Part Three: Xboxification
Back into the world of video game consoles, we go! That market was good times, too. Back in the early nineties, a Nintendo hardware project partnership with Japanese television-and-electronics giant Sony fell through after Nintendo opted (i.e. breached the hell out of their contract) to work in tandem with Dutch electronics company Phillips. Sufficiently outraged, Sony decided that they would release their “Play Station” on their own terms. Well, it worked out well. Sony utilized the blueprint built by Sega for competing with Nintendo (fight Mario’s family-friendly appeal with games for teens and young adults) and dominated console video games during the late nineties. But even as the Nintendo 64 developed a derisive reputation as the “kiddy console” (one that would also haunt the Nintendo GameCube), Nintendo still did the first-person shooter better than Sony cared to. All Sony had to show for their troubles was the 1999 sleeper hit Medal of Honor, a shooter that won fans with its (get this!) original use of a World War II setting. Console gamers weren’t demanding the ultimate first-person shooter. They were looking for some fun with their friends. So, what wins out? “Two-player first-person shooter?” Or “four-player first person shooter”? Not a hard choice. Nintendo won, Sony lost.
The real surprise was Sony’s decision to once again opt for two controller ports in their design of the PlayStation 2. Why would they do that? Well, here’s the easy explanation: Nintendo was doing business with the West (and particularly Americans) for some time. The Japanese don’t give a shit for shooters, but I’m sure somebody got word to Hiroshi Yamauchi that “Americans like shooting people! We swear!” The development of GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark for the Western markets reflected that. Sony hadn’t built that body of experience. Who was going to convince a Japanese upstart that the first-person shooter would become the next big genre on the consoles? Sony dominated the Nintendo 64 era with single-player platforming and role-playing games. In the place of shooters, the PlayStation 2 transformed sports video games into the new cash cow. The lack of shooters became one of the few blemishes for Sony’s wunderkind, a console that would go on to sell 740 billion units in thirty-seven different galaxies.
It left a gigantic hole for first-person shooter development. It would have seemed like a logical choice for Rare to continue working with Nintendo on what had become a sure thing. Ultimately, Rare spent the early years of the Nintendo GameCube shelf life producing a successor to Diddy Kong Racing until Nintendo lost their financial stake in the British developer around 2002. Anybody who wanted to steal some thunder had a pretty good chance. As it turns out, we’ve learned one constant about the free market: It would not be a party without Microsoft deciding that they could steal somebody else’s idea. In 2000, the American computer software monopoly made a stunning announcement that they would be making their way into the video game hardware business. But why? Why would a company whose operating system fostered the greatest financial success in the history of computer video games want to enter the console video game business? It’s an important question to ask. It will give us a lot of answers in due time.
If you grew up on any Windows operating system of the early nineties, you learned a very quick and painful lesson: It was terrible at games. There’s a very important reason that Solitaire and Minesweeper became the two games associated with Windows. Microsoft’s primary competition in the market for operating systems came from numerous variants of Disk Operating System, a command-line user interface that dominated most of the eighties. It was a Bush vs. Kerry situation for the computer video game market. Quite frankly, neither was very good for games. DOS was plagued with its own problems, but at least the software programmers had a level of access to the user’s computer hardware. During the run-up to the Christmas of 1994, Microsoft packaged a Windows-compatible version of side-scroller The Lion King with approximately one-million Compaq computers. The game had to be specifically programmed for the drivers in those pre-fabbed computers. At the last moment, Compaq changed the hardware specifications, which included drivers that had not been tested with the game. And come Christmas, young kids around the country became buddies with the Blue Screen of Death. Such was the life of computer gamers in the early nineties. And Microsoft understood that in order to kill off DOS, they had to demonstrate that Windows could do video games much better than that.
