It’s hard to imagine a time when there was an Xbox, but no Xbox Live, as it has become so integrated with the brand, and is one of the most referenced selling points for the console. This past Thursday marked the fifth anniversary of Xbox Live’s existence, so we thought it would be nice to take a look back on the origins of Microsoft’s online gaming service, how far it has come, and where it may be headed.
A fact some people may not be aware of is that the Xbox was actually not the first console to have online functionality; the Dreamcast also had this feature, but like the system itself, ended up failing. Because of this, many industry analysts were sceptical of Microsoft’s own attempt at online console gaming. Could it work and would console gamers really care? The answer was a resounding yes, as Microsoft not only let the Xbox connect to the internet, but set out to create a unified gaming community that would stretch across all games for the platform. Since its launch in November 2002, Xbox Live has grown to have 7.1 million users in over 26 different countries and territories.
Now this may come as a shock to those who’s Xbox gaming experience only goes a couple of years back, but there was actually a time when people played games online that weren’t called Halo. Some of the first titles to take advantage of Live were MechAssault, Crimson Skies, and Whacked. Although Live’s first big hit was arguably Rainbow Six 3, which featured tactical team-oriented game play that made it perfect for playing with others, and would remain one of the best experiences on Live for years to come.
However Xbox Live didn’t really take off population wise until Halo 2 was released. The tight game play, intuitive party system, and stat tracking became an online phenomenon so addictive that it probably created twice as many frustrated wives and girlfriends along with subscribers. Of course, Xbox Live itself didn’t stop evolving, and the next big step was Microsoft’s next console.
Unlike the original Xbox, the 360 would be online from day one, and brought with it many new enhancements to the service. The inclusion of the Guide menu made it even easier to link up with friends, send messages, and also to file complaints against those we wish never hooked their 360 up to the internet. Other additions included the vision camera, as well as a cross game ranking system known as True Skill. With the release of Windows Vista the Live service even branched outside of the Xbox and onto the PC, which gave birth to cross platform interaction between players on both platforms.
Something that originated on the first Xbox, but really came into its own on the 360, was Xbox Live arcade, which gave the Xbox a much needed casual outlet for those that may not be adept enough to pull headshots off in Call of Duty. Today Arcade provides hundreds of coin op classics, as well was new original content from up and coming game developers. One of the most important things the 360 brought though was the marketplace, and while the original Xbox did dabble in downloadable content, the marketplace has grown to be a virtual shopping mall. Offering additional levels, game demos, gamer pictures, dashboard themes, and more recently movies and television shows, the marketplace has elevated Microsoft to one of the leading broadband content distributors in the world.
So now that we have seen how much Xbox Live has changed over the past five years, what’s next? Obviously as broadband accessibly continues to expand, so will the number of Live subscribers, which is still the minority of the Xbox user base. One thing Xbox Live is missing is quality MMO games, and the debate continues as to whether or not this genre can properly exist on a console. Another big question is the price, since Sony is planning to release their social network known as Home, free of charge, will Microsoft still be justified in charging for their service? All these questions will be answered as time goes on, but it is evident that Xbox Live will always be known as the first service that truly established online console gaming, and will only continue to grow.