Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Happy Birthday Xbox Live

Xbox Live will be ten years old tomorrow. Where does the time go? Ten years of putting up with arrogant teenagers, racist teenagers, sexist teenagers and…well…teenagers. But for all that we can grouch about some of the more egregious displays of social incompetence to be found on Live, there’s no denying that it is an incredible service, one that has lead where other online services have followed, and one that has turned games consoles from glorified arcade machines into the entertainment hub: the movie-streaming, music-playing, live-TV-watching, Skype-your-mates-and-browse-the-net wonderbox that rules the living room. Oh, and it lets you play Borderlands 2 with a transvestite from the Black Country. We’ve come a long way from Pong.

Poor old Sega. It was their Dreamcast console with its built in 56K that first posited the idea that online play should be a core part of console design, but the limited storage space on the console and the unreliability of dial up connections for gaming meant that the idea never took off. It did, however, tip Microsoft off to the possibilities, and caused them to include an Ethernet port on the Xbox in an era when broadband connections were still limited pretty much to business use only. It all seems very prescient now: broadband became a domestic product and gaming became a social rather than a solo pastime.

Of course, those soundproofed demonstration booths at E3 didn’t really hint at what XBL would become. At the time, it was just a way of shooting your friends rather than a sprite. Friends, however, became a significant driving force for the service. Think back to non-console gaming at the time and the first thing that comes to most people’s minds is a long list of handles. I was Chooof when playing Halo on the Mac, Ogami Itto when playing Age of Empires II on PC, and Radioactive Dan on the rare occasions that I took Rise of Nation II online. Thanks to the social evolution of Xbox Live, I’m now Ibwib across the board. You can kick my ass as Ibwib at Call of Duty. As a Black Phantom you can invade Ibwib’s world in Dark Souls. Hell, if you’re feeling really cheeky you can wait until Ibwib is watching the football on the Xbox Live Sky TV app, start a party, and mock me as Arsenal drop yet more points to teams we used rival.

Not only is the naming persistent, but the service is consistent: once you’ve connected your gamertag to that of your friends, XBL will make sure they’re always there, whether it’s for gaming, chatting, sharing a film or attempting to outdo each other’s gamerscore. And let’s be honest, it’s almost always the latter. 

Of course, PSN and Steam offer similar services, but they do tend to come with their own drawbacks. PSN offers everything that Live does, but, you know, six months later. Granted, it has more users, but both PSN and Steam seem to spend more time preventing you from playing online by tying you up with mandatory updates than they do actually facilitating online play. Working on figures from the start of this year, PSN has significantly more users than Live, which in turn has more than double the users of Steam. As for the Wii owners, most of them are trying to figure out where to put that TV top microphone, and wondering what good it will do them to be able to talk to total strangers whilst feeding a virtual horse.

As an entertainment centre, Live is getting better and better, with every passing month seeing the introduction of new channels, increased sports coverage, and an ever widening on demand service. For gaming, one can only imagine what smart glass will one day bring to the party (personally, I’m looking forward to games that combine anytime, anywhere inventory management and strategizing on a tablet with controller based action).

Notionally, the Xbox360 is at the end of its lifespan, but in real terms no one is in any rush to release a new console into a desperately depressed global economy. Well, ok, Nintendo are, but that’s just because they need to show us 2005’s technology in 2012 with the Wii U. For most of us, it’s unlikely that we’ll get our hands on a new Xbox before 2014, which means that anyone desperate to see some innivation will need to keep an eye on Xbox Live rather than the hardware. Having given us Gamercards, Gamerscore, Trueskills, 1 vs 100, cross-platforming with Games for Windows and…er…interactive Miss World, we reckon Live is up to the task.

Happy birthday Xbox Live. If you were real, Megabits would give you a cake, one that’s not a lie.