Xbox LIVE: The Past, the Present and the Future

Online gaming is no longer just a novelty, it’s a phenomenon, and in the console world if there’s one platform that shines brighter than all others it’s Microsoft’s Xbox Live.

The service launched back in 2002 and had amassed 10 million users by February last year, but will its ‘golden age’ last? What makes it so successful? Where will Live go from here?

It’s difficult to work out exactly how many people log on, since Microsoft keeps such information pretty close to the chest, but since it reported a rise from eight to 10 million users in only a few months, it’s clear there’s potential for further success.

But what about the other side? There have been hacking issues, deleted accounts, glitches and cheaters who upset the online status quo for their own personal gains.

Totally360.com spoke to Gary Shaw, the Managing Director of unofficial troubleshooting site Xbox Live the Guide, who believes cheating is a serious issue:

“Cheating has been around since games were invented and it will never go away. I’m firmly from the ‘you’re only cheating yourself’ camp. If it’s not a genuine win when playing PES [Pro Evolution Soccer] or ‘winning’ COD [Call of Duty] with a rapid-fire mod… well… have you really won anything?”

The effect of cheating is that is creates more cheaters, since more people exploit the glitches in games that they see others doing. Colin Miller, a professional Games Journalist, believes that if cheating is allowed to continue it can cause other issues: “The main problem is that it leads to more ‘rage quitting’. I have quit quite a few games of COD: World at War myself after seeing cheaters shooting other players whilst hovering in thin air. It’s annoying for players when you spend all that time waiting to join a decent match and then that happens.”

The introduction of the ‘New Xbox Experience’, or NXE, in November last year led to an increased focus on the social side of gaming, allowing gamers to form ‘parties’ and jump from game to game together.

These benefits were generally well-received, with some even going as far as saying it felt like playing a brand new console, but according to Helene Wilson, EMEA Xbox MVP and webmistress of Xboxliveaddicts.co.uk, there is a down side to relying on ‘party’ based gaming:

“Although [it’s] great to have it so we can chat whilst all playing different games and from wherever we are, it’s taking away to a certain extent the ability to make new friends. If you are in a Party Chat and someone comes into a lobby, how are you meant to hear them?

“It’s a great feature for people who love to be in a small group, but not so good for new people to Xbox Live who may be looking to make friends.”

Despite this, Xbox Live remains significantly more developed than it’s equivalents on other consoles. The Playstation 3’s ‘Playstation Network’ (PSN) recently announced over 20million members, a significant amount in the two and a half years it’s been up and running.

The key difference between their successes is money. A silver subscription to Xbox Live is free to Xbox owners, but it requires a monthly fee of £4.99 in order to upgrade to a gold membership and access its best features, particularly multiplayer, while Sony’s PSN remains entirely free.

Talking to Edge magazine about the financial worth of Live in 2007, Aaron Greenberg, the group product manager for Xbox and Xbox Live, said “You’re creating your friends list, messaging…. instant messaging, you get a good 80% of the Live experience for free…we feel our multiplayer offering is good value at 50 bucks (£39.99) a year.”

The content of Xbox Live isn’t just limited to games though. Video on demand and other digital distribution has been increasingly utilised in the past year, with film studio Pathé being the latest to sign up only a few weeks ago. The studio, responsible for Oscar triumph Slumdog Millionaire, joins Universal Studios, MGM and Paramount, who are all already providing films for Live.

Video downloads still have some way to go to reach the popularity of DVDs, which had sold over a billion units in the UK by 2007, but Shaw believes attitudes differ between America and Europe: “I think if you live in the states it’s been great. Outside of the US though seems to have been forgotten about. Sure we’ve got a line up of movies but it’s not to the same extent as our cousins over the pond.”

Another major part of the success of Xbox Live is downloadable content (DLC) for games. Almost every week there are reports of download records being broken, the latest being for Xbox exclusive downloadable episode ‘The Lost and the Damned’ for Grand Theft Auto IV, which became the fastest opening day money-maker on Live, retailing at 1600 Microsoft points (around £14).

There have been numerous controversies and problems with DLC in the past, such as the infamous horse armour for Oblivion, which caused an uproar on release when developer Bethesda charged 200 Microsoft points (about £1) for something which most gamers agreed would have been an unlockable secret in days gone by.

This begs the question of what qualifies as ‘good’ downloadable content, just as ‘The Lost and the Damned’ made us wonder if there should be a limit on how much developers can charge for DLC.

Andrew Hemphill, a Freelance Entertainment Journalist and Sub Editor, believes the quality of DLC can often depend on the individual game: “It’s a very mixed bag, while some of it is priced correctly, there are far too many developers placing a massive tag on their DLC- I shouldn’t have to pay £10 to download three maps for COD 4 for example- that’s extortionate. It should be capped.”

Some would like to see DLC pushed even further though, Wilson said: “I would like to see in the future all games being downloadable to the hard drive or to some kind of server for consoles, the way they do for P.C. Not only does this eradicate the stack of boxes and reduce the need for storage, but it would also get rid of scratched discs and be much easier to find the game you are wanting to play.”

Another issue which had left the gaming community throwing their pads across the room is ‘pay-to-unlock’ content. This is content which is included on the retail disc and is merely unlocked by paying the Microsoft points.

A chief example of this comes from EA games who publish both Burnout Paradise and Skate 2, both of which have downloadable codes to unlock all the secrets in the game. For some gamers this has already started alarm bells ringing, since players are being offered a choice to pay for little more than a cheat code.

Recently action horror hit Resident Evil 5 released its Versus mode amid a wave of allegations due to the download’s filesize being a meagre 1.5megabytes (about half a song’s worth of music), since it was widely claimed the content was already on the disc. Capcom responded stating that the structure of the mode wasn’t on disc already, but brought together content from all over the disc and bundled it up with only a bit of new code.

The fact of the matter is that Xbox Live works, and with new releases on the horizon, both retail and DLC, there’s plenty of scope for the service to increase in popularity, but what else will change?

Miller believes Live will embrace the social element: “with the fact you can access your account from any computer, I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a bit more of a social network, like a gaming version of facebook.”

Hemphill sees it taking advantage of advances in web technology: “As high-speed internet connections become more popular, I can see an expansion in video and game downloads being forthcoming and possibly entire games being downloadable over the service.”

Wilson envisions a virtual world in your living room: “Touch, speech and movement sensitive controls and I would like to see an Xbox Live radio, web browser and perhaps a place to see how many lobbies are open on a game without having to put your disc in.”

Shaw thinks of the economics of the service: “People ask why Xbox Live isn’t free. I think it would ruin the service. It needs money to make sure it evolves. Although I’m sure it wouldn’t hurt to reduce the subscription price a bit or at least offer some sort of discount for gamer families who have to fork out a gold subscription for every child/parent in the house.”

The future economic and global success of Live will depend on the continued communication with its members and responding to their requests for their service, since without them, Live could not exist.

This piece can also be seen on Totally360.com here.

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