A Fond Farewell to the Craziest, Longest, Most Eventful Console Generation Ever
He called it the 'HD Era.'
On March 9, 2005, the gaming press crowded into a ballroom in the Moscone Center in San Francisco to witness the birth of a new era of game machines. Sony had dominated the industry for the last decade, and even goliath Microsoft had been no match for PlayStation 2. But the original Xbox was just the foot in the door, and the company's gaming evangelist J Allard was about to take the stage to talk next-generation - only three and a half years after the release date of that first Xbox.
The last great leap in gaming, Allard said, was the transition from 2-D to 3-D. What would happen next, he said, would be no less momentous: The transition to high-definition graphics, or the HD Era. This seems obvious in retrospect, but what Allard was saying at the time was that everyone would have to go out and buy an expensive new TV if they wanted to truly enjoy the next Xbox. At the time, a tiny 23-inch Samsung HD set cost over $1,000.
(Another indication of how long ago this was: Unlike most game industry keynote speeches, Allard's was not immediately uploaded to YouTube - because YouTube wouldn't launch until one month later. The gaming website IGN uploaded the video in tiny low-res chunks.)
But even though the speech was themed around the rapidly approaching transition to high-def televisions, Allard didn't spend a lot of time talking about graphics. What he emphasized were the radical new features of the next Xbox. Online multiplayer gaming was about to transition from an experimental add-on feature to a key component of the console gaming experience, and the next-gen Xbox would be built around the idea of delivering a consistent, system-level experience. In rapid fire, Allard laid out the major features of the new Xbox: 'gamercards' that represented your online profile, system alerts, custom soundtracks, microtransactions.
To help usher the game developer crowd into the HD Era, Allard concluded his speech by giving out hundreds of those Samsung 23-inch HD sets to roughly a third of the crowd, via lottery.
The next step in Microsoft's unorthodox plan for kickstarting the next generation of game machines was not, as everyone assumed it would be, a gala press briefing at the upcoming Electronic Entertainment Expo later that spring. Instead, it went straight to the consumers with an MTV infomercial hosted by Elijah Wood and featuring The Killers and the guys from Pimp My Ride. You didn't come away from the special with much actual information about what was then known to be called Xbox 360, although Microsoft did introduce a few features, like what it felt was the most striking element of the console's design, the green 'ring of light' around the power button. Allard was introduced as 'Lord of the Ring.'
The 2005 E3 Expo was the stage for the big showdown, as Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo would all be talking about next-gen. If Nintendo and Sony thought it premature, well, their hands had been forced by Microsoft, which was gearing up to actually launch its box that year. So while Microsoft was actually ready to let consumers get hands-on with the 360 and its games, Sony and Nintendo were trying to distract everyone with promises, vague proclamations and as much smoke and mirrors as they could muster.
Sony's game group, still led by 'father of the PlayStation' Ken Kutaragi, showed PowerPoint slide after PowerPoint slide filled with numbers upon numbers upon numbers, talking up the theoretical power behind the Cell processor that would power PlayStation 3, then pulled out a mockup of the PS3 box and promised it would be available in the spring of 2006.
Sony's response to the early launch of Xbox 360 was typical of the company's hubristic attitude: 'The next generation doesn't start until we say it does,' Kaz Hirai, then the head of SCEA, told CNN.
Nintendo, by contrast, gave the first indication that it was getting out of the graphics horse race: It, too, showed a mockup of the box for the game system it was calling the Nintendo Revolution, but CEO Satoru Iwata pulled it out of his jacket pocket. The box, he said, was the size of three DVD cases stacked vertically.
Sony got lots of applause when it showed off pre-rendered target videos that supposedly provided a rough estimate of what PlayStation 3 games would look like in high-def. But the biggest pop for Nintendo was when it announced that Revolution would be a 'virtual console' that could download and play games from the company's older platforms.
No matter which console attracted you more, it was still all a distraction, as hollow as the mockup consoles that Ken Kutaragi and Satoru Iwata posed for photos with. It was an attempt to get consumers to not buy Xbox 360 as it hit the market early.
Maybe the most interesting thing about that E3 was the dog that didn't bark: Nintendo showed Revolution, but not its controller. Nintendo had a reputation of introducing innovations in each of its game controllers that would eventually become industry standards: the D-pad, triggers, analog sticks. The Wavebird gamepad for its then-current GameCube had turned wireless controllers from a novelty item that didn't work reliably into a must-have feature, one which Sony and Microsoft were borrowing for their new consoles.
