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The Meta-Gaming Experience of Xbox 360
game: Xbox 360
posted by: Shawn Rider
publisher: Microsoft
developer: Microsoft
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date posted: 11:12 AM Thu Nov 24th, 2005
last revision: 11:14 PM Thu Nov 24th, 2005

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Click to read.meta- (prefix): beyond, transcending, encompassing

The Xbox 360 is primarily considered a videogame system. But beginning with the original Xbox, Microsoft has been pursuing a meta strategy: That is, Microsoft is aware of the fact that games go beyond the games. Games are fashion accessories (GB Micro?), social playgrounds (MMORPGs), and vehicles for other forms of media (think of how many careers have been boosted by inclusion on the THPS soundtracks). Games permeate our popular culture in such a significant way that it is impossible to completely avoid them.

Think about other lifestyle choices we make: In buying a new vehicle, nobody asks if that vehicle represents the \"next generation\" of automobiles, or if there is good enough support from mechanics to adopt it. Rather, we\'re primarily concerned with how the new car will fit into our existing lifestyles: Does it get good enough mileage to fit into my budget? Does the color match with my personality? Is there enough room for me and my dog and a snowboard? Do my friends think it\'s cool? Making purchases like this, we are concerned not so much with improving the base functionality of the product (most cars will get you from point A to point B); rather, we worry about how comfortable it will be, how well it will fit into our day to day lives, and, of course, what other people will think about it.

The decision is based not so much on the technical details or statistics about the vehicle; it is based on the para-vehicular considerations. That is, we buy a car based partly on real-world factors (cost, basic needs) and partly on considerations that revolve around the vehicle. It\'s the meta-driving experience that often takes a higher precedence: Listening to the sound system, fitting all of your family in the backseat, impressing the neighbors. This circumstance evolved largely because most cars are pretty decent, and it\'s an apt comparison to making the purchase of a videogame console because home consoles are rapidly approaching the common level of quality that is found in automobiles.

In the current generation, the technical capabilities of the hardware facilitated some of the most prolific development of multi-platform third-party releases we\'ve ever seen. By all accounts, developers have little trouble porting games from one platform to another. With the advent of the PSP, direct multi-platform porting of games has even been extended to handheld consoles. The choice of what console to buy becomes less and less about which one is more powerful, or which one has the better exclusive games, and more and more about which one is \"me.\" People often identify themselves as Xbox, PlayStation, or Nintendo fans. Characters and logos from each of the three systems are popular on clothing and used as emblems. This is what Microsoft understands, and a strategy that they have pursued since the first Xbox, but greatly honed with the Xbox 360, which is, by all accounts, the Cadillac of the gaming world.

Current-gen games, next-gen hardware

The Xbox 360 is a major technological upgrade. It is indisputably, geometrically, more powerful than the original Xbox, and the game graphics are noticeably better, but the generational jump here is not riding on the quality of graphics, or even a significant change in gameplay. None of the first-party launch titles represent an innovative genre break or brand new gameplay idea; they are built on the gameplay conventions of the last generation and several are even direct sequels (Perfect Dark Zero, Project Gotham Racing 3). In the third-party games, there is absolutely no \"evolution\" of gameplay, and several of those titles are both sequels and/or not significantly different in looks or play from their current-gen console counterparts (THAW, GUN, King Kong, Call of Duty 2, NBA 2K6, Madden Football 2006, etc.) The games I mention in both of these examples are great games and well worth playing, on Xbox 360 or any other console. But they are not \"next-gen\" games because of their graphical resolution. After all, 720p was a largely supported standard even on the first Xbox, and there was not exactly a public clamoring for HD resolution games.

No, these graphical changes, and the advent of in-game physics, are incremental changes that will accompany any new gaming hardware if only for the simple fact that technology manufacturers keep upgrading their facilities. When we play the launch lineup for the Xbox 360, we are playing current-generation games on next-generation hardware. Oh, yes, the Xbox 360 has the ability to take gaming to the next generation, but it\'s not by making every pore and blemish clearly visible on our avatar\'s face. And if game developers want to get with Microsoft\'s vision of the next generation, then they had better look beyond the game.

