Xbox Live: Generation Next

by MaxPower

Oh how things change: Xbox Live was launched in North America Nov. 15, 2002, allowing gamers to play multiplayer Xbox games worldwide via a broadband connection.

Oh how things stay the same: I was playing multiplayer games on a broadband connection in 1997, five years earlier than Xbox Live, and had started played online multiplayer games in 1995. (Note: This establishes my old-school gaming cred.)

2005: With a hard drive and Ethernet port, the Xbox console is the only video game system built specifically with online gaming in mind. Xbox Live enables gamers to easily find their friends; talk to other players during gameplay through the Xbox Communicator headset; download current statistics and new levels and characters to their Xbox hard drive; and play online.

1999: I had a P3 piece with an ADSL line which was built specifically with gaming in mind. My computer enabled me to easily find my friends (usually sitting beside me in my university sized bachelor pad or somewhere on ICQ), talk to other players during gameplay (through a little thing called “text messaging” – yes I was ahead of the curve there too) and play online.

2005: had difficulties starting the New Year period when their major game and Xbox Live mainstay Halo 2 stats’ engine had to be rebooted due to rampant cheating.

1999: I went 267 and 0 in Starcraft. Draw your own conclusions.

To be honest, I was skeptical about Xbox Live. I had done the internet gaming thing. I had played honestly with the best of intentions. I had cheated flagrantly. I had played with friends at my place. I had socialized in Blizzard’s online forums while drunk. This took place during my university years – was there anything that could top that?

After I got my version of Halo 2 I cracked open the Xbox Live membership and was going to jump in whole-heartedly to this not-so-new world of internet gaming. Xbox Live is huge, it hit 1 million subscribers in mid-2004 and has recently eclipsed 1.4 million. They hit 1 million subscribers before other subscriber-based services like TiVo, AOL or HBO did and we know how much those three things get hyped. However, I wasn’t convinced. I’m not the same teenager who may or may not have been prone to normative reconstruction as I was when I started online gaming. In fact I find those types of people not only tedious but severely off-putting. But Xbox Live pleasantly surprised me with its much more civilized online gaming veneer. It has come a long way since it was reviewed by D4V in January 2003 on R4NT (LINK!) when the price hadn’t even been decided yet. See how cutting edge we are?

Booting up Halo 2 in Xbox Live took me into the most complex, not to mention the best match-making system I have ever seen. (Note: The overly time consuming Xbox Live subscription process D4V described still holds true.) The program automatically scans all of the members on Xbox Live who are playing Halo 2 and puts you in a game where you will be able to compete competitively with other players around your skill level. No more coming up against some nerd who is a level 100 while you just turned on your game. That being said, you are still matched up with human players who have the ability to be annoying. And while there have been some issues, such as an extremely young players being online, there haven’t been many problems which have made me want to quit a game. I have only noticed sporadic cheating and nothing compared to the Wild West days of yore. If Bungie thinks Halo 2 has a cheating problem then the guys who are working there are younger than me and don’t remember the good ol’days cause it ain’t really a serious problem.

These are all great features and additionally some of the “bonus material” you get from playing on Xbox Live is outstanding. I love the stats which records your game play. After you complete a Halo 2 game on Xbox Live you can go onto, enter your gamertag and check out all of the stats that they have recorded for you. This is a tremendously interesting feature and while the novelty wears off after a while, I still enjoy checking out how I played in my best games. There are enough detailed stats here to make any hardcore gamer happy. Microsoft has created this combination of playing on Xbox Live and obtaining stats via the internet and it is undoubtedly a great cross-functional media paradigm.

I do, however, want to raise some issues with Xbox Live, lest ye faithful reader thinks that this is the new land of internet gaming milk and honey.

When you are playing an Xbox Live game which is not a “big” title (Halo 2, Burnout 3) you will have trouble finding enough people to play with you. I tried out Star Wars: Battlefront online and was only able to scare up two other lonely players to battle me on Hoth and this was on a weekend. Additionally, even lower profile games such as Kingdom Under Fire (LINK!) which would be an awesome Xbox Live game also suffer from this lack of enrollment. The problem, of course, is sheer numbers. While Xbox Live has undoubtedly been successful with enrollment and is in most respects a pleasure to play on, the troubling issue is the fact that you need to buy an Xbox, an Xbox Live subscription and the game that you want to play, plus have an internet connection set up. That compares unfavourably to my old internet gaming setup when I just had a computer already connected to the internet and I simply bought a game and no doubt provides a disincentive for potential new users. Additionally, while looking for a reasonable way to connect to my Xbox (which is not beside my wireless router) I looked into the Xbox Live wifi adapter but was put off by the $149 price tag. I eventually settled on a big long cord just like D4V did back in 2002. Oh how things stay the same.

I also was quite disappointed in the decision to require an extra fee to download content.† I think this should be thrown in to encourage people to sign-up. For example, I wanted to try out some new tracks and cars on Project Gotham Racing 2, so I go to download them – but uh oh, you have to pay an extra extra fee. I know what you’re thinking; it’s a couple bucks, just do it! Yeah, but the ultimate long-term success or failure of Xbox Live will depend on the number of people playing on the system. The concept is called a network externality and is the reason behind the success of the Microsoft operating systems and was also the reason Microsoft put free Xbox Live subscriptions into Xbox Live enabled games. It can be described as such: if you get more people to try the product, it makes the product better, which will, in turn, encourage other people to try it. By offering free content downloads within the purchase price of Xbox Live, Microsoft would have a powerful way to expand Xbox Live’s attractiveness. Thought Fable was a bit on the short side? Well subscribe to Xbox Live and download an expansion pack for free (or not for free but built into the purchase price of Xbox Live). Sure, this isn’t going to make money in the short term because the producers might as well just punch out another new game. But if Microsoft take a long-term view and is interested in creating Xbox Live gamers who will switch to the Xbox 2 (Xenon or whatever they are going to call it) then providing a service now will instill a brand loyalty in the market and make upgrading to a new console easier to justify. It also opens up the possibility for a new target audience for Xbox Live. Rather than just having it as a platform for online playing, making Xbox Live a portal for “pullable” content would allow people who have no interest in Halo 2 or other big name games to download interesting new characters for their favorite games.

I am quite enjoying the renaissance that I am experiencing with online gaming. That being said, I see how Xbox Live could be made even better. One of the hardest things to do in marketing is instill enough customer loyalty to a product that consumers will follow it even when a new version comes out. Microsoft has the chance to do so here with Xbox Live and I challenge them to have the foresight to pull it off. Until then Xbox Live adds another interesting dimension to Xbox gaming.

†After this article was published it has come to our attention that some of the content, such as the Ninja Gaiden downloads on Xbox Live are, in fact, FREE. So props for the free downloadable content, may we see more of it in the future.

  • Xbox Live: Generation Next
  • by MaxPower
  • Published on February 1st, 2005
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