The company took two steps. The first? They created DirectX, an application programming interface that was far more stable than any predecessors. It was good enough that the industry is still using it and Microsoft continues to support it. Then, Microsoft took a trip to id Software and asked if they could create a Windows port of Doom to coincide with their release of Windows 95. Id Software obliged. With two simple steps, Microsoft took the command-line interface out onto the back porch and put a bullet through its head. Thanks to the stability that both Windows 95 and DirectX provided for computer video games (saving consumers from a number of splitting headaches), the computer gaming market flourished during the mid-to-late nineties. And as hit after hit after hit was produced for the personal computer, it began to dawn on Microsoft that they had made an oversight. Or rather, created a problem that most companies would love to have.
Windows has always been a closed, proprietary system. That’s never changed. It’s why you’re at the mercy of Windows security updates and Linux users close off security loopholes as they’re discovered. But obviously, anybody with the talent and resources can create software for Windows. Windows program creation is open-source. Microsoft never had a chance to tell developers “Here’s our licensing agreement, sign it or die!” So once Microsoft used the computer gaming market to transform Windows into the dominant operating system, Microsoft could no longer make money through these games indirectly. Windows became the standard whether people were using it to play games or not. Microsoft couldn’t leverage their hammer to demand royalties, licensing fees, or distribution fees. Technology and the internet were still years removed from realizing the concept of a “digital distribution” platform. At the time, the only way to make money off of the games was either to produce them or create a closed system and dictate the terms on which other people make the games. That was the purpose of the Microsoft Xbox. When the company could no longer profit from the apex of an open-source computer video game market, they built a closed system and called it the Xbox.
It looked like a mixed bag for Microsoft. The company’s war chest seemed like a logical addition to the console video game industry. The cost of launching and supporting the hardware was well on its way to obscene heights. As for everything else, history was not on Microsoft’s side. After the Crash of 1983, American game development retreated to personal computers. From 1985 to 2000, the Japanese owned and dominated the console video game hardware business and also produced the best-sellers. What could Microsoft accomplish that Sony or Nintendo could not? Perhaps looking to embrace their reputation as the creators of Microsoft Windows (the operating system where computer games and their elitist fans go to war), Microsoft began by building the most powerful of the sixth-generation video game consoles. Little surprise that Microsoft created the first major video game console built like a personal computer. The Xbox featured the capability for broadband internet, and unlike its competitors, would be shipped with an internal hard drive. Consumers were also constantly reminded by Microsoft public relations reps about the console’s nVidia-produced graphics processor. This round, Microsoft would be going into a console war as the “premium console producer”, a moniker that ultimately doomed the ColecoVision, Atari Lynx, Sega Game Gear, Atari Jaguar, 3D0, the Sega CD, and wouldn’t work out too well for the Sony PlayStation 3. To this point in the history of the industry, only the Super Nintendo’s hair-splitting superiority to the Sega Genesis (mostly in the realm of “sound capabilities”) had been able to win out as the “premium” brand.
This is a pretty good time to begin preaching the gospel of Halo: Combat Evolved. Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ve heard of it. And from the moment it was announced, a lot of people did. The game began its development cycle at developer Bungie (the Marathon guys) as a science-fiction follow-up to their Myth strategy games, a franchise most casually described as “role-playing strategy before Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos made it fashionable”. During its early development, Halo transformed into something similar to Starsiege: Tribes, with Halo touting well-developed vehicle play as a trump card. Everything was moving along very smoothly. The game received favorable impressions from the press and generated further interest when it was announced that it would receive a concurrent release on the Windows and Macintosh operating platforms. The Macintosh gaming community was thrilled. However, so was Microsoft. Because see, Xbox launch games such as Fuzion Frenzy and Cel Damage were not going to put asses in the seats and sell a new video game console. Not one to pass on buying somebody else’s work and passing it off as their own, Microsoft purchased Bungie in 2000 and placed their hand on Halo‘s development.* Microsoft put their foot forward and announced that Halo was going to be serious business. The company penned Halo: Combat Evolved as the cornerstone exclusive for the Xbox’s November of 2001 launch lineup. That is, “The game will not be coming out for the personal computer. If you want to play Halo, buy our new video game box!”
