What's in it for me?
For PC gamers like all of us at FiringSquad, the attraction of Xbox is… you guessed it: money. Seriously. The easy explanation is that the Xbox is $300 and yet it includes a DX8 graphics chip that's actually more feature-rich than the GeForce3 -you might even think of it as a GeForce4 MX. Buying the Xbox is like paying for a graphics card and getting a motherboard, a 733MHz Intel CPU, 64MB of DDR RAM, a 10GB hard drive, a high-end Dolby Digital compatible sound card, a DVD-ROM, a network card, and a fancy gamepad, all for free. Let's not forget about the case and powersupply either. Even if you had to add the price of an Xbox™ keyboard, Xbox™ mouse, and Xbox™ VGA adapter, you'd still have a dirt-cheap gaming setup. Many gamers have yearned for a low-cost DirectX8 graphics chip - the Xbox is it.
The less visible explanation is that the financial model behind consoles can lead to better games. A game like Quake III sells video cards and so NVIDIA benefits from the game significantly. In fact, other software developers also benefit from a game like Quake III. Serious Sam wouldn't sell if people didn't have the hardware to run it - and it's games like Quake 3 that got people to buy the hardware in the first place. That's true for every other 3D game that's not quite the killer-app. For both PCs and consoles, there is a large degree of interdependence between the software and hardware sides, but only on the console side is this interdependence taken advantage of.
A game like Gran Turismo 3 sells PlayStation2s, so Sony provides a large budget for the game. Thanks to GT3, the PS2 user base becomes larger and Capcom can be financially successful with a good, but not-system-selling game such as Capcom vs. SNK 2. Many other developers will also benefit from having a large PS2 user base and since Sony profits from every game sold on the PS2, Sony more than recovers its investment in GT3. In fact, the licensing fees allow Sony to sell their hardware below cost since they will recover it later. In addition, it's not only the first party developers that are going to get the big budgets but the 2nd party studios, or teams with system-exclusive games. Sometimes the mass-market user base of a console allows individual development studios to invest more money into their games.
Console development encourages bigger budget games, which in turn leads to a greater number of good games for the entire platform. The money doesn't flow indiscriminately - it goes to the best developers.
Everyone pointed and laughed at the PlayStation 2 for using RDRAM and having a paltry 4MB framebuffer, but when we saw Gran Turismo 3, ICO, and Metal Gear Solid 2, all we could do is point and gasp. The fixed platform allowed developers to design their games to take full advantage of the hardware. If 32MB of RDRAM and 4MB of graphics RAM can do Gran Turismo 3, imagine what LightSpeed DDR RAM and a NVIDIA GPU with Pixel/Vertex shaders could do. Imagine what high-end PC developers could do on that hardware with a bigger budget, and imagine what kind of great niche games could arise from smaller studios that would otherwise have gone bankrupt on the smaller markets of the PC. Imagine getting games from not only the top PC studios, but also the top console development studios in Japan running on that same system. Imagine getting all this for $300.
Until we get our hands on Xbox in November, we'll have to keep imagining… and indeed, the future of Xbox isn't guaranteed to be as rosy as the picture above. Without enough system-selling games to reach critical mass, the Xbox will just be a lost cause just as the Sega Dreamcast was. For now, we'll have to satiate our appetite with an in-depth look at the technical hardware behind Xbox.