Following Footsteps: Part 1 - How the Xbox 360 Influenced the Xbox One

[Originally posted on January 14, 2015]

By Michael Mendis

Xbox One (left) and Xbox 360

Xbox One (left) and Xbox 360

This is the first in a series of three articles examining how the successes and failures of the 7th generation consoles (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii) impacted their respective 8th generation successors (Xbox One, PS4, Wii U).  This article takes a look at the Xbox 360 and Xbox One.  The next article will deal with the PS3 and PS4, and the final article will discuss the Wii and Wii U.

Consoles are a major investment for a company.  When Microsoft, Sony, or Nintendo sit down to start planning a new gaming platform, they know they will be spending many years and hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars on research and prototypes before the platform is completed and brought to market.  They have to make a plan, learning both from the lessons of the past as well as the trends heading into the future.  This article (and the two articles that will follow) examines the former, how a platform-holder looks at their previous hardware and decides what aspects are worth continuing into the next generation, and what past problems need to be avoided as they move forward.  Let’s start with Microsoft, examining a few major aspects of the Xbox One that were influenced, for better or for worse, by the Xbox 360.

If you buy an Xbox One and pull it out of the box to start setting it up, one of the first things you’ll likely notice about Microsoft’s new console is its sheer size.  It is a large (and hefty) console, noticeably bigger than either of its 8th generation rivals.  While there are a variety of reasons why this could be the case, perhaps one of the more interesting reasons is the large fan used to cool the Xbox One hardware.

Xbox 360 teardown (two small cooling fans)

Xbox 360 teardown (two small cooling fans)

Xbox One teardown (one very large cooling fan)

Xbox One teardown (one very large cooling fan)

The fan that Microsoft’s engineers settled on for their new platform is substantially larger than those found in the PS4 or Wii U, and allows the console to easily cool itself down without making much noise.  The decision to include such a large fan can likely be traced back to one of the first challenges Microsoft faced with the Xbox 360.  In the first few years of its lifecycle, many Xbox 360 consoles suffered from a hardware problem (commonly known as the “Red Ring of Death” for the glowing red rings that appeared around the power button when the problem occurred) that caused the console to overheat to the point of rendering it inoperable; this malfunction made the Xbox 360 a far less reliable console than Sony’s PS3 or Nintendo’s Wii. While future revisions of the 360 hardware largely eliminated this problem, Microsoft’s engineers likely had this debacle in mind when designing the 360’s successor, and sought to ensure that it would not be a problem on the Xbox One.

The infamous "Red Ring of Death"

The infamous "Red Ring of Death"

Xbox 360 (left) and PlayStation 3 controllers

Xbox 360 (left) and PlayStation 3 controllers

While the 360’s console hardware received some harsh criticism, its controller received near universal praise and was widely regarded as superior to Sony’s PS3 controller, the Dualshock 3.   The 360 pad was sturdier and generally more comfortable, and the presence of proper triggers (rather than the Dualshock 3’s gummy, convex buttons) made it the go-to controller for shooters.  PC gamers also gravitated toward the 360 controller for their own games, as Microsoft made it easy for people to set up a wired 360 pad to a Windows computer.  With all this praise for the 360’s controller, Microsoft knew they had to tread carefully when creating the controller for the Xbox One.  Rather than introduce any radical changes to the new controller’s design and risk fixing what wasn’t broken, Microsoft opted to play it safe, implementing a variety of more subtle changes to improve the experience that people had become accustomed to, most significantly a higher-quality D-pad (often considered the 360 controller’s one key weakness) and new rumble motors located within the triggers.  The result is a controller that maintains the comfortable, practical design of its predecessor and, most people who have experience playing games on the Xbox 360 or a PC should feel right at home with it.

Xbox One (left) and Xbox 360 controllers

Xbox One (left) and Xbox 360 controllers

Throughout the lifespan of the 360 Microsoft frequently updated the console’s operating system (OS), adding new features and even dramatically re-organizing the dashboard as they did in 2008 with the NXE (“New Xbox Experience”) and in 2011 with their Metro-style re-design.  While the Xbox One is still too young to need a radical new dashboard, Microsoft has continued the trend of consistent updates with this console, releasing a new update for the Xbox One almost every month since the console launched in 2013, and often introducing new features that fans have been asking for on forums and on Microsoft’s own feedback website.

Perhaps one of the most controversial carry-overs from the 360 era to Xbox One is the Kinect, Microsoft’s peripheral used to track body motion and register voice commands.  The Kinect for the Xbox 360 sold extremely well at its launch in November 2010, briefly taking the prize in the Guinness Book of World Records as the Fastest-Selling Consumer Electronics Device. Dance Central from developer Harmonix and Kinect Sports from Microsoft’s own studio Rare became big hits for the new hardware, and Microsoft worked to integrate voice and gesture functionality into the 360’s user interface.  This early success convinced Microsoft to bundle a new, improved version of the Kinect with each Xbox One console.  Kinect became a key part of Microsoft’s early marketing campaign for the One, with many commercials showing off the console’s ability to switch between games and TV functionality using Kinect voice commands.

On the one hand, bundling the new Kinect with each console right out of the gate allowed Microsoft to build both the console and the camera from the ground up to work well together, making all the major features and settings easily accessible with a simple voice command or gesture.

A demonstration of Xbox One Kinect motion-tracking

A demonstration of Xbox One Kinect motion-tracking

On the other hand, it also led Microsoft to lean a bit too heavily on the Kinect for navigating through the Xbox One operating system, as certain features were much more difficult to find if you forgot the proper voice command and had to search through the OS with the controller.  Price became a problem as well; bundling the Kinect forced Microsoft to sell the Xbox One for a steep price of $499, while Sony, in separating their PlayStation Camera from the new PlayStation 4, could sell the PS4 for just $399.  Consumers also reacted poorly to the Kinect-centric marketing, especially in light of Sony’s gaming-centric message coming out of E3 2013.  The consumer backlash (surrounding not only the inclusion of Kinect but also policies regarding the console’s internet requirements) was strong enough to convince Microsoft to start making changes to the Xbox One, and fast.  

Phil Spencer

Phil Spencer

Among the most significant changes was a shift in leadership, with Phil Spencer, the head of Microsoft Studios (Microsoft’s game publishing arm), taking a new role as “Head of Xbox” in March 2014, putting him in charge of all software for the platform.  Marketing quickly became much more focused on games, and just a couple months later the Redmond-based tech giant announced that the Xbox One would become available without Kinect for $399, matching the PS4.  In addition, Microsoft has added new controller-based shortcuts to help players find certain features more easily without voice commands, and to generally make the operating system more intuitive.

 

In the end, the lessons Microsoft learned from the Xbox 360 were a mixed bag. Early mistakes, including:

- Kinect being bundled with every Xbox One console.

- The high market price.

- TV/Kinect-centric marketing.

…put Microsoft in a hole as soon as the console was announced, one that they have been climbing out of ever since.  Thankfully, Microsoft also made some very smart decisions going from the 360 to the One:

+ The Xbox One controller is a worthy successor to one of the greatest controllers ever made.

+ The Xbox One hardware is far less prone to failure than the 360.

+ The consistent updates bring interesting new features and keep the platform feeling fresh.

Despite their missteps, Microsoft has built a solid platform on which to play games and enjoy other entertainment, and their ability to adjust to consumer demand very quickly (more quickly than one might expect from such an enormous corporation) will help the Xbox One remain relevant in the years to come.