Microsoft\'s vision of the next generation

Microsoft has always understood game developers, who are, after all, software developers. So MS and the game developers have a lot in common. Microsoft also understands gamers. They understand that there is a lot to be gained from mainstreaming the interconnected, communal gaming lifestyle. The audience potential for games is grown by the popularity of other technologies, such as Voice Over IP (VOIP) telephony, multimedia messaging on cellular phones, and online commerce sites for multimedia goods. These help prime the user-base for accepting, to an even greater extent, games into a broader media landscape.

Microsoft is banking that the \"next-gen\" will be defined by integrating gaming and game consoles into a streamlined entertainment hub. This isn\'t a new idea: The first Xbox made significant headway with the initial versions of Xbox Live and the inclusion of the hard drive and custom soundtrack support. Sony promised to deliver these same things, online play and integration with movie and music support, but apparently forgot about those goals, keeping the PS2 isolated from the rest of the world and firmly grounded in a games-only experience. (And nobody is getting bonus points for playing DVDs because that\'s just a natural evolution of the CD-playing game console.)

Microsoft recognizes their massive lead in this movement of game consoles towards game and media hubs, and they have increased it with the release of the Xbox 360, which, in many ways is an improvement in the WAY we play games as much as it is an improvement in the actual games we play. From the wireless controllers to the new functionality of Xbox Live, the 360 offers much, much more than the standard gaming experience.

The Xbox 360\'s meta-gaming functionality

Starting with the local improvements, we cannot neglect the importance of wireless controllers. Finally untethered from the console, wires are now a 20th Century phenomenon. Nintendo\'s Wavebird set a precedent for amazing quality of gameplay with wireless controllers, and it looks like Microsoft has paid plenty of attention. The Xbox 360 supports up to four wireless controllers, and each controller has an Xbox Guide button on it. This is another massive improvement in the way we use our game consoles.

The Guide button brings up a summary panel that allows quick access to the basic features of your Xbox Live friends list, system based controls for custom soundtracks, and personal settings for the game. The personal settings are where the really new stuff is: You can set system preferences for default, first person shooter, and driving games. You use that inverted Y-axis? On the 360 you can set that preference and every FPS you play will automatically invert your look. This puts these kinds of conventional options at the disposal of the gamer, and not having to reset your basic prefs everytime you get a new game is pretty slick.

Also in the personal settings menu is the ability to turn the console off. This might sound like a strange thing to praise, but there\'s nothing better than playing until you can\'t see, then turning everything off with a quick click, and awaking with the lovely controller cradled in your arms. Sure, the wife might object, but it\'s a lovely thing to be able to do.

Another change in the local box is system based control over custom soundtracks. This comes by way of the 360\'s robust media capabilities (check our article on that topic here). Being able to connect to your home computer, iPod, PSP, or numerous other devices gives unprecedented freedom of selection. That selection of music would be useless unless you had serious control over adding these soundtracks to your game. The 360 allows you to listen to your own music mixed into any game. It is even smart enough to pause the music during cinematic sequences.

These changes recognize that we don\'t always dedicate ourselves fully to our games: We listen to music, talk to friends and play games all at the same time. Sometimes we immerse ourselves in the experience, and other times we\'d really rather listen to that latest Atmosphere album. And when nu-metal hits a game soundtrack, this gamer turns on a custom soundtrack. Other gamers will feel differently, and that\'s the beauty of a flexible soundtrack system.

In all these ways, Xbox 360 is working hard to become a part of the household entertainment system. And it\'s succeeding: I\'ve already begun to use my Xbox to stream music to my stereo even when I\'m not playing games, and with a Media Center Edition Windows PC in the house, the unit becomes a very nice digital video recorder.

