"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.