"They took up all the trees and put 'em in a tree museum
And then they charged all the people 25 bucks just to see 'em..."

Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi

Xbox Live is Microsoft's online gaming service for the Xbox console. A fairly large and heavily promoted operation that is intended to play an important role in the success (outside of Japan, of course) of the console over the next few years. Or, looked at another way, a highly regimented corporate attack on the hitherto mainly open and free online gaming market. Microsoft have guessed, seemingly rightly, that the majority of console gamers have little or no experience of online gaming on other platforms, and can be fed the fiction that 'pay to play' is the accepted norm for all games with little protest.

Xbox Live is also important to Microsoft as they intend to use online gaming as a unique selling point to distinguish their platform from the competition, in the same way that the Sony Playstation used its then-revolutionary 3D capabilities. Although other consoles (all the way from the NES to the Dreamcast, PS2 and Gamecube) have offered online play, Microsoft are the only vendor to have made their online offering such a central part of their strategy. They have also capitalised on the fact that their competitors are following cautious and slow-moving online strategies, hoping that the consumer will be fooled into thinking that the nascent offerings on PS2 and Gamecube available today represent the full extent of those machines' online capabilities. Added to this there is the attraction of novelty value, as many console gamers have not become jaded to the initial 'wow' factor by several years of playing PC games online.

The Xbox Live service can be obtained by purchasing an Xbox Live Starter Kit, which incorporates a 12 month subscription to the service. Your €59.99/£39.99/$49.99USD buys you an Xbox Communicator microphone headset, an account with one unique identifier (a GamerTag- only one per purchase), twelve months of access to Xbox Live's dedicated network and servers, and a disc which upgrades the Xbox Dashboard software and includes two game demos, Moto GP and Whacked!.

So you've got your starter kit, your Xbox, your 512k or higher broadband connection and your Xbox Live enabled game(s) (for example, MechAssault or Unreal Championship). You plug in the headset, install the software supplied with the kit, enter your registration details (including credit card details), insert your Xbox Live game disc, pick a game to join (lots of options available here, depending on the game) and start playing against other people. (I've skipped over the intermediate step of arranging for there to be an ethernet port in the same room as your television.)

Xbox Live has received favourable (if occasionally slightly guarded) reviews from the press, who have, understandably, taken the short-term view and based their comparisons on what is currently available elsewhere, and placing a great deal of emphasis on ease of use, a criteria where Xbox Live undisputably wins out anything that has gone before. This critique will attempt to put across the long-term picture, and explain why I think that the underlying concept behind Xbox Live could have far-reaching and harmful implications for console gamers, PC gamers, and third party publishers and developers.

As I see it, with Xbox Live Microsoft have managed to generate a mass delusion of which even David Blaine would be proud. The Xbox was trumpeted as being online ready1 (and indeed, it is equipped out of the box with an ethernet port.2). They made a great fuss about their competitors' machines needing an additional peripheral to get online. But now it turns out that to play officially licensed Xbox games online you will require a peripheral (the aforementioned Starter Kit). Even more impressively, they have managed to convince a fair proportion of Xbox owners that their machines (which are already plugged into a very large, fast, free network known colloquially as 'the internet') need to be signed up to a closed subscription service to be able to play online games at all! This walled garden approach may sound familiar, as it's basically a repeat of how Microsoft initially responded to the threat of the World Wide Web- by creating a closed, regulated pay service called MSN.

The pricing structure

The core aspect of the Xbox Live system which I am opposed to is the pricing structure. Microsoft expect the user to a pay a subscription fee to access the service. You then do not have to pay additional fees to play any Xbox Live enabled games, although the system allows for the possibility of charging an additional subscription fee for certain games, and for charging for additional downloadable content.

This system means that Microsoft will get a cut of any transaction that takes place on the system, and content providers will get a smaller cut than if they offered subscription-based games directly to the customer. It also means that if you want to release a game on the Xbox with online multiplayer capabilities, you have to do so through Xbox Live, or you can kiss goodbye to your license. And cross-platform games are right out. At least two third party publishers, Electronic Arts and Eidos, has so far refused to support Xbox Live under the conditions Microsoft have put in place.

