The Curious History of Xbox Launch Games

Xbox has had an interesting track record with console launches. Before the next era, here are the rights, the wrongs and the abstract decisions that have gone into former Xbox debuts. Bad launch games can cripple a new console before it’s hit the shelves, so we spot the patterns, the successes and the misfires of Xbox past. The Xbox Series S & X may have enhanced the technical details of their predecessors, but has Microsoft worked out the games to launch it?

The Curious History of Xbox Launch Games

It’s surprising to think that of the modern day ‘Big Three’ of gaming, Microsoft are the youngest in the business. Only having released the original Xbox in 2001 (followed up by the Xbox 360 in 2005 and Xbox One in 2013 for subsequent console cycles), Microsoft’s career in home consoles isn’t even old enough to buy a drink in a bar in its home country. I’ll be analysing each console launch, looking at the variety of their debut games, regional differences and general gaming landscape to see what went well, what didn’t work so well, and what we can anticipate for their fourth entry in the console market, the Xbox Series X & Xbox Series S.

However, I won’t be looking at mid-generation hardware updates such as Xbox One X, additional devices like Kinect, nor their series of model revisions like the various slim or digital-only editions. We’ve seen many games in development for the next gen, with smart delivery promising to give current generation games the best possible look and all manner of backwards compatibility available on release date. But lacklustre games (coupled with misunderstood messaging and that one time they almost pissed off all gamers) can still ruin the first impression. Armed with a list of the launch games for each console, let’s delve into the choices Xbox makes to put their best foot forward.

Halo: Combat Evolved (Original Xbox Launch Game)

Halo: Combat Evolved (Original Xbox Launch Game)

Original Xbox

The original Xbox’s opening roster on release date was heavy on sports titles. It’s launch line up was jam packed with extreme sports like Dave Mirra Freestyle BMX 2, TransWorld Surf & Amped: Freestyle Snowboarding and traditional sports games like NBA Live 2002 (EU) and two different NFL games (US). It also featured a fair share of racing games like Project Gotham Racing, Cel Damage (US) and another double whammy in the form of two NASCAR games.

However, Halo: Combat Evolved was the breakout star. The system seller. The killer app. A sci-fi shooter working in tandem with Xbox Live, their new service for online multiplayer and games delivery. Sega’s Dreamcast had online gaming three years prior, but the details of Microsoft’s execution brought it to mainstream popularity and sold huge numbers in North America, selling 1.5 million units in just over a month.

Outside of the US however, the Xbox had a “disappointing” reception across Europe and sold pitifully in Japan, only shifting around 190,000 units after 2 months. Xbox selling poorly in Japan is a narrative that continues today, where despite having games produced by Japanese developers (e.g. Konami, Capcom, Team Ninja) the games and messaging struggle to relate to the audience. It’s certainly questionable releasing both NHL 2002 AND NHL Hitz 2002 in Europe, where hockey doesn’t have massive followings, and ESPN Winter X-Games Snowboarding 2002 AND ESPN International Winter Sports 2002 in Japan, when they don’t get ESPN.

Project Gotham Racing 3 (Xbox 360 Launch Game)

Project Gotham Racing 3 (Xbox 360 Launch Game)

Xbox 360

Microsoft’s sophomore console repeated the launch strategy in Europe and North America, with an identical share of sports titles like FIFA 06: Road to FIFA World Cup, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 06 & two different NBA games, and racing games like Project Gotham Racing 3, Ridge Racer 6 & Need for Speed: Most Wanted. Shooters become ever popular throughout this generation, with games like Perfect Dark Zero, Call of Duty 2 & Quake 4 coming in on the ground floor and enjoying fan approval for several years.

Precise release sales figures are difficult to find, but similar to the previous console, the Xbox 360 had a moderately good start date in the US with around 400,000-600,000 units sold in around a month. However elsewhere in the world there’s a general feeling it underperformed, with sales forecasts being reduced and a quote from Bill Gates getting re-clarified from 10 million consoles sold to 10 million consoles shipped. Not to mention (due to required extra localisation time) Japan only got seven games. By the end, the Xbox 360 vastly outperformed its predecessor, but the lack of a Halo-level killer app this time gave it a slower start.

Ryse: Son of Rome (Xbox One Launch Game)

Ryse: Son of Rome (Xbox One Launch Game)

Xbox One

The Xbox One saw a near-identical, vast launch lineup of around 20 games in North America & Europe with games for all kinds of players like Just Dance 14, Dead Rising 3, Forza Motorsport 5, Skylanders: Swap Force, NBA 2K14 and Ryse: Son of Rome. The console’s Japanese release date was almost a whole year later, giving eastern players twice the number of games on day one, too. Even though many of the games had also come out on the previous gen consoles and competitor console, the PS4, that didn’t stop the Xbox One from selling one million units in 24 hours and three million units worldwide in just over a month. A great start.

It’s worth highlighting the console scandal prior to launch. The original Xbox One system aimed to force players to connect to the internet periodically and have a motion sensing camera named the Kinect as a required attachment. The plans received a nearly universal negative response from would-be players; the “always on” console would prohibit the playing of a game not being played by the original purchaser, crushing 2nd-hand game sales. Plus having a camera on in your living room that was always connected to the internet didn’t sound too appealing either. Despite their best efforts to communicate the details of the Xbox One as an “all-in-one entertainment system”, pressure from consumers made Microsoft reverse their decisions before console launch, but lingering negative opinion may have had an impact on sales in the early stages. Apparently it doesn’t matter how many adverts you film with Aaron Paul, if you’re going to have a voice activated device that connects to the internet, the least you need to do is name it something nice like, say, Alexa.

4K 60FPS — Official Xbox Games Showcase — Full Show [ENGLISH]

Xbox Series X & S

At the time of writing, we don’t have the complete launch line up confirmed, but know of several games that will be playable on day one. Action games like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Yakuza: Like a Dragon & Cyberpunk 2077 and shooters like Gears 5, Rainbow Six Siege and Fortnite will be available to keep your Christmas suitably filled.

Looking over their past, from a sales figures standpoint the Xbox One performed the best out of the gate, moving away from the maelstrom of sports games to a varied launch lineup of quality games. Something similar seems to be taking place again, so it would appear Microsoft has learned their lessons. However, one might argue they haven’t had a launch as impactful since their debut console, ushering in a new gaming paradigm with Halo and Xbox Live. Launch games need to whet a player’s appetite for the unique possibilities the console can offer. At this stage the uniqueness of Xbox lay in Game Pass and however many Xbox Series they’re planning on bringing out. Now they need the games to exemplify those elements.

The Xbox Series X & Xbox Series S have a release date of 10th November 2020.

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