'Nintendo is always trying to be on the forefront of control innovations, like the analog stick, rumble or wireless. As soon as these are available, our competitors snatch them up,' Nintendo's game design chief Shigeru Miyamoto told me that year. 'Because the user interface is going to drive the Revolution software design, that's what's going to make our software stand out. Nobody else is going to be able to do what we do with next-generation game software. So, I can't reveal anything. It's under wraps because it's the big gun.'
Just before Microsoft launched the 360, Miyamoto pulled out the big gun. It didn't happen on a stage, but in a series of private demonstrations at the Hotel New Otani just before that year's Tokyo Game Show. I don't remember the first time I played an Xbox 360 or a PlayStation 3, but I will never forget the first time I tried a Wii controller. We walked into the room and these things that looked like television remote controls were arrayed on a shelf in a rainbow of colors. Miyamoto picked one up, pointed it at the TV and used it to shoot a target. My stomach did a little flip; I couldn't believe what I was seeing and couldn't understand how it was being done.
Iwata formally announced the Revolution controller concept at the Tokyo Game Show later that week, although Nintendo didn't let anyone besides that small group of media actually play or see the controllers in action. (And even though Nintendo kept it under wraps as long as possible, Sony did rip off the motion-sensing idea for PS3.)
Shortly after Tokyo Game Show was over, it was time to launch the Xbox 360. Microsoft apparently wasn't happy with its earlier decision to put a hard drive into every single Xbox, and so for the 360 it gave consumers two choices: a $399 package that included the wireless controller and a 20 GB hard drive, and a $299 package with a wired controller and no internal storage at all. Although it was understandable that Microsoft would be gun-shy about the costs of hard drives, it made a rookie move here because it fragmented its user base. It didn't matter that the 360 supported a hard drive or that the majority of early adopters went for the more expensive SKU, because developers had to program their games on the assumption that the hard drive wouldn't be there.
E2 2006 was more momentous than 2005′s show. Microsoft already had its hardware on the market, and it was selling well. The spring of 2006 was here and there was no sign of PlayStation 3. And apart from a few more tiny details, we hadn't heard anything else about Nintendo's new console except it had changed the name from Revolution to Wii, which people hated almost universally. (I defended the choice.)
YouTube was not yet up and running when Microsoft unveiled the Xbox 360. By the time Sony had its fateful press conference in 2006, the video sharing site was fully operational - much to Sony's chagrin. A crudely remixed video of the conference's lowlights - terrible-looking games and an exorbitant $599 price - was stickier than any of the traditional media coverage that came out of the press conference. The idea that the PlayStation 3 was shaping up to be a huge mess was taking hold.
Nintendo, too, was fighting off the idea that it was in an inextricable mess. GameCube had sold not very well at all when compared to PlayStation 2, and even the original Xbox was outselling it. The conventional wisdom was that Nintendo should get out of the console wars by 'going third party' and putting its games on PlayStation and Xbox. Nintendo was going to get out of the console wars, but in a different way: Its low-powered, low-cost, family-friendly hardware would be aimed at those who didn't really play videogames.
At E3, it finally showed off retail games, as opposed to tech demos, for Wii. Nintendo enclosed its entire booth - what I remember hearing at the show was that the booth was a giant Faraday cage, designed to keep out electronic interference and allow the hundred or so Wii Remote controllers inside the booth to operate without problems. What the closed-off booth meant was this: Every morning, when the doors to E3 opened, a mad rush of people stormed in, running at top speed through the aisles, straight past the PlayStation 3 area, back to Nintendo's booth to get in line to play Wii, where they found a line of people already there because exhibitors from other booths had walked over and gotten in line before the doors opened.
The launches, later that year, of PS3 and Wii could not have gone more differently. Thousands lined up on day one to get the PlayStation 3, as Sony, facing chip yield issues with the Cell, had cut the launch quantities of PS3 by 75 percent. But even with severely restricted supply, PlayStation 3s were languishing on shelves by February and sales were sluggish in the U.S. and Japan alike. Ken Kutaragi became an insane quote machine, calling the $600 box 'too cheap' and suggesting that players 'work more hours' to be able to afford one.
It was the other way around for Wii - launch day was quieter, and you could walk in and buy a console. But they kept coming day after day, as word took hold among the casual gamers that Nintendo was targeting that this Wii Sports game was a lot of fun. And Nintendo wouldn't be able to keep Wii in stock reliably for another few years.
The next generation had launched, technically, but not entirely. Because nobody was fully ready for what consumers would start to demand, and everything would change.