Today at E3 2002 Microsoft became the first video game company ever to announce a comprehensive online game service fully dedicated to fast-action, always-connected broadband gaming experiences. The online console gaming service, named Xbox Live, launches in North America, Japan, and Europe this fall for the Xbox video game system and ramps up with consumer beta programs starting this summer.

Xbox Live will enable all gamers to find their friends easily; talk to other players during game play through the Xbox Communicator headset; download current statistics, new levels and characters to their Xbox hard drive; and play online.

“Online technology is the next revolution in video games, and it will fundamentally transform gaming into a new form of social entertainment,” said J Allard, general manager of Xbox at Microsoft. “Together with our partners we will combine exceptional gaming experiences, a world-class service and a viable business model so all parts of the online ecosystem thrive.”

To date, 60 game companies have committed to create games for Xbox Live, and at least 50 Xbox Live-enabled games are planned to release by the end of next year. With the service approach, Xbox Live is poised to deliver the most seamless, easy-to-use and consistent online gaming environment for gamers, developers and publishers alike. It was designed by gamers for gamers and includes features such as delivery of real-time scores and statistics so gamers can compare themselves to the best players in the world; quick and easy game launches; fast downloads; the ability to find friends online across games with only one click; and the ability to maintain a single identity across all games with a single password.

Microsoft is building four datacenters–in Seattle and Tukwila, Wash., Tokyo and London–in order to run a scalable, secure and gamer-friendly service. Xbox will assist publishers by managing the hosting, networking, security, and billing so that game creators can focus on creating awesome game content.

Key, consistent features of the Xbox Live service across games include the following:

Gamertag. Gamertag is a gamer’s unique online ID for all games across the global gaming service.

Friends list. This feature allows gamers to find friends online and invite them to a game–no matter which Xbox Live game they’re playing.

Xbox Communicator. Voice communication is integrated with all Xbox Live multiplayer games and enables voice interaction with teammates and opponents. Key elements of this feature exclusive to Xbox include voice masking, global muting and parental control.

Matchmaking. QuickMatch enables players to enter a multiplay experience with a single button-click, and OptiMatch, an Xbox Live exclusive, helps them select games and opponents based on similar skill levels.

High-speed content downloads to the Xbox hard disk. Only Xbox offers console gamers the ability to download and permanently store both free and for-a-fee content that can include new levels, characters, missions and statistics.

Allard painted a bullish picture for the future of online console gaming and the promise of Xbox to lead the category. “Within five years every important game will be online,” he said. “There will be new categories of collaborative and competitive console games that are possible only online. The ability to download new worlds, levels, characters, weapons, vehicles, teams, statistics and missions will change the way developers think about creating games, and will change the way gamers play them.”

At launch, U.S. consumers can purchase a starter kit for $49.95.* For the estimated retail price of a single game, the consumer receives a year’s subscription to Xbox Live, an Xbox Communicator that plugs into the Xbox controller and facilitates all voice communication with other players, and “ReVolt,” a fun online racing game from Acclaim Entertainment Inc. Pricing and specific offers in regions outside the United States will be announced locally at a later date.

“We’re committed not only to the future of the Xbox, but to the future of online gaming,” Ed Fries, vice president of Xbox game content at Microsoft said. “Yesterday’s blockbusters will become the online triumphs of the future. Popular franchises such as Project Gotham Racing, Amped, RalliSport Challenge, and NFL Fever will continue to blow gamers away, and drive console sales– and also will be available online. As for Halo and the work the Bungie Studios team is doing, gamers can rest assured: The fate of humanity is in good hands… and online.”

Games announced that will support Xbox Live include NFL Fever 2003, Counterstrike, Midtown Madness 3, MechAssault, and Whacked! from Microsoft Game Studios; Unreal Championship from Infogrames; and Star Wars Galaxies from LucasArts Entertainment Company.

“The games industry is working every day to create a new form of entertainment that is fundamentally more involving, more powerful and more compelling than anything that has come before,” Fries said. “That’s really why we’re joined by these creative geniuses: because Xbox is the most powerful weapon yet conceived to fight that battle. We are not just making games; we are changing entertainment itself.”

By Kaleb Rutherford – 05/25/02

Screenshots for Xbox Live at E3 2002