There is no variation in the fee depending on which and how many games you play on the service. If you only use the service to play non-persistent, small-scale action games you will still have to pay the subscription, even though online games of this kind are free to play on every other platform. (Indeed, even if the game is hosted by one of the players, as is possible with MotoGP, all the players will still have to pay the subscription.) At the other end of the scale, games that have traditionally charged a monthly subscription are faced with another dilemma: to settle for a cut of the subscription fee (which would be far less than what they could charge for the game elsewhere, and would greatly limit the money they could spend on running and supporting the game), or to charge an additional fee on top of the subscription, which would be seen by the consumer as having to pay twice, and would make the game less competitive. It is possible to imagine that certain gamers who wish to play a certain number of Xbox exclusive games would get a good deal out of Xbox Live, but it is not a solution that fits everyone.

The centralised aspect also means that successful games that draw consumers to the system will end up funding unsuccessful and unpopular games. The entire system, from top to bottom, is about as far away from a fair, competitive environment as can be imagined.

There is a more prevalent culture of commoditisation on the games consoles than on the PC, which allows a system such as Xbox Live to be offered as a product instead of a free service packaged with the machine. However, this conceit is placed on shaky ground if the product that you are selling has little or no inherent value of its own, especially if competitors decide to offer the same experience at a fairer price.

The final question of course is how much the subscription fee will be once the special introductory offer is over.

A fairer alternative

Registration and subscription payments should be separate for each game, handled directly by the publisher, and ideally be charged on a monthly basis instead of yearly. Action games should charge very minimal fees at the most, with the best option being for publishers to either pay for their servers via other means:

Massively multiplayer games should carry the same payment model as their PC equivalents, with the price point being regulated by competition.

All of Microsoft's competitors have followed this route or something similar, providing only the hardware link to get the user up and running, and leaving the details to the content providers. This is not only fairer all round, it simply makes more sense.

Of course, in a competitive environment we cannot rule out the possibility that Microsoft will scrap the subscription charges if publishers continue to move away from the system. The massive price cuts Microsoft have made for the Xbox hardware itself indicate that they are willing to compete on price if the prize of greater market share warrants it.

Are you really paying for the network?

Advocates of the Xbox Live system will point out that the subscription fee is going towards running the dedicated network, and providing the special features that such a system can provide.

The likelyhood that a substantial part of the subscription fee is going towards running the infrastructure is minimal. Similar systems exist for PC games, such as Blizzard's Battle.net service, which do not levy such a fee. It is difficult to assess the scale of the Xbox Live servers and the volume of traffic that they have to contend with, but then Microsoft run other network services for the public (e.g. Zone.com and Hotmail) which they have decided do not require a subscription fee for basic service.

One of the main benefits that is cited for having a dedicated network is a reduction in lag. This is rather irrelevant as the system requires broadband in the first place. Also, the consistency of the connection cannot be guaranteed, as it still depends to a degree on the route that traffic takes from the user's ISP to the Xbox Live servers. (Although Microsoft have made efforts to ensure that the major ISPs and telcos cooperate with Xbox Live.)

Another factor (put forward by the more naive part of the user base) is the notion that the system will provide a higher level of security. Given Microsoft's track record on security, this is questionable, although the fact that some level of integrity must be maintained for the system to safely process credit card transactions ensures that they will make at least some kind of effort.

Branching from this is the frankly ludicrous conceit that the Xbox Live system will be free of cheating, often giving the example of Phantasy Star Online on the Dreamcast to show why a closed system is necessary3. Regardless of the heightened security consciousness, the system is irresistably attractive to hackers and crackers. It is not too far fetched to imagine that users will find ways to spoof the system in all kinds of ways, from aimbots to identity fraud. (In fact, it has already been shown that users with modified Xboxes, which are locked out from Xbox Live, can simply rewrite their machine's ID, unfortunately stealing the ID of another machine in the process.) Microsoft have stated that cheaters will be banned from the service, but as the cheating needs to be detected (and going through the logs would require effort) it remains to be seen whether they will police the system effectively.

