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Xbox LIVE Goes Live
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posted by: GF! Back Catalogue 10/2004 => 1995
publisher: Microsoft
date posted: 12:00 AM Fri Nov 22nd, 2002
last revision: 12:00 AM Fri Nov 22nd, 2002

By Shawn Rider

Xbox LIVE is now available in North America.

Other Launch Dates:
Japan January 16, 2003
Europe March 14, 2003

The time has come, online console gamers, to prove your mettle not only to the friends on your block, but also to the whole world. Are you ready? Well, we're not. In our first week of Xbox LIVE, we've taken some horrible beatings, but we've also learned that it isn't all about scores and stats ? it's about having a great time playing great games, and it's about ganging up on the guy using the cartoon voice mask.

Online console gaming isn't new, dating back at least to the early 1980s and the numerous online experiments conducted by Atari, and most recently attempted fairly successfully by Sega and SegaNet. However, online gaming for consoles has never really come to stay (RIP Dreamcast), and that's where Microsoft has decided to make their claim. They've constructed a dedicated network of servers and support systems and they call it Xbox LIVE. The LIVE system (XBL from here on out) incorporates voice communication and a broadband standard to bring the console experience to the online arena. Console gamers are keen to keep talking with opponents, as you can easily do when playing your pals in the living room, and the whole thing has to work like a charm. There is little tolerance in the console world for upgrades, patches, and tweaking. Fortunately, XBL has addressed these issues.

Here is what you need to set up your XBL account: An Xbox, a broadband internet connection (cable or DSL for most of you), an Xbox Live Starter Kit (costs about $50 at most retailers) and Xbox Live enabled games. The price of the Starter Kit includes your first year's subscription to XBL, and if there's a point that the anti-XBL contingent likes to harp on, it's the requirement for gamers to pay to play. This is nothing new in the online PC world ? although many online enabled PC games offer the ability for individual users to set up free servers, many games such as Everquest and Dark Age of Camelot, as well as online gaming providers such as Microsoft's Zone, charge access fees. The argument, and it's a fiscally sound one, is that it costs money to run these systems and keep them running well. So if you want a continually evolving and continually maintained environment to play in online, you'll pay for it. So far, people do so with a bit of grumbling. Gamers love to grumble when asked, and polls say that up to 90% of console gamers claim they will not pay for online gaming access. That remains to be seen, but so far it seems like those gamers will grumble all the way to their local videogame store to plop down 50 bucks for an XBL Starter Kit.

Starter Kits are currently in short demand, although we figure that's just a temporary situation. Microsoft has sold 150,000 Starter kits in the first week of XBL availability, making it the fastest growing online gaming service of all-time. And that means that there are currently 150,000 (300,000 if we all brought guests) gamers waiting to meet your challenge. The ranks are swelling, and so far the folks who have signed up for XBL are feeling pretty good about their investment. According to figures provided by Microsoft, over 5 million games have been played on the system, averaging about 500 games per minute. That equals more than 1 million hours of gaming, and more games played than in the entire history of the NFL, NHL, NBA, and MLB combined. That's a lot of gaming, folks. And a quick browse of the forums at Xbox.com will tell you that while people have some complaints and suggestions for improvement, they are enjoying themselves.

Setting up XBL is an easy procedure. Plug your cable modem into your Xbox, pop in the Starter Kit disc or an Xbox Live enabled game, and start filling out the forms. The trickiest part of installation was figuring out just where the subscription code is located on the Starter Kit cd cover (you have to scratch off that holographic foil on the inside of the cover). The most annoying part of installation is definitely filling in your credit card number so MS can charge you for another year of XBL after your first year is up. This credit card number is also used to bill you for online purchases of premium content (and nobody knows exactly what kind of premium content will be offered just yet). Parents should have no fear because the whole system is secure and you can set a passcode that will allow you to disable online purchases. However, it's worth noting that if you decide your XBL service isn't worth the going price next year (which Microsoft has been suspiciously quiet about), then you'll want to cancel it before you are charged.

