up the potential for downloadable content but entire games. It helped usher in the major growth of the independent games industry by hosting small but ambitious and influential titles such as Braid, Super Meat Boy, Limbo and Fez - all of which proved major hits on 360 before making their way to other platforms. It also became a way to release upgraded versions of classic titles, some of which - like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night - were previously very difficult to buy or play.

Games like Geometry Wars 2 or Castle Crashers best summed up the appeal of Xbox Live titles: affordable, addictive and a tonne of fun to play, all enhanced by online features and an engaging achievement system.

One of the more unique aspects of the 360 was that the console itself changed over its lifespan. A number of major firmware upgrades completely altered the look and feel of the console’s user interface, and also facilitated the arrival of video apps such as Sky and Netflix (which arguably proved as important to the console’s long term success as the games themselves).

The console itself changed too, with a number of revisions offering larger hard drives (which became essential as digital games demanded more and more space) and completely new looks, as well as significant internal changes that helped minimise those dastardly ‘red rings of death’.

And then there was Kinect. After the Wii popularised motion controls, Microsoft released their fascinating camera device that was able to track players' movements across a room. It didn’t work all the time, unfortunately: many games suffered significant technical issues, and only a handful of truly noteworthy games - such as the Dance Central series - were released for the peripheral. However, the device was a massive sales success, selling an estimated 8 million units during its first 60 days - that's a lot of people flailing about in their living rooms.

Twilight years

The ‘twilight years’ of the 360 weren’t all smooth sailing. The Kinect languished, as did the range of Xbox Live exclusives. Microsoft fell behind Sony in terms of online offerings - the ‘Playstation Plus’ subscription service, offering ‘free’ games every month, proving something that Xbox’s ‘Games with Gold’ has only now managed to catch up with (arguably even surpassed in recent months). In terms of big name games, Sony also managed to sneak ahead - games such as the acclaimed The Last of Us pushing the PS3’s capabilities in new directions only months before the PS4 arrived.

There was still some notable wins for the 360, of course. A handful of ‘next generation’ games acquitted themselves surprisingly well on the older console. As if proving the enduring relevance of the then almost nine-year-old console, the big-name Xbox One ‘exclusive’ Titanfall arrived on 360 in 2014 to acclaim - the graphical downgrade was obvious, but the core game arrived pretty much fully intact.

Two and a half years into console generation eight, the situation has drastically changed compared to only a few years ago. The Playstation 4 has enjoyed huge sales success that has amazed even Sony. The Xbox One has struggled in the market after a troubled launch, and remains underpowered compared to the PS4 - although it is increasingly boasting some solid exclusives and an appealing ‘Games with Gold’ service. The Wii U’s failure means Xbox is again in second place, although far less comfortably this time. It also remains to be seen how much the upcoming Playstation VR can change the playing field.

Still, the influence of the Xbox 360 cannot be understated in the way it helped define the latest console generation as well as the previous one. The iconic, versatile 360 controller remains the PC gaming controller of choice, and looks likely to remain so even despite the improvements made in the Xbox One revision. Although production on the 360 itself is ceasing, Microsoft has admirably committed to making their latest console backwards compatible - the One boasts an increasingly impressive list of previous generation games now playable on the newer device.

The 360 undoubtedly helped increase the scope of what consoles could and should do. But even when all the remaining Xbox 360s are sold, its online services switched off and other consoles succumb to a belated ‘red ring of death’, players will thankfully still be able to experience the fascinating, vast and wonderful selection of games that made the 360 a very special console indeed.