As a unified system, Xbox Live also offers some features that will be familiar to users of GameSpy or The All-Seeing Eye on the PC: a buddy list, leagues, and various flavours of player matching. There is no reason whatsoever for games not to include these features directly, with the exception of the GamerTag identity. Indeed, with GameSpy's recently mooted moves into middleware for consoles as well as PC games (and Sega's SNAP project), the option will sooner or later present itself. Of course, PC users have another raft of solutions to the problem of maintaining a consistent identity (when it is deemed necessary, or indeed even advantageous) - Instant Messaging being the most obvious. The Xbox could be bundled with free MSN Messenger software... if only it had a keyboard.

Given the benefit of the doubt and viewed as a complete package, the features listed above could be argued to warrant a subscription fee. The deciding factor however is how many of these features need to be served over the whole system, and couldn't be provided by individual games. Only the GamerTag and billing systems depend on this centralised system, and they hardly warrant the user paying for the privelige (of what was initially promised to be ready out of the box, you'll remember).

The closed network is pitched to publishers with similarly thin arguments. Microsoft aim to convince third parties that they do not have the resources and expertise to run online gaming services (although obviously this holds no water with most PC developers or Sega). This leaves only the major Japanese console games firms who genuinely have less experience of running online games because of the PC's minimal prominence as a games platform in Japan. Unfortunately for MS, most of these giants have already started working with Sony as they primarily intend their first online efforts to succeed in the domestic and Korean markets. (E.g. Square's Final Fantasy XI, Capcom's Network Biohazard.)

The Headset

Having not tried the Xbox Communicator, I cannot vouch for its effectiveness, although there is no reason to doubt that Microsoft have delivered a viable voice over IP system, as PC games have been offering this for some time (since Rise of The Triad at least, although take-up of voice comms remains marginal). Although the voice aspect may add a new dimension to some games, it is difficult to hide the fact that it has been given such prominence because of Microsoft's unwillingness to provide a keyboard peripheral4. (It is rumoured that a keyboard will be made available for use with Phantasy Star Online, but to my knowledge it has not yet been confirmed.) There are also logistical problems with voice as the sole method of communication with other users. Obviously there's the language barrier, and furthermore it could be difficult and unwieldy to converse between multiple players at once. The step of popularising new technology should be applauded, but it is unfortunate that once again Microsoft have done so at the expense of consumer choice. As with much else on the Xbox, Microsoft's revenue stream dictates what the consumer is allowed, but doesn't listen to their actual needs, in spite of bold claims to the contrary.

Why it won't change the world

Even with all these problems, Xbox Live still looks like an attractive product to a large proportion of Xbox users. But even if it remains a well-supported and commercially successful peripheral ("Are we making money yet?"5), it is not possible that it will meet Microsoft's goal to gain the majority share of the console market. The most obvious reason for this is the continuing dominance of the Sony PlayStation 2 in terms of sales figures, and Xbox Live will be less of a differentiating factor once the PS2 Network Adapter gains momentum.

But more specifically, Xbox Live as a 'revolutionary' element depends on the system becoming ubiquitous. The Xbox user base is smaller, globally, than either of its rivals, and it is only a fraction of these users that have both access to broadband and any incentive to sign up. Not to mention that the setup procedure requires five or more separate purchases, and some fairly technical steps. Online console gaming, in general, may never totally usurp the traditional single player and same-room multiplayer paradigms that dominate console game design today. Many genres simply don't adapt well to an online environment, and those that currently do well on PC have to face the obstacles of consoles' limited controls and communications features. (As well as the suitability of the TV screen to display text.)

In conclusion, Xbox Live does not allow developers to fully exploit the online capabilities of the Xbox platform. Although it can be seen as a boon for the casual player who simply wants to connect and play with the minimum of fuss, it acts as an obstacle against the delivery of a broad, deep and varied library of online titles. Users would be better served with a transparent, open connection that allowed games to be priced at different levels and to be played against users on other platforms.

If online console gaming is to be a success (and this is by no means guaranteed in the course of this hardware generation), expensive closed systems such as Xbox Live need to evolve or die.

Further information



(Classic FUD, where Microsoft have seen fit to promote their service with juvenile and offensive slurs against Sony, women and the mentally ill.)





http://www.sega.com/business/ (Select 'SNAP')


1. By comparison, the Sega Dreamcast was actually internet ready - you could plug it directly into a phone jack (broadband understandably being an optional extra in 1999) and play online games straight away with no subscription fee of any kind (at least until Phantasy Star Online, and even that did not charge a subscription fee for quite a while in Europe).