There have been some reports of problems (many having to do with lag caused by varying broadband access speeds ? faster is better), but according to what we've been able to read online they all pretty much have solutions. If you run a firewall you may have to check your documentation to open some ports, but most common firewalls will work with XBL with no adjustments. One sidenote worth mentioning is the fact that XBL will not admit any modded Xbox to the system. That means that if you've modded your Xbox you cannot access XBL. Why? Microsoft claims this is a way to keep the playing field as even as possible, and although it is impossible to eliminate every way for gamers to "cheat", it is a good idea to disallow mods and GameSharks in online play. But there is undoubtedly another reason for blocking Xboxes with mod chips, and that has a lot to do with the fact that mods are generally used to play pirated games and facilitate nonlicensed development, two things that Microsoft is very keen to prevent. While the hackers vs. corporations battle is neverending, and I have little doubt that modders will figure out a way to make the chip work alongside XBL, it is worth making a warning to those folks who may be modding without a lot of technical knowledge that the current generation of mod chips for Xbox are going to block you from online play.

In signing up to XBL, you choose a Gamertag. Your Gamertag is the name by which you are known online, so choose wisely (although, those who haven't chosen so wisely don't seem to have any less fun). You can maintain a friends list which will tell you when your buddies are online. Even if they are playing a different game than you, you can find them and send an invite to them to join your game. In general the Gamertag system works pretty well, although it is apparent that each game implements these features differently. Once some uniform conventions have arisen to govern this interface, things will be even easier. It is widely acknowledged that Moto GP has some of the best XBL interface design so far. Each game generally presents you with a lobby where you can see players and look for games to get into. From the lobby you can also check on your friends and invite them to play. More textured configurations and filters could work well ? for example, in some games it is hard to track groups of gamers, making it difficult to get into a groove with a consistent group of folks. And, of course, everyone wants to be able to ban or filter out particular individuals who make the gameplay less enjoyable.

The voice communication provided by the Xbox Communicator really does make a difference in games. You can do things that are outside the boundaries of the game because you can talk to other gamers. The quality is about equal to a cel phone, although, again, the quality of your internet connection is the limiting factor here. (Although, it's useful to note that the headset will work on most cel phones that use the 2.5mm ear/mic jack to connect to a headset, which could start an interesting urban trend of using the XBL Communicator in public.) Of course, the voice is also the bringer of smack talk and generally offensive discussion, so finding the right group of folks to play against is essential. You can mute your mic and turn down your headset to play in peace and quiet, or you can simply leave a game full of jerks who talk too much.

Be prepared to encounter the full range of gamers out there. It always surprises me a bit to find so many middle-aged men playing, although I myself am rapidly becoming a middle-aged man playing videogames, and I have plenty of friends who are middle-aged men playing videogames. Login at the right times and you can be transported right back to seventh grade at 3:30 in the afternoon, complete with kids farting into the mic and listing all the profanities they know. You'll find the occasional sexist mysoginists out there who pick on women gamers to no end, and you'll find the really nice folks who help out newbies and genuinely try to play the game as purely as possible. It's a big world out there, and it can't all be daisies and rainbows, but with a bit of experience it's not too tough to find games you can hang in. And always remember that if you ditch a game full of lamers, they'll whine and cry about it for minutes to come, which provides me some degree of satisfaction. But overall, I am simply fascinated by the numerous peeks into people's gaming habits ? there is serious fodder here for sociological inspection ? and people's living rooms. XBL voice chat underscores how significantly our perceptions of ourselves can change when the mediation of that perception changes.

Overall, I've spent much more than five movies' worth of time on XBL already, and I have 51 weeks of gameplay left to go, which makes it one of the best entertainment values of the year. The money spent on XBL is obviously going to build a successful and enjoyable online gaming service, so it's hard to feel bad about it. After getting online so quickly and easily, and so readily finding a game, it's hard for me to do anything except to wholeheartedly recommend it to all Xbox owners. The broadband hurdle is a significant one, but these days you aren't really using the Web unless you have broadband ? it truly changes your life that much. However, that's fodder for another article. For now, keep an eye out for GamesFirst on XBL.