Special: Ok. So I took my phone cord, and I plugged it into the back of the Xbox. It didn't really fit in there right, but oh well. Now how do I get into Xbox Live?
Back in 2000, Sega launched the first online console gaming network in the world, which was an unprecedented feat that will forever give the now-defunct Dreamcast its own little place in history. SegaNet was never really a success, due in part to the fall of the short-lived system. But now we have all three current industry leaders vying for a part in this lucrative, somewhat new arena of online gaming. Each company is rolling out a drastically different approach to getting their respective consoles online. Microsoft's ?Xbox Live', as it is now officially dubbed, is a high-speed, broadband-only network that will link together every single Xbox console in the world to a central server. Microsoft has some pretty hefty plans for the service, but given the time and the money they're pouring into the project, it's safe to say that they'll deliver on the goods.
Come this fall, you'll be able to go down to your local video game store and buy an Xbox Live starter kit. The kit includes 12 months of service, the software disc to install Xbox Live on your console, the Xbox Communicator headset, and an online version of the Dreamcast/PC game ReVolt. It includes everything you'll ever need to play your Xbox online, all wrapped up with a nice little $50 price tag.
Microsoft plans Xbox Live to be much more than just a network for which to play games online. They envision a worldwide community; allowing users to swap save files, music tracks, and much more. You'll be able to look for friends online, send instant messages, and even maintain a buddy list. It's all intended to get you into your game and having fun as quickly and as easily as possible.
When you register your account online for the first time, you'll come up with a username, known as your ?Gamertag', which will identify you and your console for the entire extent of your membership. Your Gamertag will be used for many different things. It can keep your in-game preferences, so that your favorite car or fighter will be selected automatically when you enter a game. It can also be used for stat tracking, so that you can put up your highest scores and compare them with the rest of the world. Every game you enter will use the Gamertag as your on-screen name, but some games may allow you to change your name to whatever as you wish. If you want to take your account with you to a friend's house, just copy your Gamertag to a memory card. And to keep your little brother or your grandmother from accessing your account, you also have the option to set up a password in the form of a series of button presses on the controller.
One of the things that Microsoft has insisted on from the beginning is that they will not release a mouse and keyboard for the Xbox, nor will any of their games support them. All communication will be done using the Xbox Communicator, a handy little headset that consists of a single speaker and microphone and plugs into the memory card slot on your controller. Whether it is trash talking, instant messaging, or chatting, all communication will be done by voice.
The Communicator also allows for ?voice masking?, which enables you to digitally disguise your voice from the people on the other end. There are dozens of selectable voices to choose from, so you can sound like a demonic beast, a robot, or even a little girl, if you're so inclined. Some games will actually allow you to make your own custom voice masks, which should make for some very funny creations, not to mention the annoying, grating ones that inevitably come with it. In those cases, it's also possible to mute a player's voice entirely, so that you won't have to hear them at all.
A cross-game buddy list can be accessed at any time, allowing you to keep track of your friends that are online and the games that they own. You can then simply select one of them and invite them to join you in a game. Switching games is as easy as opening the disk drive and popping in a new one. The system doesn't shut off and the service won't cut out.
For those of us that don't have any friends online, the service's OptiMatch feature allows you to search for opponents by location, age group, ping number, or even skill level. So if you're tired of getting whooped in Unreal Championship, just search for another novice player (it's all based on their stats) and you'll finally have some equal competition.
Xbox Live will soon allow us to extend the life of our games through downloadable content. Updated team rosters, new cars, new levels, and perhaps even game demos could all be possible through the network. Even games not compatible with Xbox Live could still benefit from these updates, much in the same way as the recent Dead or Alive 3 ?Booster Pack' distributed through the OXM demo disk. While it's not clear whether there will be added charges for these downloads, it is common practice in the PC game community for game developers to offer new content free of charge after a game's release.
Microsoft has some strong titles readied to coincide with the release of Xbox Live. As of now, there are 11 games set to be released on or around the same time Xbox Live opens for business -
? Midtown Madness 3
? Unreal Championship
? NBA 2K3
? NFL 2K3
? NFL Fever 2003
? Shayde: Monsters Vs. Humans
? Phantasy Star Online 1 & 2
? Rainbow Six: Ghost Recon
Microsoft has stated that they intend upwards to 90% of their first-party games to be Xbox Live-compatible after the network's launch. They also have over 60 publishers with Xbox Live games in the works. Below is just a taste of the games we'll be seeing after the launch of Xbox Live this fall:
? Halo 2
? Star Wars Galaxies
? ToeJam and Earl 3: All Funked Up
? Timesplitters 2
? Raven Shield
? Rallisport Challenge sequel
? Amped sequel
? Project Gotham Racing sequel
Nintendo and Sony are both taking different approaches to getting their consoles online. Nintendo is taking their usual wait-and-see approach, and are apparently still apprehensive as to whether online console gaming will ever prove profitable. Sony is planning to release a series of peripheral devices, including a hard drive, network adapter, keyboard, and mouse to make their console online-ready. Of course, the problem with this is that peripheral devices have never traditionally sold well. Regardless, Sony and Nintendo are releasing modems to support both broadband and narrowband connections, sacrificing connection speed for accessibility. Microsoft, on the other hand, is banking on a broadband-only network. This decision to go broadband-only is great for the estimated 35% of Xbox owners that currently have high-speed Internet, but there will be a large percentage of people that will inevitably be left out of the fun.
Microsoft is deadly serious about making Xbox Live a success. They are investing over $2 billion in infrastructure and advertising to ensure that this thing goes off without a hitch, and if Microsoft has taught us anything over the years, it's that if you throw enough money at something it will eventually start to work. Nobody in the world has the expertise that Microsoft has under its belt when it comes to this type of thing, and their experience with MSN and The Zone will give them an advantage that Sony and Nintendo just can't match. If there's anyone that can pull off such a massive undertaking, it's Microsoft.
It's difficult to tell what will become of Xbox Live. If the service sees the same setbacks and problems that haunted SegaNet in its early going, we could be set for one great big disappointment. But if Microsoft can deliver everything they are promising, all brought together in a fast, streamlined service, we'll be in store for an incredible experience come this fall.