Looking Back on 20 Years of Xbox

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By Juno Stump on November 18th, 2021


It’s been twenty years since the beginning of Xbox and video games haven’t been the same since. Nintendo and Sony have introduced new ideas and innovations as well but Xbox’s influence is especially impressive given the company’s stumbles and short time within the industry.

Microsoft marked the passage of time with a celebration video that includes highlights from the last 20 years of Xbox. Some of the additions introduced felt extra or futuristic at the time but it was all part of Xbox’s vision to bring tomorrow closer than it was before.

From hard drives to Xbox Live, these are the most important and exciting moments from Microsoft that changed Xbox and video games forever…

The Duke

Xbox Original Controller, The Duke

The massive controller for the original Xbox changed everything, even though Microsoft created a new controller relatively quickly. Dubbed ‘The Duke’ by many, due to its massive size, especially when compared to other contemporary controllers, the controller was nearly half the size of the Xbox console itself, which was already quite big.

I was a child with small hands when I first held The Duke and I thought it was great! Yeah, it was big but my fingers and hands could stretch out all the way, preventing cramps and other pains that would otherwise threaten my long video game sessions. Still, most people wanted something more familiar (and smaller) so Microsoft’s Controller S variant replaced The Duke as the new, official, bundled controller.

The smaller controller featured the same buttons but in a placement that more closely resembled controllers from other consoles. And despite The Duke’s short life, it’s remained a fixture in the Xbox community, even seeing a re-release for use with modern Xbox consoles, and its influence never really left either.

Xbox Original Controller, S Variant

Xbox may have retired The Duke but the company never stopped experimenting with controllers, which has given us more ways to play games. It started with two different controllers that were primarily different in size but Xbox didn’t stop there.

Microsoft continued looking for new ways to give players control and what that could mean. The Xbox Elite Wireless Controller sought to provide players with a more luxurious and ergonomic controller while also adding the ability to customize button placement, style, and positioning.

Xbox Adaptive Controller

Xbox later introduced the Xbox Adaptive Controller, which changed everything. The controller provides players with the ability to create custom settings and buttons, which essentially allows everyone to explore digital worlds on Xbox and beyond.

Changing how we play games extends to how we control the action on-screen and while it may sound small, it’s actually among Xbox’s biggest achievements. As Xbox marketing and Phil Spencer have repeatedly said, “When everybody plays, we all win.”

“The Giant Bloody War Game” (Or Halo: Combat Evolved)

Most stories about Xbox start with Halo: Combat Evolved. The epic science-fiction adventure is certainly what allowed Xbox to live and breathe as the company scrambled to lay a foundation for the future, but it wasn’t always part of the plan.

Bungie originally went to Steve Jobs and secured a spot onstage at MacWorld, but things quickly changed for the game’s development and even what it was. Halo: Combat Evolved started out as a third-person shooter coming to Mac and Windows before changing the first-person shooter genre forever on Microsoft’s new Xbox console.

Halo was originally a simpler game or a more complex idea, depending on how you look at it. In the beginning, it was just a super soldier in shiny armor, a group of marines, and vehicles that could be used for moving across the surface of mysterious worlds. People going places and doing things for then-unknown reasons, but it looked cool. And Bungie was going to make it feel cool too. The giant rings and space battles would come later.

Despite Bungie’s ambitious ideas and previous successful work, the company was almost unable to complete Halo. At this point, the world knew what Halo was (or at least as much as Bungie knew) and its existence still hung in the balance. The game quickly became a highly anticipated title for everyone that knew about it โ€” and it almost didn’t happen.

A costly mistake had drained Bungie of nearly a million dollars, but the independent developer was happy to pay the price, even though it almost destroyed the company’s future โ€” and Halo. Myth II: Soulblighter, Bungie’s previous release, contained a strange glitch that could wipe the directory contents of users’ computers. Bungie could have ignored the issue and saved themselves a lot of money and hardship, but the company has always put its fans first.

Bungie recalled 200,000 copies of the game and issued a fix that would prevent that catastrophic glitch from occurring, but doing so took away the developer’s independence. In order to save the company and Halo, two things were necessary:

  1. Bungie sold a share of the company and publishing rights to Take-Two Interactive, which gave the Halo dev some cash, and more importantly, time, which they desperately needed while they figured out a plan.
  2. Bungie made a phone call to Ed Fries (former head of Microsoft Game Studios) and asked if they needed any help making Xbox games. The company told Xbox it was broke and in danger of going under. The plan was to make Halo for Xbox, which would hopefully solve both of the company’s problems.

And it absolutely did.

Halo: Combat Evolved became an instant hit, which made the Xbox a household name across college campuses, living rooms, and basements everywhere. The mysterious and exciting story pulled players into the world of Halo and the multiplayer kept everyone stuck in place; like a plasma grenade on a Warthog in Blood Gulch, Halo was inescapable, colorful, and exciting.

The original Xbox’s launch lineup wasn’t bad by any means. The system contained a good level of variety and fun, especially for Microsoft’s first console, but Xbox would not have survived were it not for the bomb delivered by Bungie and Master Chief.

8 Gigabytes of internal hard drive storage

It’s almost impossible to play modern video games without a few hundred gigabytes of hard drive space but the concept was entirely new in 2001, at least for consoles. PlayStation 2, Gamecube, and the Sega Dreamcast (RIP) were all content with using memory cards, which were an effective way of managing save data for the time, but Xbox’s idea brought more freedom to games.

Eight gigabytes of hard drive space is nothing in comparison to the needs of today but it was ridiculous in 2001. Downloadable Content would arrive near the end of the Xbox with a few titles, such as Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, but the space was largely put there with game save data in mind.