Microsoft’s groomed beauty pageant contestant had a potential silver lining: Sony and Nintendo were undergoing a mascot edition of “Identity Crisis”. During Sony’s battles with the Nintendo 64, the company used Crash Bandicoot as an edgy and Sonic-esque rebuttal to Mario’s platforming escapades, highlighted by an infamous commercial where the Bandicoot drove to Nintendo of America Headquarters and put them on notice. By the time the PlayStation 2 rolled around, Sony left the bandicoot to rot, possibly realizing that the PlayStation brand appeal superceded the need for a mascot. What about Nintendo? They always had Mario to pick up the slack. Well, Nintendo simply wasn’t in a situation to impose a market or mascot on anybody. That company had serious issues. (“BUT NINTENDOS WAS MAKIGN A PROFIT ON THAR GAMECUBE!” Yeah, at the cost of declining relevance with consumers. And surely enough, Mario’s GameCube outing was crushed under the weight of fourteen-year-old homophobes who didn’t want to play a game called “Super Mario Sunshine“.) At the beginning of the console video game boom leading into the sixth generation of video games, no one franchise or character could stake a decisive claim to being the face of the medium. The wild success of Halo: Combat Evolved would work on two fronts: The game became the face of the first-person shooter movement on video game consoles and also became the undisputed face of the Xbox video game console. The Xbox would ultimately go on to fight with the Nintendo GameCube for table scraps as the PlayStation 2 registered the most dominant worldwide market share of any video game console in the modern history of the industry. Halo is the only reason the Xbox lived to herald a relevant successor. It was only fitting that six years after the release of Halo: Combat Evolved, the third game in the Halo franchise pushed the Xbox brand into profitability.
Well, what did Halo: Combat Evolved get right? Was the game legendary? Not really. But contrary to many strong opinions (namely those of the “fuck console shooters” variety), it was actually a pretty good game. Just like GoldenEye and Perfect Dark, Halo played away from the weaknesses of both the platform and the input scheme. The game also featured an obscene number of customizable game elements. And since the actual gunplay in Halo was far superior to either of the Nintendo 64 outings, those customizable elements boasted some actual legs. The most compelling element was the spectacular vehicle play, buoyed by one of the best physics systems seen in a shooter to that point. As the history of vehicle-based video games had shown us, there was no reason a controller couldn’t do vehicles better than a mouse and keyboard. In-fact, console games usually did driving better. The emphasis on vehicles allowed Halo to play well on maps of drastically divergent size, something that very few shooters on any platform could boast. Both this vehicle play and the physics system were good enough that pushing both to their limits became a game in itself, as players took up arms to see who could launch vehicles farthest through the skies with grenades and rocket launchers. And in contrast to many previous first-person shooters (with exceptions in Deus Ex and Half-Life), the backstory was rather compelling, particularly for a game that seemed keen on appealing to the widest fan base that it possibly could. It’s quite difficult to argue that the game wasn’t worth some attention.
So what did long-time shooter fans loathe about Halo? For starters, Halo drew from the Counter-Strike blueprint with reckless force. Right there, that’s a pretty damn big problem. Quake and Doom and Unreal Tournament players didn’t think fondly of Counter-Strike the second that game made its splash. However, the Counter-Strike professional scene has rather validated its place in the competitive gaming totem pole. And even then, Counter-Strike still played very fast and had a very high learning curve. Counter-Strike was simply another way to play the first-person shooter with a mouse and keyboard. Halo was designed with the limitations of the controller in mind.
Much like Counter-Strike, Halo limited the player to a pair of firearms and some grenades. It was a means of preventing skilled players from acquiring an arsenal of weapons to deal with every situation. Halo was overrun with niche weapons: The Shotgun was only useful in close situations, the Assault Rifle was designed for medium-ranged combat, the Covenant’s energy weapons were effective for cutting through enemy shields. Controllers don’t have enough buttons (or a scroll wheel) to cycle through eight weapons with any efficiency. Therefore, “two guns per player”. This ultimately reduced the diversity of gunplay, as players responded to the niche weapons by ignoring them entirely and gunning for the more versatile weapons, namely your accurate hitscan weapons like Pistols and Sniper Rifles. And because of that, Halo: Combat Evolved may be the only game in the history of its genre where a pistol is viewed to be unanimously superior to a shotgun. Halo‘s rebuttal to the weapon-juggling deathmatch days was less-than-outstanding. And just to further ensure that no man or woman would try to play “superstar basketball” (carrying the team on one pair of shoulders), the game played half as fast as Counter-Strike. There would be no “dodge the bullets, stupid”. For all the hubbaloo about the badass side of Master Chief, he’s the ultimate paper tiger in video games. He’s slow, he’s vulnerable. That’s a very bad combination in a game with lots of guns. So, what’s your option? Rely on your teammates, hit with superior numbers, punish any player who stepped into a line of fire. This was very new ground. Microsoft and Bungie were selling a new type of shooter to a new type of audience and it succeeded.
