Preview

GSL 2004: Xbox Live looks to 'walk'

Sam relives Jeff Pabst's speech on Xbox Live

Right at the tail end of the first day of the EGN show there was a talk that sounded like it could be quite interesting; 'Exploiting the business opportunities presented by online gaming over the next five years'. Hauling my weary body and by now dazed mind up to the last of the waterfront conference rooms I took a seat and got ready to listen to the presentation. The speaker was Jeff Pabst, Microsoft's Business Development Manager for Xbox Live. Apparently this was one of Jeff's first public speaking engagements as he started off a little nervously. Utilising the ubiquitous presence of a PowerPoint presentation to display some statistics, Jeff soon got into the swing of things.

First we were treated to a little bit of justified boasting. So far, Xbox Live is available in 24 countries and currently has over 1 million subscribers. That's a pretty impressive number considering the broadband requirements. He was pleased to inform us that by Christmas there will be over 150 Live-enabled games out there. This means that they are entering the walk stage of the three stage catchphrase that neatly outlines Microsoft strategy: Crawl, Walk, Run. Jeff told us how the company wanted to ensure that they had the basics right - the crawl stage - before they went ahead and began to push Live as a key feature of games, the walk stage. The future is Run, when the integration between on- and offline play will be blurred even further and subscribers will comprise a greater variety of gamers. Unsurprisingly, he noted that 75% of current Xbox Live subscribers are also PC gamers who enjoy online gaming. Until the necessity for an existing broadband connection is rendered obsolete this ratio will probably stay the same. But for the time being Microsoft continue to place a high importance on working in conjunction with major ISPs.

Nor was it a surprise to hear that 90% of Xbox Live gamers are male, with 45% of them occupying the 14-24 age range. So far these are the gamers that the developers and Microsoft have been catering for. The hardcore gamer knows what he likes and what he likes is driving fast cars, killing things, making things blow up and beating other people at sports titles. To satisfy this last sub-group Jeff told us about the FIFA International World Cup, the first FIFA-approved online competition. Using the soon to be released FIFA 2005, gamers will be able to sign up for the competition and go through the stages with the aim of being crowned the world's best. While details of the competition's staging and prizes were non-existent, we were treated to a very loud video of frantically edited FIFA 2005 action. And while many footie fans have little time for EA's iffy representation of the game the potential of a fully licensed worldwide tournament is very high and could do a lot to help competitive online gaming reach the levels of respect and saturation that it enjoys in South Korea.

The rest of the presentation focused on Microsoft's desire to expand the demographics of Xbox Live subscribers beyond its currently young-male dominated boundaries. 'How to get your mum' involved is a key question that the company is trying to address. While the majority of people who play games over the internet on a PC are middle-aged women, the types of games that they enjoy have so far been non-existent on consoles. Currently Live games tend to be racers or sports games. Microsoft wants to hook the 'mum' demographic with 'time-wasting' games which you can dip into for a few brief moments versus those that encourage long marathon gaming sessions.

With the information gleaned form the very popular Zone.com gaming service Microsoft are finalising the plans for Xbox Live Arcade. The kinds of games that Arcade will focus on are those which so far have been restricted to places like Zone.com and other similar services. On top of this they will add games that appeal to current Live subscribers which continue the theme of small, time-wasting entertainment. So along with the card, puzzle and social sports games there will be some arcade and retro titles. The Arcade is the next big step for Live, with Microsoft hoping that it will encourage more people to buy Xboxes with the express purpose of signing up to Live and joining the more socially driven dynamics of the Arcade service.

