The original Xbox was launched in the US on November 15th 2001
On this day 20 years ago gamers first got their hands on a big black box with a heart of green that was designed like the letter X.
The original Xbox, coupled with its chunky controller (nicknamed The Duke) burst onto the scene to compete with Sony and Nintendo.
The console was home to games like Halo: Combat Evolved and Forza Motorsport and wanted to show that Microsoft could make an impact on the gaming world.
Since that original release, the Xbox console family has done just that – establishing itself as a major player in an industry that’s worth an estimated £150bn a year globally.
It hasn’t always been a smooth ride to become one of the three major console makers in the world.
Speaking to BBC Sounds Podcast Press X to Continue – current Xbox boss Phil Spencer laughs: “I mean, you think about our history, we’ve had our moments, right!”
From “the red rings of death” that plagued owners of the popular Xbox 360 to “the misgivings that had to be made right after the launch of the Xbox One” – Phil says they’ve had plenty of issues to work though.
But those bumpy times have played a big part in the company reaching this milestone. “No doubt those experiences helped us, I think we learned from everything,” he says.
“Sometimes when a big success happens, it’s hard to sleuth out why. I think it’s a little easier to figure out where some of the missteps were – when something doesn’t go exactly to plan.
“I feel great about about where we are now.”
Today Xbox Live – the online service for playable versions of the console is reported to have more than 90 million monthly users worldwide.
The latest versions of the Xbox, the Series X and S, are the fastest selling in company history – although it’s estimated by industry analysts that their main competitor the Playstation 5 has sold more.
The next 20 years
Looking ahead to the next 20 years, to try stay relevant with gamers across the world, Phil says diversity is key: “It is fundamental to the journey that we’re on.
“I truly believe that we ship our culture as much as we ship our technology with every product or game that we put out. The culture of the team and their lived experiences show up in the products we build.
“As a privileged, older, white male in the tech industry, I am not the anomaly. I realise there’s a lot of privilege that got me into this position over the years.
“When we think about the role that we want to play in the world, our products and our services we have to reflect inwardly on our team – there’s no doubt about that.”
To help achieve this Phil says Microsoft are making their diversity and inclusion targets public. It’s a move that’s becoming popular across technology companies – Sony also publishes a diversity and equality report.
Any game on any device
Microsoft are taking a different approach to their main competitors Sony and Nintendo when it comes to the future – meaning we could see a very different games landscape in years to come.
“In some of our traditional markets, when you look over the last 20 years, there are people that will go and spend £500 on a games console or £50 on a new game,” Phil says.
“That’s not the social or economic realities of the planet, so we also need diversity of how we distribute the content that we’ve made.”
Playstation and Nintendo are focused on drawing people to play games on their latest consoles, with lots of exclusive titles focused on selling discs and downloads for a premium price.
Microsoft of course wants to do the same – but is spending lots of energy on spreading games across many devices.
Given the machines made by the other two are reportedly outselling the new Xbox Series X and S – Phil hopes Microsoft’s approach will be the right one. “We’re focusing on things like GamePass, our subscription service which can lower the monthly cost of somebody building up their games library.
“We’re focusing on things like X-Cloud, which allows us to distribute the games over the Internet to almost any device.
“These are steps in a journey to making content that allows creators from all over the world to come together and allow anybody on the planet to play, share with a community and maybe save the world from invading aliens!”
A maturing industry
Gaming has changed a lot in the last 20 years and faced plenty of scrutiny.
Whether it’s keeping players safe from online abuse, protecting them from addictive gameplay mechanics or looking at how some titles encourage players to spend money – Phil believes the industry as a whole is now more prepared to face these issues. “I think this is a journey, not a destination.
“I like as an industry we’re not shying away from talking about the opportunities and the challenges.”
Companies like Microsoft, and the broader gaming industry, are having to do a lot of talking about these challenges at the moment.
It’s been nearly three years since the World Heath Organisation officially listed ‘gaming disorder’ as an illness.
Currently the UK government is considering regulating in-game purchases after MPs called for more action – we’re expecting an announcement on what exactly that means for the games people play on their Xboxes in the coming months.
“You’re only credible if you’re discussing both the challenges and opportunities and I see an industry that’s maturing, stepping up and having these conversations.
“Safety and security of our customers is core to who we are, we’re going to continue to invest and we’ll continue to talk about it.”
Will we have consoles in 2041?
What about 2041 then, will we have new Xbox consoles in the shops in another 20 years time? “You know, when you think of 20 years in the future, you get into questions of are we going to even have televisions?” Phil says.
“Most video content now is consumed on a phone across the planet.
“I think you’ll see a diversity of devices that people will play video games on.
“The number of screens that I can watch my videos and TV shows on has gone up, and I think gaming will go that same way.”