What Xbox Live really needs is....
Or, why Xbox Live needs a unified multiplayer matching system, clans, and player-funded dedicated servers....
First of all, let me explain what I mean by "Unified Multiplayer Matching System". To do this we need to step away from the emerging world of console multiplayer online gaming for a moment and go back to its roots: PC gaming.
The very nature of a PC is open-ness. Once a gamer gets online they have access to a wealth of tools which they can use to locate other players, keep in touch with them, and find games to play, and most of these tools are free. There may be many games with built in server browsers, but a lot of these still work with third-party tools and matches can easily be arranged over the many communication applications available to the PC user. For example, a player might join an IRC chat room, meet some new friends, challenge them to a game of Counter-Strike, launch All-Seeing-Eye (a popular server browser), open their list of favourite servers, pick a suitable one, broadcast it to their new found friends, and dive into the action. The gamer has essentially turned their PC into a multiplayer matching system by using these tools and performing the above actions.
The Xbox Dashboard on the other hand would be capable of combining these actions into one fluid and consistent user interface which I refer to as the "Unified Multiplayer Matching System". It could provide the same functionality as a smorgasbord of PC tools at the same time as simplifying the entire process and streamlining the multiplayer matching experience.
So, what other benefits could such a system yield? Well, first and foremost such a matching system would uphold the very principles of Xbox Live and the Dashboard. The Dashboard is a valuable, omni-present tool which is available at the press of a single button at any time, it brings everything Xbox 360 together in one simple user interface and thus tools like a multiplayer matching system should be part of it.
Why? Well, it would mean that at any time, in any game, at any stage during your Xbox usage you could whip out the Live blade, hit the server browser of the matching system and have a quick scan for any open games you might want to play. Maybe things go sour in the game you're currently playing, hit the X button and set up a watch for another match, go back to getting your arse kicked, and wait for a notification to pop up saying "New Match Found". You could keep an eye on PDZ whilst playing Kameo, or get together friends for a game of Quake 4 while entertaining yourself in the Live Arcade. It would be a useful tool, in a useful place, and would remain consistent and understandable across every Xbox 360 title, no learning the nuances of a new server browser and match finder with every new title you purchase.
Meeting friends via Xbox Live can happen only in the heat of battle, you can send friend requests to people you've enjoyed playing with, and keep an eye on who you have met during your gaming adventures. But as yet there is nowhere in Xbox Live (although plenty of places if you use a PC) to meet up with other likeminded Xbox 360 gamers, chat, arrange a game, and get playing. This is why the Xbox 360 needs a unified multiplayer matching system. It seems the PC has done it well for years and years, but either console manufacturers have learnt nothing from their PC brothers, or simply refuse to acknowledge such ideas, opting instead for over simplification and painfully fractured matching systems requiring games to be inserted just to quickly look for a good match and providing no comfortable, standardised user interface. This must change in the future.
Moving swiftly on: Clans. Clan gaming in the PC arena is a huge part of community gaming. It's the best way to make friends, keep friends, and enjoy ranking up victories with those friends. Clan support is bound to happen in PDZ and other future FPS or other team-based multiplayer online titles, but leaving Clan support to the individual titles themselves defeats the very idea of Xbox Live and the Xbox 360 itself. Once again a task that could be handled beautifully by the Dashboard and Live is left to the individual titles, allowing the developer to implement any arbitrary clan system with no real connections to the infrastructure of Live itself. Clan support must, absolutely positively must be an intrinsic feature of Live for it to work best, uphold the community feel and allow clans a reasonable level of flexibility and consistent clan management tools.
Imagine this: Any single player could opt to "Create a Clan" from a "Community" blade in the Dashboard. Clan configuration would involve setting up a clan name and tag, choosing a clan logo and picking which games the clan plays. Players could then join a clan (probably on invitation or approval only) and choose which of those games they wish to play on behalf of the clan. A clan could be formed for just Perfect Dark Zero, for example, and all joining players would play for that single game. However, should a Perfect Dark 2 come along, the clan master could add this game to the "Game Roster" and players owning it could then choose to play it also. The clan creator (or "master") would also be able to organise members into teams and assign them ranks and privileges within the clan. The unified XBL clan system would then also keep score for clans, counting wins and defeats, tracking player performance, handling match scheduling, tournaments, and so much more. If this wasn't Xbox Live's responsibility then every developer would have to duplicate such functionality, it simply wouldn't work, it wouldn't allow clans to compete seamlessly across a number of games, and it wouldn't make it all manageable from the dashboard. Not good.
So we've covered the importance of decent multiplayer matching and a well managed clan system. What's left. Ah, yes, player-funded, dedicated servers. Everyone who has played a PC game online should know what a dedicated server is, particularly those of you who have played MMORPGs. It's basically just a computer out there somewhere dedicated entirely to hosting one or more game servers, essential for persistent online worlds. For FPS games dedicated servers typically mean lower pings, consistent up time, no host advantage, and a place players can add to a favourites list and frequent, or clans can use to practise in private or challenge other players. So, why can't Microsoft pony up the cash for a few of these fantastic dedicated servers for us? Simple: cost.
Sure, they're rolling in cash, enough to fund the development and loss-leading sales of the Xbox 360, but unfortunately not enough to pay for sufficient dedicated servers for every title and to cover all regions and all clans. If, however, they outsourced this role to existing PC-dedicated server providers, offered up their server software to download for player run dedicated servers, and built the functionality on top of the existing Xbox Live infrastructure for clans to share the cost of owning a dedicated server, it could work, and already does for PC gaming. Xbox Live already has a method of payment in place - everyone who plays online has already paid to do so somehow (barring the people on the trial periods), the clan system would allow for fair cost sharing, and download-able server software could let any serious player run a dedicated server on their performance PC, keeping a slight host advantage perhaps but offloading the task of dealing with all those players to an otherwise free or lightly loaded desktop machine.
So, you've heard my ideas, they're not really new. I'm not going to claim that they are original, I've been a PC gamer for many years and just want to see some of the things that the average PC gamer is used to ported to Xbox Live and simplified for the masses. It'll be all the better for migrating or interested PC gamers, too, because if any of them have to put up with a poor, fragmented clan and multiplayer matching system they're not going to stick around. I'm having trouble myself, as you might have guessed...