Now, no matter who you were and what your gaming background was, it was easy to see that Halo: Combat Evolved had some serious faults. The staff at Bungie struggled to meet that important deadline where they were producing the ultimate launch title for the Xbox. The single-player campaign took the brunt of the damage. One level towards the end of the game was simply a previous level played in reverse. Another level featured four identical floors swarming with The Flood, a race of alien antagonists that overwhelm their opposition with superior numbers. Compared with Half-Life (the game that validated the use of narrative to drive mission structure), Halo‘s single-player level design was repetitive and dreadful. The second issue? The lack of multiplayer bots, a feature present in every recent first-person shooter regardless of the platform. Quake III had them, Unreal Tournament had them, Perfect Dark had them. And unless you were one of the psychotic mongrels who used GameSpy’s tunneling service to play the game through the internet, you had no such thing as “online play”. Even in 2001, it took an awful lotta balls for a company to say “You want to play multiplayer in our shooter? Go get some real friends, loser.” The third? The weapon balance. Even amongst the handful of weapons that were actually used in competitive play, it was dreadful. The Pistol became the de-facto weapon and only acquiesced its dominance when a Sniper Rifle or Rocket Launcher was put into play. Halo was relying on a diversity of weapons to create a diversity of tactics, where players gameplan based on their armaments. It failed spectacularly.
But hey, not a bad first try, right? Those are things that can all be fixed in the sequel. The industry seems to be pretty keen on the idea that a player base will give a franchise one game to tie up the predecessor’s loose ends, whether that means the introduction of online play, added attention to detail, or a tightening of the game balance. One can look back at recent video game history and they’ll find Guitar Hero, God of War, Assassin’s Creed, Rock Band, and StarCraft all used a sequel to shine some rough edges without thinking too hard about “innovation” or “leaps forward”. A sequel to Halo: Combat Evolved was inevitable. The problem? Microsoft had some much bigger issues to deal with. In 2001, a rather-unknown British developer by the name of DMA Design (creators of the Lemmings puzzle game series) released their third game in the Grand Theft Auto series, transforming a controversially-violent-but-niche franchise into an unprecedented gold-standard for sandbox video games. Grand Theft Auto III (along with its sequels) became the killer app for the PlayStation 2, blowing up the industry overnight as companies that were developing games for a wide number of genres began copycatting its non-linear mission structure and exploration elements. By 2003, there wasn’t much to keep the Xbox (or the Gamecube) relevant; not with console developers pushing all of their resources towards the Sony box and its larger install base.
And contrary to popular opinion, Halo: Combat Evolved did not mark the death of first-person shooter development on the personal computer. Even as that game validated video game consoles as a legitimate platform for first-person shooters, the genre was doing quite well on personal computers. The market was still very diverse. The new big ticket was the World War II brand of urban warfare pioneered by Medal of Honor, highlighted by a 2002 sequel Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and Digital Illusions CE’s Battlefield 1942. (Yes, I’m aware that Wolfenstein 3-D did World War II long before any of these games. Don’t hurt me!) Doom‘s influence was ceding way to Counter-Strike‘s team-oriented play, Half-Life‘s “TEH REALIZMS” production values, and Halo‘s vehicle combat. However, none of this precluded the “Doom clones” from being successful in a brave new world. 2001’s Serious Sam became a sleeper hit and a cult classic by ignoring the march to realism, a tale of alien invasions and ridiculous weapons powered by the meager budget of Eastern European developer Croteam. 2004’s aptly-named Unreal Tournament 2004 embraced the new generation of teamwork shooters, featuring a spectacular node-based Onslaught mode to go with what may be the best gunplay in the series. And even while 2004’s Doom 3 proved a colossal disappointment (marking the moment id Software became a company that sells video game engines and uses their games as tech demos), Doom 3 became the best-selling product in the history of the company. Even as computer gamers cast their ire on a new generation of shooter fans (mocking either the skill level of console gamers or the “dumbed-down” game mechanics in console shooters), computer gamers still had a very healthy market and a solid lineup of games to choose from. If Microsoft wanted their Xbox brand to remain relevant, they were going to have to do a hell of a lot more than create million-selling video games.
