This is the third of a five-part series in which N reflects on the definity of Microsoft’s Xbox, released a decade ago. We hope you’ll join us this week in remembering those first bright, moments of Duke controllers, Halo LAN parties, and your first moments screaming at other players online.
It’s hard to believe now, but back in 2001 it was pretty controversial when Microsoft stated that their online service for the Xbox would be broadband only. But they also knew that if they splintered their audience, there were a lot of features that they’d be unable to standardize, like voice chat, downloadable content (content that took less than a month to download, mind you), and quick, relatively lag-free matches. Sony was more than happy to take the populist route by stating that those on dial-up would not be left in the dark. At launch, Microsoft stated that the online service would “Go Live in Summer 2002”, but it had yet to be officially named and it certainly wouldn’t make it by summer.
What Microsoft was bringing to the table wasn’t terribly innovative in a piecemeal way. PC gamers had server lists to search through games, they had voice communication with programs like Roger Wilco and Vintrilo, and they had leaderboards. The problem came in the splintered functionality and communities of these games. What Xbox Live did was unify all games under a single umbrella with unified friend lists, in-game chat, and standardized features like Quick Match and OptiMatch which allowed you to find a game relatively quick. One point of debate was that Xbox Live would be a premium service, whereas other consoles featured free services, which Microsoft justified by explaining the creation and maintenance of a massive, unified online network.
The initial lineup enlisted games like Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon, MechAssault, and Unreal Championship – an early game from Epic, who would later produce the Gears of War games. Microsoft enlisted thousands of beta users to test the service in late summer and early fall of 2002 with a shipped copy of the RC racing game Re-Volt and a communicator headset. By the time this rolled out, I was back in dial-up territory and unable to participate, but I still kept tabs on the service since I’d be back on the big truck when I got back to school. And, y’know, I was a fanboy. Microsoft did its best to explain the service, but let’s just say it was just as hard to watch then as it is now.
Xbox Live came out on November 15th, 2002, a year after the console launched. I stood alone outside my Denver-based Best Buy in chilly, overcast conditions for half an hour before the store opened. I’d fondled the Xbox Live Starter Kit in our warehouse since they’d arrived early ahead of the launch, but to finally get my own was a rush. For $35, you got demos for MotoGP and Whacked!, the former wasn’t my cup of tea, the latter was merely awful, the communicator headset that plugged into the top of the controller, and a year of the service. When I brought it back to the school apartments, I simply slipped the ethernet port into the back of the console and watched as it tried repeatedly to connect to the service, failing each time. After several futile phone calls and wandering around the complex looking for heads, I wound up back at my place to find it had resolved itself. The next best thing was that my gamertag, TFX, hadn’t been taken. I played all day, winding up on the Top 100 players list for MechAssault – the last time I’d ever scale such a major leaderboard ever again – and let my roommates played as they rolled back in.
One feature that didn’t survive the transfer to the Xbox 360 was the inclusion of voice masking, which was included for ‘fun’, but also to provide anonymity for younger players. Unfortunately, it also turned a lot of 13-year-old screaming racial slurs into screeching 13-year-olds screaming racial slurs. Over the years, I never embraced the service in any hardcore capacity. To be fair, I kinda suck at video games as-is and playing competitively just fortifies the position. But, long before the Xbox 360 turned Live into a major platform to download content and communicate with people, I had some genuinely great experiences with it.