Late last month, Microsoft was partying and releasing celebratory press releases to commemorate a landmark that many were surprised to discover had not been passed a long time ago: the Xbox 360, after three years on the market, has finally surpassed the 24 million sales of the original Xbox.
While Microsoft should be congratulated for the fine work it has done in improving almost every aspect of the original Xbox with the 360, the milestone it has passed should not be a cause for celebration, but for reflection. Let's consider the advantages that the 360 enjoys over its predecessor, some happy quirks of fate, others the results of the lessons MS learnt the first time through. The 360:
- made it to market a year earlier than its closest rival, rather than a year later
- launched with one of the best-designed controllers around, not one of the absolute worst
- is home to a far more diverse line-up of games, with strong support in areas like RPGs
- has the benefit of working in an era where third-party console exclusives are dying, leading to games like GTA launching on MS's console at the same time as Sony's
- enjoys the benefit of competing against a misfiring profit-troubled Sony, instead of Sony at the very top of their game
- launched with a highly advanced online system right from the box
- has support from day one from the biggest third parties from the West, such as EA, as well as many of the biggest publishers from Japan
- has far superior design and branding than the original fat black box
- is, needless to say, far more powerful, looks beautiful on the latest HDTVs and can do things the original could only dream of
With all these advantages, it's curious that the take-up rate of the 360 has been only slightly above the curve of the original Xbox. A look at that list begs the question - why aren't more people buying the 360? Could the Red Ring of Death, the failure to break the Japanese market in a meaningful way, or 12-year-old Xbox Live racists be the problem? Or is this even something we should consider a problem to begin with?
The question isn't about what this means for Microsoft, which is generally meeting the targets it has set for itself and is turning its operation into a much sleeker, more profitable - and more importantly for us - much more entertaining one. The question is what it means for gaming in general. To wit: who is buying our machines, and for what purposes - and will they continue to do so?
The sales of PS3s have yet to set the world alight, and while the console is performing respectably, Sony is going to need every year of the ten it has set aside if it doesn't want the PS3 to lead to a massive loss of market share. At an equivalent stage of the previous generation, three years from launch, the PS2 had sold 60 million consoles - and it was only just getting into its stride. Only the Wii has any hope of coming close to the PS2's massive install base, and from where we stand now, it is questionable whether the combined sales of the 360, PS3 and Wii will ever equal the 190 odd million units from the previous generation.