Microsoft got one thing right: When Halo 2 was released in November of 2004, no video game in the history of the American market was accompanied by such a level of hype. Halo 2: The T-Shirt. Halo 2: The Coloring Book. Halo 2: The Flame Thrower. It was deafening. It was a video game event featuring the type of fan anticipation reserved for gigantic summer movie releases. It was almost impossible to tell that Half-Life 2 (the shooter that would win dozens of Game of the Year awards, find vacancy in nearly every Top Games of the Decade list, and legitimize Steam as the dominant digital distribution platform) was released a week later and World of Warcraft (the only video game in the history of the industry to place a video game developer on “blank check” status and the mainstream counter-argument to “Half-Life 2 is the Greatest Game of the Decade”) followed the next week. Halo 2 would sell two million copies on its first day, doing this in the years before the Call of Duty franchise made midnight launches cool and edgy.
Ultimately, Halo fans found a game with all the same strengths and flaws as its predecessor, compounded by some particularly boneheaded design decisions that have not aged well since its release. Bungie was once again attempting to meet a release deadline. And once again, the single-player campaign suffered significantly because of it, infuriating audiences and reviewers with an abrupt cliffhanger ending. Little was done to address weapon balance issues. Bungie complicated the issue by introducing a number of new Covenant weapons to the roster, most of which were inferior to their UNSC equivalents. And just like in Combat Evolved, there were no multiplayer bots available in Halo 2. Only this time, you couldn’t write it off as “Bungie simply didn’t get around to doing it.” This time, it was rather deliberate.
Back in 1985, Nintendo used the Robotic Operating Buddy to convince potential American customers (whose confidence in the market had taken a beating in the wake of 1983) that their new console was an “Entertainment System” and not a “video game player”. Duck Hunt and its “Light Zapper” controller were used largely for the same purpose. The gun and R.O.B. were purely a marketing tool. In 2004, Microsoft decided they had to pull the trigger on Xbox Live. The console needed a killer app. Halo 2 was the Zapper. Halo 2 was a marketing tool designed to legitimize Xbox Live. And much like GoldenEye 007 rode the novelty of four-player split-screen multiplayer to its place in video game history, Halo 2 would use online multiplayer to win an audience that had never enjoyed the thrills that come with corpsehumping a player-avatar being controlled by a fourteen-year-old boy. It wasn’t Halo: Combat Evolved that marked the current transition of first-person shooter development to video game consoles. It wasn’t Halo 2. It was Xbox Live. Remember that talk we had about closed systems earlier? Heheh. Now you know why we had it.
In that period during the late nineties, first-person shooter developers decided the best option for developing brand loyalty was to assure customers that they were buying a game engine in addition to a really good video game. They did this because it was the most profitable course of action. After almost a decade of this, the passionate and knowledgeable computer gaming consumer base became, well, pretty fucking spoiled. They had to feel like they were getting spoiled. Why else would they drop significant cash on a new computer every two or three years? It was the only way to continue playing the games. Those consumers began to expect incredible games with flexible modmaking abilities. Rather than reacting positively to great games, they began reacting adversely to less-than-great games. Great games became the par. You get what I’m saying? The financial incentive to create a game with indefinite shelf life (a multiplayer component that could be sustained as long as players were willing to both continue hosting servers and update the network code to take advantage of new technology) began to diminish. This decline was exacerbated by the proliferation of broadband internet, which promoted a new age of software piracy. While I stand by the assertion that software piracy is overblown (most of it being done in places where people don’t have the means to buy the games), it gave long-paying consumers a pathetic-but-obvious outlet for lashing out against developers who slighted their fans. Even when Halo: Combat Evolved showed computer game developers that shooters could be successful on a closed video game system, they relented. The first-person shooter only consumed the computer gaming market when online multiplayer hit it big. When Xbox Live succeeded, the mutiny began.
