Microsoft considered giving away the original Xbox for free

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Way back at the turn of the millennium, Microsoft toyed with a very different vision for its new Xbox console: a free device, focused on casual gamers, that would serve as a beachhead to establish Windows’ presence in the living room.

The last American-produced gaming console, the Atari Jaguar, had been an abysmal failure, discontinued in 1996. With the Sega Dreamcast and Sony’s PlayStation 2 already out, and the Nintendo GameCube en route, Microsoft had an uphill battle ahead to carve out a niche for its fledgling gaming console in an already-crowded market.

Microsoft ultimately went in a different direction with the device, catering instead to “core gamers” and kicking off a new era of first-person shooters with the Halo franchise. Fifteen years later, though, Microsoft seems to be pivoting back towards those original ideas with the console’s second successor, the Xbox One.

In a recent interview with GamesIndustry.biz, Seamus Blackley, who drafted the original Xbox proposal in 1999, explained some of the ideas that were tossed around during the console’s genesis.

“In the early days of Xbox, especially before we had figured out how to get greenlit for the project as a pure game console, everybody and their brother who saw the new project starting tried to come in and say it should be free, say it should be forced to run Windows after some period of time,” Blackley said.

Oddworld creator Lorne Lanning told GamesIndustry.biz that the possibility of giving away the Xbox for free was one of the major reasons that he was coaxed into bringing Oddworld: Munch’s Oddysee over to Xbox as a launch exclusive, after initially announcing it for the new PlayStation 2. Preceded by the

“At the time, Xbox thought that the core market was going to be casual. They were going to be the casual gamers’ machine. Now, that’s why they approached us because they said ‘we think you’ve got something that competes in that Mario space and we think Mario’s the thing to kill … We see that space. We want that audience. We love Oddworld so why don’t you get on this bandwagon? And we might give the box away’,” Lanning explained. “So now you’re like, ‘look, if you’re going to give the box away, you’re going to win. If you’re going to win, we want to be on board’.”

Other ideas that were floated included focusing the Xbox on playing movies, only allowing Microsoft-developed games on the console, or even buying out Nintendo. “Just name it, name a bad idea and it was something we had to deal with,” opined Blackley.

In retrospect, some of those ideas aren’t quite as crazy as they seemed at the time. While Microsoft isn’t likely to buy out Nintendo any time soon, or to turn away outside developers, the Xbox One has certainly been touted as a way to watch movies. The console’s initial revelation and marketing focused on its utility as a universal media hub, a way to consolidate your entertainment center into a single device. Microsoft has subsequently dialed that focus back somewhat, but the Xbox One’s multimedia support nevertheless remains the main feature distinguishing it from the more gaming-first PlayStation 4.

Moreover, Microsoft is also finally following through on the long con of using the Xbox as a trojan horse to sneak Windows into the living room. In July new CEO Satya Nadella laid out plans to integrate Windows, Xbox, and Windows Phone into a single, fluid platform. Users have just recently received a taste of what this might look like with recent updates to the Xbox App for Windows 10.

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