As part of our big nostalgia featurette, I thought I’d reminisce over the Xbox 360, the console that arguably thrust the Xbox brand into the limelight.
The Xbox 360 represents a special time in gaming when the internet began to truly take off, and Microsoft came to the fore with its standardized connectivity for console games in the form of Xbox Live.
The Xbox 360 era also represents some of my favorite gaming franchises of all time, in an age where service-type games hadn’t taken away all of the big publisher’s attention. Games like Dead Space, Mass Effect, Dragon Age: Origins, and many, many, many more soaked up hundreds of hours of my time, launching right around the time I dropped out of school (perfect timing, perhaps?)
Here’s a little Xbox 360 retrospective, covering all the highs and some of the low lows.
Coming out swinging
Microsoft positioned the Xbox 360 in a near-flawless way, taking advantage of Sony’s complacency, built on the back of the wildly successful PlayStation 2. The PlayStation 3, by comparison, was more expensive, although arguably more forward-facing. It had a Blu-ray drive, in a time where few Blu-rays existed. It had integrated WiFi, at a time where home WiFi wasn’t ubiquitous like it is today. It had a highly-customized, expensive architecture too, which led to an inflated price point.
Sony’s Shuhei Yoshida described the PlayStation 3’s price reveal as a “horrifying moment” at a developer conference back in 2018. And indeed, it was the misstep that gave Xbox a real chance to hit the mainstream.
The Xbox 360 launched a year earlier than the PlayStation 3, which gave it a huge head-start when building up a userbase. The Xbox 360’s design also allowed it to achieve a much lower retail price point. WiFi was optional, via a sold-separately dongle, and the Xbox 360 fell back on DVDs as its primary medium, which was also cheaper. Microsoft drove innovation in other ways, taking advantage of rapidly expanding connectivity owing to growing broadband networks, effectively building the entire console and its games around this industry-defining service known as Xbox Live.
Xbox 360 innovations
Although Microsoft’s primary innovations around Xbox Live began on the original Xbox, it was really the Xbox 360 that brought them into the mainstream. Xbox Live party chat, via that iconic mono piece headset, Xbox Live Achievements, which are practically found in every platform in some form, driving engagement, and full messaging features and services, letting gamers share their experiences in real-time (or cuss each other out, one or the other).
The speed at which Microsoft beefed up Xbox Live totally outpaced its rivals. Sony has practically completely caught up now, but Nintendo still lags far behind the other two, not even able to offer basic features like messaging. Microsoft’s identity provision in the form of Gamertags, becoming one of the first platforms to adopt Netflix and other streaming services as a media center, and even things as obvious as friends lists all became the norm, due to the pace of innovation going on within the Xbox division.
From a platform level, it felt like Microsoft could do no wrong in this area. As Sony’s PlayStation Network grew, it was decimated by a large and notorious security breach, which only added to the idea that Xbox Live was the “king” of console live services.
As we all know, it wasn’t all peaches and roses for Microsoft last gen.
And then, the Red Ring of Death
A few years into the console cycle, gamers started noticing that their Xbox 360 consoles were beginning to fail, almost in unison. The failure warning went on to become a notorious meme, dubbed the “Red Ring of Death,” or RROD for short. RROD consoles displayed a red circle around the power button, indicating a total system failure.
The RROD was a technological worst-case scenario for any electronics company. A smaller company might’ve been buried by it, too. Every single Xbox 360 consoles, practically, was susceptible to the Red Ring of Death, leading then-Xbox lead Peter Moore to request over a billion dollars from then-CEO Steve Ballmer to rectify the problem. Moore recounted the calamity in a previous interview (via Eurogamer):
“He said, ‘what’s it going to cost?’ I remember taking a deep breath, looking at Robbie, and saying, ‘we think it’s $1.15bn, Steve.’ He said, ‘do it.’ There was no hesitation. […] “I’m thinking, I’m about to crater Microsoft’s stock.”
“It was that moment of decision that Steve Ballmer made, that I will never forget. He didn’t even think twice about spending $1.15bn to protect a brand that’s probably worth three or four times that today. Xbox One wouldn’t have happened.”
Microsoft later came out with various hardware revisions that solved the RROD, and Ballmer’s investment in saving the Xbox brand largely paid off, with Microsoft’s stock holding steady. Indeed, it led to the powerhouse that Xbox is today, with Minecraft and growing services like Xbox Game Pass, flooding Xbox with cash it has never really had before.
A legacy of amazing games lives on
The Xbox 360 was ultimately typified by a huge, huge trove of amazing games, many of which are now a little bit dormant.
My favorites came from BioWare, ultimately, with Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age: Origins being two of my favorite games of all time. Both franchises picked up a single game throughout the Xbox One and PS4 generation. Still, it feels like EA pivoted towards more service-type games, for a maximum guaranteed return on investment. There are rumors of new Mass Effect and Dragon Age titles being in development, but we’ve yet to see either materialize.
Beyond that, the gen just had so many legendary entries, such as Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Deus Ex Human Revolution, Battlefield Bad Company 2, Bioshock, XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Red Dead Redemption, and many other games I sank hundreds of hours into.
One of my favorite things about modern Xbox is the desire to honor that library of games, bringing them forward to the Xbox One and eventually, the Xbox Series X via pervasive backward compatibility.
Did you have an Xbox 360?
What were your fondest memories of the Xbox 360-era? Which games did you love the most? Which franchises should return? Let us know in the comments.