news\ Sep 27, 2011 at 3:59 pm

What has Microsoft done for gaming?

March 5, 2010

What has Microsoft done for gaming?
By Stevie Smith

Are they the virus or solution to all of gaming’s problems?

When Sega announced in 2001 that it was pulling the plug on its criminally under-appreciated Dreamcast, it left a distinctly console-shaped chasm between Sony’s dominant PlayStation 2 and the capable but graying Nintendo 64. Compounding the wave of consumer disappointment caused by Sega’s decision to shift focus onto software, emerging momentum attributed to the Xbox (Microsoft’s virgin foray into console gaming) looked distinctly akin to Bill Gates hammering an ugly square peg into an elegant circular hole.

For many, Microsoft’s Xbox represented the impure distillation of its Redmond-based creator, existing as a bulky horizontal PC masquerading as a humble home console – a technological wolf in sheep’s clothing designed to be little more than an extension of Microsoft’s shadowy, profit-whoring business agenda. Fair enough upon reflection, many of us were making the uncomfortable transition to Windows XP at the time.

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However, placing widespread public dislike, distrust and disdain associated with Microsoft to one side for a moment, the hulking American software titan has been plowing the videogame furrow for almost a decade, and has certainly played a pivotal role in the ongoing progression of our beloved pastime. As tough as it may be to admit it, Microsoft and its evolving Xbox brand has been a very good thing for you, me, and the entire gaming industry. Shudder.

First and foremost, try to imagine today’s gaming world without Microsoft. Specifically, if ‘The Vole’ had not taken the place of Sega, we’d presently have a two-console battle betwixt hardware platforms so divided on core performance and demographic appeal that to call them rivals would be a laughable inaccuracy. With Nintendo’s ‘casual-centric’ Wii doing its own thing and Sony’s ‘mainstream’ PlayStation 3 catering solely for the more hardcore crowd, life would be dull indeed without Microsoft unceremoniously treading on everyone’s toes.

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As a result of that much-needed competition and the often-glorious corporate catfights that have taken centre stage between the current crop of gaming heavyweights, Microsoft’s Xbox and Xbox 360 have also contributed directly to the creation of the vitriolic fanboy. While both Sony and Nintendo can lay claim to similarly expletive-addled fan support for their respective consoles, the beloved Xbot stands alone as a perpetually incensed hardware zealot fuelled by a near-religious intolerance for differing opinion. Spreading the word through self-righteous diatribes and the verbal crucifixion of non-believers, the Xbot is an unswerving disciple of Microsoft, clearly defined to all others by the glowing presence of a single shining halo. Online videogame forums and the comment threads of N4G would be barren without them – may their misguided fury never subside and their abhorrent punctuation and grammar never improve.

Of course, there’s no danger of that happening just as long as Microsoft keeps producing top-tier exclusive videogames for the ever-faithful “Xbot” to blindly champion. You see, while hurling barbed insults at rival consoles and software titles is perhaps not the best way to raise Microsoft towards the light, there’s no arguing against the pedigree of the videogame portfolio built by the Xbox brand over the last 10 years. Need proof? Look no further than the original Halo, which still causes fervent argument to this day despite the Master Chief growing increasingly grey about the temples (check the comments following this piece).

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Despite becoming somewhat lost beneath the shadows cast by two juggernaut sequels, Bungie’s original action adventure remains unsurpassed in terms of sheer impact and overarching importance; and, for this writer, it was the single defining Xbox release that revealed Sony’s underpowered PlayStation 2 to be little other than a PlayStation 1.5. And if that’s not enough to convince on the software front, then surely you’d be hard-pressed to begrudge Microsoft and its consoles a nod of appreciation for bringing us gems such as Gears of War, Dead Rising, Fable, Ninja Gaiden, Mass Effect, Left 4 Dead, Crackdown, Lost Planet, (breathe) Forza Motorsport, Dead or Alive 3 & 4, Crimson Skies, Viva Pinata, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Project Gotham Racing and… um… Too Human.

To better serve those amongst you unwilling to drop the blood-encrusted baton of disapproval regarding Microsoft, it would be lapse to ignore objective balance by failing to focus on some of the company’s crimes against the videogame industry. The original Xbox’s truly foul design notwithstanding, perhaps the biggest of these crimes comes attached to the bowel-loosening Red Rings of Death hardware failure that has dogged the Xbox 360’s reliability since 2005.

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Presently on my second Xbox 360 after succumbing to the Red Rings in 2008, the rush of fear experienced whenever tentatively prodding the 360’s power button has left me increasingly reliant on the PlayStation 3 when dealing with multi-platform releases. An unsavory reality for a great many early adopters, the heat-related failures associated with terminal examples of the RRoD will be remembered as an ugly consequence carried by the consumer when developmental corners were cut to beat the competition to market. Here’s hoping Microsoft has learned to better value its’ demographic from here on out.

Speaking of unsavory incidents that tarnish Microsoft unnecessarily, let us not forget the ever-present threat of billionaire CEO Steve Ballmer suddenly exploding into an unbridled mass of corporate joy and sweaty armpits while screaming about how much he loves his job – while we’re all replacing our defective 360s. In all seriousness, Microsoft’s occasional moments of overtly aggressive business strategy in the gaming arena do little to counter the corporation’s image as an all-consuming behemoth. For example, Microsoft’s checkbook has become an ominously powerful weapon, recently firing a $50 million USD shell across Sony’s bows by securing episodic content for Grand Theft Auto IV. Microsoft’s seemingly inexhaustible cache of monetary ordnance has also inspired the crushing of supposedly unbreakable PlayStation 3 exclusivity deals, resulting in leading series such as Final Fantasy, Devil May Cry, and Resident Evil making appearances on the Xbox 360.

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Strangely though, regardless of how many times Microsoft incurs the wrath of industry watchers, Sony and Nintendo fans, and even its own delicate install base, it’s somehow difficult to pass judgment when Ballmer, Bach, Allard and co. are also responsible for setting such high standards when it comes to online console gaming. And don’t even get me started on the banal but annoyingly addictive collection of Achievement Points. Microsoft is primarily a software company not a hardware company and, while that differential doesn’t excuse the Xbox 360’s stability failings, it certainly powers the success of Xbox Live and the Xbox Live Marketplace. Conversely, Sony and Nintendo’s positioning within the industry reveals them to be superb hardware creators hamstrung as relative novices when it comes to delivering worthwhile online services.

Look, whichever way you slice it, there are plusses and minuses attached to all of this generation’s central players and all come with the baggage of love and hate association in some form. If you want predominantly family-friendly gameplay supported by an unrealized motion-based control system and some of gaming history’s best-loved but saccharin characters, Nintendo is your safest bet. If you want silent, near faultless hardware reliability, powerhouse performance, Blu-ray quality, and a steep asking price, your money should go to Sony. And if you want the leading online service, a wealth of high-definition content, the cheapest console prices, and the looming prospect of imminent hardware failure, you should head straight for Microsoft.

That being said, if your budget can stretch accordingly, then blanket investment is the only way to attain an all-encompassing videogame experience. And remember kids, love it or hate it, a gaming world without Microsoft is no gaming world at all.

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