2. This convenient feature allowed a number of unofficial network gaming solutions to be developed, such as GameSpy Tunnel, which dupe Xbox games with system link capability into working over the internet.

3. PSO is a poor example for this. The game suffered severe cheating (item duplication) problems, but Sega had made very minimal efforts at security in the first place, never intending the game to be a long-term, subscription-charging service. The game even allowed the storing of character data locally by the user, leading to problems that echoed those faced by Diablo on the PC.

4. Microsoft do not wish to provide a keyboard, ironically, for the same reason that Sony do- because it could casual users away from the Windows-dominated desktop.

5. Jibe reportedly uttered by Microsoft higher-ups at meetings throughout the costly development of the Xbox platform.

A more balanced look at Xbox Live

Although there is much about Xbox Live that could be improved, many of the criticisms leveled against it are by and large inaccurate and unfair. In fact, one gets the feeling that the service’s detractors have never actually used it enough to have a feel for its many positive features and are unaware of its true faults. As a non-partisan player of many online console and pc games, it’s my goal to provide a more objective comparison between Xbox Live and its competitors. Please note that the Nintendo’s Gamecube has been omitted because so few of its games support online play.

The subscription fee and what you get for it

Much has been made of Xbox Live’s subscription fee, which stands at $49.99 annually. Monthly, this breaks down to $4.16, which is a negligible expense in today’s entertainment market, being less than the cost of a single DVD rental and less than half of the cost of a non-matinee movie ticket. It’s certainly a far cry from the fee charged for MMORPG’s like Everquest which average about $15 a month per game. Still the question remains -- what do you get for a subscription fee for a service other companies offer for free? The answer: the convenience of a stable online community.

Xbox Live is essentially a peer-to-peer network and player matching service, not unlike what Gamespy and All Seeing Eye are on PC. Both PC services are free, but they lack what Xbox Live offers -- a single, integrated service that is uniform across all games. Users of Xbox Live have only one gamertag or identity that they use throughout all games available on the Xbox Live service (unless they subscribe to more than one Live account, which is not uncommon). Players can easily invite people they meet online to join their friends’ list by select that person’s name from a simple menu and clicking a button. Once a player accepts, his online status, as well as the game he’s currently playing will always be visible in any game, as well as in the Xbox dashboard. This means that someone currently playing Rainbow Six 3 can open up his friends list within the game and invite someone playing Crimson Skies to join him. With the upcoming Xbox Live 3.0 rollout, invites can be sent from an Xbox to users on Microsoft’s MSN Messenger service.

Contrast that with PC gaming, where one would have to actually back out to the desktop to look for friends on All Seeing Eye and send an invite that may or may not be received. On Sony’s Playstation 2 (PS2) this is an even harder feat to accomplish, as there is no uniform service connecting all PS2 games or third-party application to turn to. Each game on PS2 is a service unto itself, requiring its own login and password, as well as its own friends list (although some games don’t support this feature at all). Publisher Electronic Arts sidesteps this by offering a single EA online service its own games, but that’s the closest the PS2 comes to an integrated matching service.

The upside for both PS2 and PC gaming of course is that they’re free. But there’s something to be said for uniformity and an integrated standard service -- and considering Microsoft charges so little for its subscription service, players who value a centralized structure to managing friends lists and game matching, might not mind paying the fee.

Finding a game

Outside of the excellent community connectivity Xbox Live provides, browsing for servers and connecting to games is handled almost exactly the same way as it is on PC and PS2. Players boot up their game, browse a simple list of available servers and connect to the game they want to join.

As with PC gaming, Xbox Live includes built-in support for patch installation, as well as downloadable content (DLC) such as new maps, levels, player skins, etc. Although this content is free for PC players, it’s viewed as being part of Xbox Live’s premium service. Also, additional premium DLC is available for a fee in some games -- such as a $5 map pack in Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow, or premium song packs in Dance Dance Revolution Ultramix. This is currently a source of great controversy among Xbox Live fans, as many believe their subscription fee should cover all downloadable content.

