I really like my Xbox. I was a very late adopter and have only recently joined the Xbox Live fraternity but I’ve got bags of respect for what Microsoft have achieved with their big black box. It also seems clear to me that the original Xbox was understood as being a partial success. It’s far more important for Microsoft to get their name and brand established in this market than it is to be the number one product from day one.

Microsoft’s aggressive pursuit of high profile Japanese developers and launch strategy with the 360 just scream confidence. I think they deserve to do well – they’ve broken the frontier of online gaming and made it mainstream. That’s a major achievement.

However, I was reading some news stories today and the following quote from Valve boss Gabe Newel got me thinking:

Look, I spoke to some people at Microsoft, and as I said, I can’t point to a single feature in Vista that I care about that solves problems for us at all. And I had the same conversation with the Xbox 360 guys. It’s like, Xbox 360 doesn’t make my life any better, and in fact, it makes it a lot worse, as you’re telling me I can’t count on having a hard drive.

I’m not concerned with how hard Gabe’s job is, but his statement reminded me of the two flavours of Xbox 360 that will be around at launch. The major difference is the presence of a hard drive.

Now, I don’t know about anyone else, but I find a lot of the appeal with consoles over computer gaming is that it’s all a no-brainer. Joe Idiot with a PS2 can buy a game and so long it says “PS2” on the side he’s going to be able to play it. No reading the specs and worrying about pixel shaders and RAM requirements.

But are we going to see a range of 360 games that start declaring requirements for them to run? Yes, I know we already have “Xbox live required” for many games in order to access certain features but not to play the game straight out of the box. As my fears snowball I wonder if we’re going to see the same sort of multi-tiering of single platforms applying to 360 as we see on PCs today? “Can I play game X even though I don’t have a hard disk and only have the Xbox live Silver package?”.

I don’t want that, it’s going to lead to confusion and a mess at retail. I can’t imagine that developers and publishers can be warming to it either. Now, admittedly, given decent specs, a chunky amount of RAM and some decent coders you can produce wonders without a hard disk, but there’s some things such as patching, downloadable content and, most importantly to games, cacheing, that allow gaming to go MUCH further than ever before.

The inclusion of a hard disk was the backbone to the Xbox’s success. I’m not considering buying a 360 without one. But I don’t want to see the console market start to splinter itself into tiny little groups like we see with PCs today.

I’ve learned to play the ‘wait and see’ game with new hardware. Whatever I buy it won’t be for at least six months after launch (twelve is more likely). I’d hate to see Microsoft cripple themselves and undo the pioneering efforts achieved with the Xbox.

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