Throughout the nineties and early 2000’s, a lot of video game companies tried to get console gamers to play online: there was the Xband peripheral for the SNES and Genesis that allowed you to play Mortal Kombat over a primitive dial-up modem, and Sega tried especially hard to get gamers connected on both the Saturn and the Dreamcast with Seganet. While the Dreamcast was arguably the tipping point where console gamers finally started to appreciate the possibilities of online multiplayer, it wasn’t until Microsoft launched Xbox Live that online gaming on a console finally became mainstream.
Nowadays, a lot of people like to joke that Xbox Live is simply a service that charges you $59.99 a year for the chance to be called a “fag” by a bunch of Jr. high age brats, but while that is certainly an accurate representation of what it’s like to be on the service sometimes (Protip: set all the other players to mute on default if you’re playing during after school hours,) it’s also an incredibly reductive statement that forgets about all the innovations that Live has given us over the years. Playing games online was very different in 2002 than it is now, and a lot of the revolutionary changes that have happened in online gaming over the last decade happened because of Xbox Live.
With that idea in mind, I thought I’d take a look back and highlight some of the innovations that Live has given us over the years.
There was voice chat in games long before Xbox Live on the PC and the feature was even available on the Dreamcast, but it was mostly limited to a handful of select titles and it often required the use of a third-party program, like Ventrilo. Microsoft really sped along the adoption of voice chat as a standard feature by doing two things: 1. they required that all Xbox Live games support voice chat as the default method of communication, and 2. they wisely decided to include a mic with the original Xbox Live starter kit.
Speaking as someone who spent a lot of time playing games online on the Dreamcast, I can tell you from first hand experience that one of the biggest barriers to getting console gamers to play online was the keyboard: it was incredibly awkward to have to juggle a controller in my hands while trying to type out messages with the keyboard in my lap, and the time it took to put the controller down and type out a quick message to teammates during a challenging PSO boss battle or a game of Quake 3 was often enough to get you killed. It’s easy to take for granted now since every game has it (well, every non-Nintendo game,) but back in 2002, the ability to quickly and easily chat with my friends (or smack talk my enemies) without having to take my hands off the controller felt like a godsend.
We could argue all day about whether achievements are a fun bonus feature or a pointless distraction that negatively impacts the way that people play games, but regardless of how you feel about them, there’s no denying that achievements are now a standardized part of the gaming landscape (for an example of this, go look up all the whining on the internet when Nintendo announced that the Wii U wasn’t going to feature a universal achievement system.)
Sure, achievements don’t actually do anything, and a lot of misguided nerds use their inflated gamerscore as a very sad form of self validation, but y’know what? Achievements don’t need a higher purpose: when you strip the appeal of games down to their very core, they’re all simply about the Pavlovian satisfaction we all get when we press a button and see a response, and achievements really are nothing more than a numerical representation of that base appeal. You could argue that spending hours to improve your KTD or Win/loss ratio in games like CoD or Street Fighter isn’t all that different that spending a few extra hours to get all the achievements in a game: some people just want an impressive number next to their name.
While I wouldn’t consider myself an achievement whore, and I certainly won’t go out of my way to do something in a game if the only thing I’ll get for my time and effort is an achievement, yet I can’t deny the base satisfaction and (false) sense of accomplishment I get whenever that Achievement Unlocked icon pops up. Apparently neither can a lot of other people: if achievements truly didn’t have any real appeal, I doubt Sony and Valve would’ve co-opted the concept for their own networks. If you don’t like them, that’s fine, you can ignore them, but for a lot of people, achievements add an extra incentive to go back and fully explore all of a game’s content or maybe spend a few hours in a multiplayer mode that they wouldn’t have tried otherwise. Basically, collecting achievements is simply fun for a lot of people, and isn’t that the whole point of games in the first place?
Halo 2 and the advent of modern matchmaking
A lot of people (myself included,) originally bought the Xbox for the sole purpose of playing the original Halo, and those same gamers probably only signed up for Xbox Live for the sole purpose of playing Halo 2 online. The original Halo’s multiplayer was definitely the most addictive multiplayer console experience since Goldeneye and Smash Bros., and Halo 2 took everything that was great about the first game and brought it online, giving players an endless supply of opponents and finally gave Xbox Live the killer-app that it needed.
Sure, Halo 2 wasn’t exactly the most balanced shooter around, but the game made getting online and finding a good match easier than any game before it, so much so that the streamlined online interface easily compensated for any of the game’s flaws. Players no longer had to sift through lists of hundreds of servers, looking for a populated game with a decent ping; instead, Halo 2’s revolutionary quick matchmaking automatically dropped players into the best possible match available. It may seem like a minor change, but it removed a lot of the hassle associated with online gaming and made online multiplayer accessible enough for mainstream audiences. It’s a system that basically every modern online competitive game has adopted since, and for good reason. In certain “hardcore” gaming circles it’s trendy to hate on Halo nowadays, but those people forget the massive impact that Halo 2 had in shaping not only Xbox Live’s matchmaking and infrastructure, but online games period.
I’ll admit, I recently let my Xbox Live Gold subscription expire: in addition to a 360, I now have a PS3 and a decent gaming PC, so I can get a mostly comparable experience for free on Steam and PSN (though I will probably renew my XBL subscription to play some Halo 4.) While I’m no longer a paying member of the service, I still hold Xbox Live in high regard: despite my reluctance to pay the subscription fee, I still think it’s one of the most fully featured and well thought out online networks around. Like I said, I mostly get my online fix on PSN or Steam nowadays, and while Sony and PC fanboys will never admit it, both PSN and Steam (as well as Nintendo’s new Nintendo Network,) owe a lot to the innovations and standards set by Xbox Live. Xbox Live is the standard by which all other online gaming services are judged, and regardless of how you feel about Microsoft ,the Xbox, or the people who use the service itself, it’s impossible to deny the impact that Xbox Live has had on gaming.