Currently, the PS2 only offers downloadable content in Final Fantasy XI Online, the MMORPG that ships with its user-installed hard drive and SOCOM II. No other PS2 games I am aware of offer this feature.

In-game Communication

Every Xbox Live game utilizes the communicator headset for in-game communication. Although a USB keyboard adapter was created for Phantasy Star Online, it is not supported in most games and is rarely used in the ones that do support it. This means all in-game communication is done strictly through voice chat. It’s a great feature that’s implemented very well in Xbox Live. Besides in-game and pre-game lobby chat, players can also communicate through the Xbox Live dashboard, and send voicemail messages to each other.

One major criticism of Microsoft’s voice chat feature is that although you can mute your microphone, players rarely do it -- meaning you often hear telephone conversations, domestic disputes, random noise and singing you wouldn’t have to hear if Xbox Live used a push-to-talk button. To my knowledge only two Xbox Live games use a push-to-talk feature -- Ghost Recon and Ghost Recon: Island Thunder. Every other game uses a voice-activated set-up.

Another drawback is that the trolls who used to type taunts, insults and offensive things in PC games, now speak those things in Xbox Live. And although you can mute individual players (which once done, makes them muted in all Xbox Live games), you still have to listen to people you don’t want to hear. Female players who may want to keep their gender secret are clearly female, opening them up to abuse and harassment they may otherwise avoid on a game that does not use chat. Children are also frequently harassed by the so-called “adults” whenever they speak.

There is a system for reporting abuse, but there is some question of whether or not it’s effective. Feedback, including the category of abuse (such as lewdness, cheating, harassment, etc.) is accessed through the “players” menu. Reportedly, if a player receives enough negative feedback, Microsoft will investigate. I have yet to hear of a case where an individual was banned from Live for bad behavior. The potential for harassment continues to be a major problem for Xbox Live’s otherwise excellent voice communication.

On the PS2, only select games provide USB headset support and not all USB headsets are compatible with all PS2 games. My only experience with the PS2 headset has been in the SOCOM games -- and while SOCOM I featured laggy chat, SOCOM II offers better quality. Both are push-to-talk only, which is a plus, but the only way you can ignore a player is to actually type that player’s name into a virtual keyboard. Unlike Xbox Live, you can’t just select them from a list of players in-game and choose “ignore.” This is especially a problem, since many players use special characters in their names, which makes spelling them correctly frustrating.

In addition to the headset, the PS2 offers USB keyboard support. This brings it in line more with PC gaming, and some games such as Timesplitters 2 and the Red Faction series. However, many PS2 games do not support keyboard/mouse controls, meaning one must put down their controller to type a message to other players or use an unwieldy keyboard/controller hybrid.

As with the PS2, the PC does not have any unified voice communication solution. Communication by-and-large is done through typing messages on the keyboard, although some games are starting to support built-in voice communication options. At the time of writing, most in-game voice chat is still done through free third party applications such as Teamspeak, Ventrilo and Roger Wilco.

Clan support

In-game support of clans is promised for Xbox Live 3.0, scheduled to roll out in August 2004 with the release of Rainbow Six 3: Black Arrow. Rumored features include a calendar to schedule matches, clan logos and insignia that display on a player’s in-game uniform, and special clan communication tools and clan statistics.

In PC gaming, there is no built-in clan infrastructure -- clans schedule their matches through third party websites, maintain their own discussion forums, etc. On PS2, there is excellent clan support in SOCOM II, particularly for match scheduling, though I have not encountered it in any other PS2 game.

Game hosting

Unlike PC gaming, where players rent and set-up their own dedicated servers, all Xbox Live games must be hosted on an Xbox. Although you can have a dedicated Xbox set up as a server, it is not very common. This means that most games are hosted on personal cable or DSL connections with the host actually participating in the game, raising the resource overhead required by the Xbox console to provide smooth online play.

Obviously, lag is a considerable problem. It’s not uncommon to attempt to connect to multiple servers before finding one with an acceptable level of performance. Especially frustrating is the prevalence of low-bandwidth hosts who set up servers merely to exploit net latency to raise their statistics. It’s very uncommon to be part of a game where the host is not the top scorer, or at the very least, not in the top three. Call it the “home team” advantage.