Original Xbox with its controller (The Duke variant), cables, and box contents / Image via Atari Age

Microsoft still sold memory cards but they were optional and only really useful if you wanted to bring your saved game data to a friend’s house. For everyone else, the hard drive was the only thing necessary. I deleted some saved game data once or twice after returning Blockbuster rentals before quickly realizing the storage read ‘50,000+ blocks free’ regardless of what I did.

Xbox provided a way for games to grow and continue past the disc, which was a limitation in the console space for years. It’s easy to feel cynical with the fact that games can go on forever without truly needing to end but that goes both ways. New levels, weapons, maps, and even story content are only able to be added to games now through the power of the Internet and hard drives, both of which seemed unnecessary and extra just two decades ago.

Xbox Live

Online gaming existed before Xbox Live but it was much different. Xbox Live brought a unified, global network that allowed for less searching and more playing. It took time for it to become what it’s known as today, and is still growing and changing years after its start, but it all started with an idea.

Sega tried to make it happen with the Dreamcast, along with several other brilliant ideas, but Xbox managed to make it all happen. Friends lists, messages, parties, and everything else we take for granted in online gaming didn’t just come from Xbox either. Bungie tirelessly worked to improve the online experience in the Halo series, which often meant introducing features that were exclusive to Halo’s online multiplayer.

Xbox and Bungie’s close relationship allowed for the easy implementation of Halo‘s ideas to be added into Xbox Live over time, which then helped shape and influence other online services, such as PlayStation Network. And one day Nintendo may also decide to take ideas from Microsoft’s 2002 Xbox Live service.

Red Rings and Halos

Image via Classic Game Room, Red Ring of Death Review

The Red Ring of Death could have been the end of Xbox but the company acted quickly to get in front of the issue. The red rings would appear on consoles when they overheated, which was due to a manufacturing defect. Essentially Microsoft had designed the Xbox 360 with its physical appearance in mind more so than its internal components.

It hurt the company’s image and the Xbox 360’s reputation but it could have been so much worse. The Xbox 360 had a pretty great launch outside of the hardware issues, even beating PlayStation 3 to market, but it came at a cost.

Microsoft extended the out-of-box warranty to three years and set aside over a billion dollars to deal with the problem. Like Bungie’s handling of Myth II, it was the right thing to do, especially long term, and it’s likely yet another reason the Xbox brand was saved.

Microsoft later introduced new models that worked to improve the performance of the Xbox 360, which even included new features, such as increased hard drive space and quieter fans. Xbox has never officially revealed specific data on the Xbox 360’s Red Ring of Death failure but third-party analysis places it around thirty percent, which is much higher than the standard 3-5% that Microsoft stated during the console’s launch year.

That being said, Microsoft definitely handled things correctly in the end, which gave many fans faith that Microsoft would own up to its missteps. Things are going to go wrong with technology, games, and hardware so knowing Xbox will address the problems always helps when they arise.

Phil Spencer

The Xbox One reveal is perhaps among the most infamous within the industry, which is why the brand’s return is so impressive. Xbox felt dead on arrival as a company and brand when the Xbox One was new, and that feeling continued for quite some time. The company’s most ill-received feature never even happened โ€” but the damage had already been done.

During the Xbox One reveal it was announced the console would require an always-online Internet connection, prompting an immediate backlash. The presentation also provided PlayStation with the perfect material for a PS4 commercial, instantly giving Xbox’s competitor an advantage. PlayStation already has incredible ideas of its own so there’s really no need for Sega and Microsoft to keep helping them move units.

Microsoft made massive changes after the fan backlash, which included how Xbox was structured within the company. A dedicated budget outside of Windows and unrelated departments gave Xbox the capability to grow but it’s been Phil Spencer’s leadership that resurrected Xbox and brought sweeping changes to the industry as a whole.

Spencer joined Microsoft as an intern in the late eighties and his passion for technology and gaming quickly helped him rise through Microsoft’s Company Battle Pass, or whatever corporate jobs call that sort of thing.

Looking Beyond the Future

By 2017, Spencer had been promoted to the Senior Leadership Team as the Executive Vice President of Gaming, putting him directly underneath Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft. And Phil got to work quickly, having heard the feedback from the community loud and clear. Who didn’t hear that feedback? My wife and I still use “Xbox One” as a “Good to leave the house?” style phrase. It originated from us seeing Xbox One consoles EVERYWHERE in 2015 and 2016. The systems eventually started to sell but Xbox One never came close to the PlayStation 4, at least in terms of console sales.

That being said, Xbox has effectively won the conversation; popular features like Xbox Game Pass, Backward Compatibility, and Cloud Gaming have helped both Xbox and video games as a whole improve for everyone. Even people somehow immune to the allure of Xbox’s ecosystem have experienced positive changes from Xbox under Spencer’s mostly smooth sailing.

Sea of Glee

Cross-Play likely wouldn’t have happened with the support of Epic Games via Fortnite but Phil Spencer continually brought the conversation around the topic and pushed the suggestion whenever possible. We’ll probably never know the full extent of the conversations between Xbox and Epic Games but there had to have been some conversations behind closed doors.

But it’s the drive to bring as many games as possible to everyone that’s made Xbox the force that it is today. At the end of the day, games are simultaneously pieces of art and toys meant to be enjoyed by all of us. Xbox has dropped the Oddball several times but the dedication to pick it back up and win it for the whole team is what makes the brand so enduring.

Juno really likes video games. Horror is their favorite but she also likes other stuff.


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