Ever since the first Xbox announcement from Bill Gates at GDC, I began to imagine what developers would do with the mighty hardware Microsoft was giving them. With the inclusion of items like a built in Ethernet card, four controller ports, and a 8 GB hard drive, developers would have access to all the tools they would need to create worlds for up to four people at home and for players across the Internet. At E3 2002, Microsoft officially released details about their online plans for the Xbox. “Xbox Liveâ€? was born as the online gaming network for all Xbox players.

Xbox Live has some great features. First off, the price point is very attractive. For only $49.99, players can pick up the Xbox Live kit which includes a year of online play on the Xbox Live network (each additional month will be $9.99 according to Microsoft at E3 2002). The kit will also include a cartridge that will plug into the controller that will uniquely identify you wherever you may play. This way, players can go over to a friend’s house and all of their online settings will still be there. Two other items will also be included into the $49.99 kit–a microphone that allows you to speak in all Xbox Live games to other players and the game Revolt, from Acclaim.

Microsoft is building a network that will include all of your information so publishers won’t have to worry about gathering this info from you. Microsoft will also handle all billing issues for games that may charge an extra monthly fee. While console gamers may not like this practice of “monthly fee games,â€? PC players have already become accustomed to spending $12.99 a month in EverQuest and other online worlds.

An interesting feature of Xbox Live is the ability to hide your voice. Using some included voice-overs, players can make their voice sound like a “tough guy,â€? “robot,â€? “little kid,â€? “silly girl,â€? or more by downloading them from Microsoft. In fact, players will be encouraged to get their Xbox on to the Xbox live network so they can purchase and download add-ons, expansion packs, and patches to their favorite games.

Playing games is simple. You put the game in and load it up. While connected to Xbox live, you can invite friends to be on your buddy list. If they accept, Xbox Live will let you know if they are online or in another game. If they are in another game–you can send them an instant message and they can read it while playing. Players will also be able to see the score and quarter their friends are in during Xbox Live NFL Fever or NBA Inside Drive games.

The gameplay is smooth and the added headset (heavily borrowed from Microsoft’s experience with the Sidewinder Voice) is a great addition to the system and will make all titles easier to play than with a keyboard. However, at this time, there is no word on if a keyboard is coming to the Xbox. Although, I am assuming one will make its way to the console since the PS2 has one.

All of these features and more can be yours by using your DSL or Cable modem connection. So what happens if you are an Xbox owner or potential Xbox owner but you can’t get DSL or Cable modems in your area? “Xbox Live will drive the sales and expansion of DSL and Cable and force the telephone and cable companies to rapidly expand to keep up with the demand consumers will have,â€? a Microsoft official told us at E3 2002. MS went even further with more fantasy tales of Xbox live. CV-Games asked this same Microsoft official about if they felt current or future Xbox owners would be alienated since only a small portion of the USA had DSL or Cable. In fact, many areas can’t get these services at all–I reminded them. Their response to us was, “Consumers who cannot get Cable or DSL should move to an area in order to experience Xbox Live.â€? I personally sat with my mouth open waiting for this Microsoft official to grin, say she was joking, or give us a realistic answer. However, this is Microsoft’s official stance for consumers who can’t get Xbox Live. Wait–I can see the advertising campaign now…

“Xbox Live now offers consumers a toll-free phone number to locate “Xbox Liveâ€? approved housing to experience the greatest form of entertainment ever created!!!!â€?

Back in reality, a broadband only solution just doesn’t make sense and will not work for a majority of consumers. Even if it is available to people, asking someone to pay fifty dollars a month for broadband, plus an addition fee to Microsoft for Xbox Live, and any additional fees for online games like Star Wars Galaxies just doesn’t make sense for the consumer. While broadband gaming on consoles certainly looks like the future of gaming, Xbox live is about three to five years early. Sega also made this same mistake with Sega Net. The online service for the Dreamcast was quite fun but the gaming world is just now getting ready for limited online gaming for both dial up and broadband users.

Does this mean that Xbox Live is a horrible service? No–not at all. The service is great with all sorts of bells and whistles. However, in the end, it comes down to an issue with access. If Microsoft is marketing an Xbox product featuring an online service that is only available for a fraction of the world, won’t they be limiting their sales by proceeding with such a system? It makes more sense to try this approach in three to five years and proceed with a service that all gamers can access. Almost every single home in America has at least one computer and the Internet. While Microsoft is busy trying to get people to move to areas with broadband, Sony will be there with open arms and the Playstation 2 in their hands reminding gamers everywhere that their online service is totally free (except for a few premium pay games) and users can access it via a dialup or broadband modem.

At least one company is listening… and you won’t even have to move to keep playing on their network…

By Kaleb Rutherford – 05/29/02

Screenshots for Xbox Live: MS Savior or Console Destroyer?