If you couldn’t fix this screen, then there was no reason to purchase a copy of Halo 2.
What a wonderful mutiny it was. For years, computer game developers had spent years treating their games like political campaign cycles (where every word and action of developers and their employees were just as important as making a decent game). They could now use the new audience of shooter fans built by Halo to rewrite the rules on how shooters are built, developed, marketed, and sold to the public. I mean, you really have to consider what happened here. Look at what Xbox Live did. It convinced millions upon millions of people to pay a monthly fee for a peer-to-peer networking model. That is, “a central server uses minimal bandwidth and upkeep to organize the creation of online matches”. That is, little actual hosting is done by the server. That is, what Blizzard has been offering customers for free through Battle.net since they released Diablo in 1996. They convinced people to pay for the privilege of using their internet connection to do the heavy lifting in online video games! Using a networking format that generated inferior latency in first-person shooters!
I mean, holy crap! If you could do that, imagine what else you could bilk this audience out of! Developers would have been crazy to pass on this gold rush! To consider the inverse, look at what happened when Apple built their mobile phone game store. When the company allowed anybody to make a video game for the iPhone, the price point for portable video games collapsed and Nintendo is still scrambling to deal with it. The opposite happens when an open system becomes closed. The closed system called Xbox Live created a market for maps, for clothes, for guns, whatever you could price! When Epic Games released the computer-exclusive Unreal Tournament 2004, it was packaged with nearly one-hundred maps for use across half-a-dozen game types. Thousands upon thousands of free, community-created maps followed. Two years later, Epic Games released Gears of War, a third-person shooter touted as (and would become) a cornerstone of the Xbox 360 game library. It was packaged with ten maps. Two downloadable map packs would up that number to sixteen. One of the map packs was released for free. The other one featured four maps. It could be downloaded for a price of 800 Microsoft Points™, a price point of approximately ten dollars. And they were able to set these prices by appealing to an audience that had never created a multiplayer map for Doom or downloaded free mods such as Counter-Strike.
The moment that developers could sell virtual goods on Xbox Live for obscene prices (and also use that closed system to “prevent software piracy”) became the moment that computer gamers began getting the hand-me-down treatment. Following that moment, there only seemed to be two companies that were interested in bucking the trend. One was Digital Illusions CE, who continues to focus their development of the Battlefield franchise towards the personal computer. The second? After 2015 Inc. finished development of Medal of Honor: Allied Assault back in 2002, the staff became frustrated with continued tensions and constant demands from their corporate overlords at Electronic Arts. Nearly the entire development staff left the company to form a new studio and find a new publisher. Summing up the sad state of the video game industry, the newly-formed Infinity Ward gave up the shackles of Electronic Arts’ corporate culture and cast a vote for Activision, a corporate culture founded by game developers looking to escape Atari’s corporate culture. Infinity Ward became a smash hit machine, earning Game of the Year accolades with 2003’s Call of Duty and then following it with a 2005 sequel that performed incredibly well on both consoles and computers. As Activision commissioned developer Treyarch to create 2006’s Call of Duty 3 (only a “disappoiment” if you understand the dangers of giving another developer control over an established series), Infinity Ward was working on a Call of Duty game that would move the series into the modern era. In the eight years since Medal of Honor took players into World War II, the setting had become cliche. It was time to move a couple of years forward. And little did anybody know that Infinity Ward’s upcoming title would come to standardize how soldiers went to battle.
Not in a good way.
Continue to Part Four: Corporate Warfare and Conclusion