At the moment a major problem is that most Xboxes subscribed to Live are in the living room where the console often has to take second place to Eastenders and Law & Order. As most people don't want to string wires all over their house most Xboxes in the rooms of the young aren't on Live, a situation which hampers the amount of revenue that can be earned from those eager young gamers. So Jeff let it be known that the favoured solution for this is wireless, or in his words, 'wireless is coming'. Well this journo could only take that as word that the next Xbox will have built in wireless support. Unfortunately this was the only part of the talk which even hinted about the Xbox 2's existence, a very curious omission of necessity that kind of made a mockery of the title of the talk. I can understand the Microsoft must keep details of the Xbox 2 close to its chest, but as that next generation machine will be the centre of Live development from 2005 onwards it was disappointing to have nothing more than a single allusion made about the technology behind the future of the Live service. Consequently, no information was forthcoming about the future of the first generation Xbox in the Live service. By the end of the talk I was considering getting trade descriptions involved over the title of the speech I had just spent 40 minutes listening to.

Still, there was some more interesting information about the directions we can expect the Live service to take, irrespective of the technology it is running on. The global issues related to the various cultures that make up the worldwide Live subscriber community were touched upon. Jeff talked about culturally relevant content, an issue that is easily handled in the offline world by releasing different titles to different regions. Go online, especially with Arcade, and different gamers will be looking for different diversions depending on their location. Again, solid information was thin on the ground, but it was illuminating to hear of the various areas that Microsoft is putting work and effort into.

Downloadable content has been a sparsely used but very popular feature of Live that, judging by the amount of words dedicated to it, we can expect to see a lot, lot more of in the future. Although Jeff claimed 200 items of DLC are currently available it is the success that has been seen with Splinter Cell: Pandora Tomorrow that has really got publishers excited. One in eight Live subscribers who bought the Sam Fisher sequel paid for the extra levels that were made available soon after the game's release. So while many games have featured free DLC we can expect the model to move more towards near-exclusively fee-based DLC in the future. And while this may be seen as a good thing in the way that more levels, cars, teams etc is always a good thing for games, the move towards heaping additional, although voluntary, costs onto the gamer is bound to be seen in a less favourable light. Microsoft are going to have to work hard to stop publishers from releasing fairly bare-bone games which only expand to their full potential with extra billing to the gamer's credit card.

Full integration of on and offline play is another goal for the company. Recent titles like Rallisport Challenge 2 have shown just how much can be added to a game through diligent and inventive programming on the part of the developers. As the '"gamer is the ultimate link in the value chain", a balance will need to be struck between giving the gamer enough of what he wants straight out of the box to keep them content with the value of the games and Live service, while creating titles that encourage the purchasing of DLC. The continuing development of the social side of the Live service will also help to make it more appealing to all kinds of gamers as well as encourage gamers to spend more time playing certain games. On the topic of whether or not gamers spent more time with Live enabled games and therefore less money on new titles Jeff was rather evasive. Judging by the positive sounds made about the financial rewards of DLC I deduced that this was indeed a problem of sorts and that the solution had already been found in pushing DLC with greater frequency and energy.

While the talk wasn't the most revealing 40 minutes I have ever had it did shed light on a lot of things. The move towards a more demographically balanced user-base is a sound move for Microsoft and could have some knock-on benefits for the current range of users. The Arcade service certainly sounds like a winner, provided that the company sticks to its word that the pricing will be on the right side of minimal. I do have some concern that the company may spend too much time chasing after the mommy-money at the expense of those gamers who have made Live such a success so far. The inevitable rise in costs to the Live gamer that the increase in priority that will be shown to DLC is also of some concern. As it stands, Xbox Live is currently very good value for money. However, if games begin to require gamers to spend 5, 10, 15 or 20 notes so that they can remain competitive in the games they enjoy playing online then I can see a potential backlash. I just hope that the balance is struck between fleecing customers for more money with the need to keep things affordable to the masses. Excessive profiteering has never gone down well with gamers, and as much as I hate to say it, if piracy is ever defeated on consoles then I can only believe that the price of gaming will skyrocket.

The future looks to be more inclusive, more interconnected and more expensive. Microsoft has so far done a wonderful job in blazing a trail for online gaming services and deserves all the accolades and money that they currently enjoy. Xbox Live has demonstrated that online gaming can be a near painless experience that enriches both the games and the lives of gamers. I just hope that the quest for money doesn't eventually ruin the goodwill and good nature of the Xbox Live community.

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