As mentioned earlier, some games do offer a “dedicated server” option, though it can only run on an Xbox. This means the host isn’t playing while the server runs, but it is still limited by bandwidth and the Xbox’s own hardware. Even with this pseudo-dedicated server feature, the player cap on most Xbox Live games rests at 16, which isn’t bad compared to the 6-8 clients most players can reasonably host when they play, themselves. Still, it’s a far cry form the 32- and 64-person servers available on PC games.

PS2 online games are similar to Xbox games in that they must be hosted on a PS2, though this is changing. Lucasarts’ crossplatform Star Wars: Battlefront, while offered on PS2, PC and Xbox, promises a true dedicated server option for both PS2 and PC players. Although players on different platforms can’t play together, a PS2 player can set up a dedicated PS2 server on a PC, leaving open the possibility of traditional dedicated server rentals becoming available for PS2 players. No other developers have announced a similar option for their PS2 games, though given the need for stable servers to play on, it could prove to be very popular.

Cheating and glitching

No matter what, if someone creates a game, certain players will do whatever they can to find a way to cheat. With PC gaming, the use of hexeditors makes it easy for cheaters to hack games and turn them to their advantage. It’s somewhat harder on consoles, but with the advent of prepackaged cheats such as Action Replay’s commercial cheat devices, and in-game glitching (which refers to exploiting glitches or bugs in the game, such as being able to fire through walls, become invisible or invulnerable, etc), it’s not uncommon to run into cheaters.

While PC developers release regular patches and integrate products like Punkbuster that attempt to deal with the problem, Microsoft is much more negligent in stopping it on Xbox Live. Action Replay is compatible with certain Xbox Live games, and glitching is prevalent. Some games, such as Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow and Return to Castle Wolfenstein, are so plagued by cheaters and glitchers that they are basically broken.

Developers do patch their Xbox Live games, which in many cases solves the problems (though other problems inevitably pop up), but not as often as PC developers patch their games. This contrasts with Sony’s attempts to deal with cheats on the PS2 -- although they are unable to patch PS2 games, they have a technology designed to bar any third party devices, such as Action Replay memory cards, or hardware modifications, from operating in conjunction with certain online games. This doesn’t stop glitching, although it does keep out a lot of the third party cheats and hacks one sees on Xbox and PC games.

The problem Microsoft faces is that Xbox Live is a subscription service -- even the cheaters are subscribers. Although they ruin the game for other players, they also pay their subscription fees. Does this make them entitled to cheat? Microsoft has yet to adequately address the question.

A final comparison

Having been an online PC gamer since the early days of Quake II and an online console gamer since the Dreamcast’s 56K modem, I think it’s safe to say that Xbox Live provides one of the strongest overall console experiences to date. Although it is in general inferior to PC gaming, it does have its advantages. For instance, its integrated system for finding games and connecting with other players is superior to the ad hoc system employed by PC and PS2 developers for their games. It makes online gaming accessible to mainstream players while offering features hardcore veterans can appreciate. The integrated voice chat is also a terrific plus.

The fact that the Xbox is a stable platform is also a big bonus. Unlike PC gaming where players with the latest and greatest system have an edge over players with slower machines, everyone has the same Xbox. The only difference is internet latency.

On the downside, the lack of a serious dedicated server option hurts the overall experience. I accept laggy play in Rainbow Six 3 that I would never accept on a PC. Still, the network latency is superior to that of the horsepower deprived PS2, and it doesn’t stop the games from being fun. The major negative that I know turns players off to the service is the large number of cheaters and griefers, devoted almost exclusively to ruining the experience for other people. I have real life friends who will only play when someone they know personally is on, because of bad experiences they’ve had in public Xbox Live rooms.

All and all, there is a lot of trial and error involved in the current generation of console online gaming machines. While the PC has had many years to refine gaming on the Windows and Macintosh platforms, figuring out what works best for consoles is a difficult process. Both Xbox Live and Playstation Online have made tremendous strides since the primitive days of the Dreamcast -- but I doubt we will see a fully refined product until the next generation of consoles is released in 2005 and 2006.

Thanks to amib for clarifying some facts regarding the PS2.

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