But that\'s not where Xbox 360 stops with it\'s meta-experience. Microsoft recognized early on that creating a stable online environment would reap benefits unavailable in a non-standardized system. Xbox Live has given developers and gamers a level playing ground to explore, and the Xbox 360 version of Xbox Live has pushed this to an even greater extreme. Xbox Live is now included at a free Silver Level for all Xbox 360 owners. The Silver Level gives you access to everything except online multiplayer gaming, which is about the only thing the old Xbox Live service offered. So beyond online multiplayer gaming, what else is there to offer? A whole lot.

Always on: networked meta-gaming

Xbox 360 gamers create a Gamer Card. This stores info about you, including your preferences for multiplayer matching, an icon, and some other miscellaneous info. Xbox Live also stores a list of every game you\'ve played, and completing objectives in every 360 game earns you Achievements which increase your overall Gamer Score. That means you can check out your opponents and see how they rate: How many games do they play? How far do they get in them? How much have they played a particular game? (And don\'t worry privacy advocates: These functions can be turned off if you\'re put off by the idea of people checking up on your gaming habits.)

The extra info comes into play during single player games: As you complete challenges, many games will give you access to worldwide leaderboards where you can instantly see how you compare to others who have completed that challenge. That is a very strange shift of game dynamic-now I am not only competing against the game, but I\'m competing against other players even in the single player mode. It makes me attempt some challenges again so I don\'t look so bad online. (It\'s also nice to note that developers choose to put this feature into the game, so in games where it is not appropriate you don\'t have to worry about it.)

Additionally, Xbox Live offers more options for downloading material and playing games. New this time out is the Xbox Live Marketplace, which features free and for-pay demos, trailers, Xbox Dashboard themes, pictures to use on your Gamer Card, and more. These are not limited to game-oriented materials, either: Microsoft has already made a few movie trailers available, and it\'s a safe bet to expect much more. How long can it be until we are downloading episodes of Lost and the latest music albums to the Xbox 360? It seems like a natural evolution for the service.

The Marketplace creates a constant reason for gamers to return to Xbox Live: Finding new games. As new titles are announced and released, demos and trailers on Xbox Live will turn the service into a clearinghouse for game information. To round it out, MS should really connect with a gaming magazine or website to provide some video content about upcoming games. (And, yes, MS, GF! is available.)

In addition to the Marketplace, Xbox Live features the Xbox Live Arcade. This allows gamers to download titles available in the arcade to their Xbox 360 hard drive. The Arcade is a great concept, and in the perfect world it would provide an outlet for both retro games (it already features Joust and Gauntlet, both with online multiplayer added in) as well as independently developed games. With so much discussion about the cost of next-gen game development, providing an outlet for lower-cost independent games should be seen as an obligation, not just a perk. And with several of these indy titles slated to appear in the Arcade, we\'re hoping for a generation full of some surprising new discoveries.

Of course the coolest feature of Xbox Live online multiplayer is the voice chat. And voice chat has now become a system-based function. Whether you\'re playing a game, watching a DVD, or browsing the Xbox Live Marketplace, you can voice chat with any of your Xbox Live friends from around the world. Effectively, this turns Xbox Live into a decent VOIP system, and at the stunning price of FREE or $49 per year, it\'s not a bad value. Now your friends are always around whenever you\'re playing your Xbox, even if you\'re not shooting them in the face with rocket launchers.

Put it all together

All of these new features on the Xbox 360 are the most significant generation-defining innovations that the Xbox 360 has to offer. Sure, physics and graphics will get better. We\'ll fight hundreds or thousands of enemies in a stage. But what will define the 360 generation is an interconnected attitude towards gaming and a media-based lifestyle. This is at least one approach, if not the only approach, that will gain a more mainstream audience for gaming. By providing a sensible, evolutionary hardware and development upgrade, we can hope that game developers will be able to seize upon these new features in future Xbox 360 games.

Although the launch titles might not have taken as much advantage of the new connection and multimedia features as we eventually hope to see, it is somewhat forgivable. Nobody could truly be able to understand the importance and excitement of the connected Xbox 360 experience until the Xbox Live community was unleashed on the new console. And maybe the games don\'t have to change so much. Just having a few new kids on the playground could be nice enough.

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