Xbox: The Future Comes

Xbox: The Future Comes

Pay attention, kids, because things are getting interesting. Everyone likes a good brawl, and this one is about to get 3 AM barroom ugly. In one month’s time, the Xbox finally makes its play for utter superiority in the console wars. In less than a month, Xbox Live kicks into high gear and console gaming will forever be changed.

Microsoft entered into the console wars well behind its primary competitors. The other 2 consoles are from companies with deep histories of quality gaming behind them. One of those companies has a much deeper library of games available and a year’s head start, while the other has several legendary game franchises to help drive sales of its purple lunchbox. Microsoft had no such advantage. The only way they could hope to be noticed in this market was to gamble on building a console so much better than its competition that true gamers would have no choice but to give it a try. They started with superior hardware (CPU, graphics and sound), included the first hard drive ever to ship with a console, and for good measure they threw in an Ethernet port. As good as it is as a stand-alone console, this system was designed from the ground up for connecting with other systems just like it.

While eye popping graphics, brain drenching digital surround sound, HDTV & progressive scan support and a hard drive are all very nice, these items are nothing John Q Gamer feels he cannot yet live without. The other consoles are almost-as-good in many of these respects, and many gamers are waiting to be convinced that the Xbox is a serious contender. What they are about to see will bring them to their knees, praying for God, Santa or Uncle Charlie to get them a broadband connection and an Xbox for the holidays.

So why will XBL have such a profound influence on gamers and gaming? Quite simply, Microsoft has pulled out all the stops in its quest to deliver a gaming experience that combines the best of PC and console gaming with a few very important twists. The first twist is that it is broadband-only. This is a major gamble as broadband is not yet widely available, but the benefits to the online experience will be extensive. The Dreamcast did an admirable job with its 56K dialup, but anyone who has surfed the web through both a dial-up and a broadband connection needs no further evidence of why broadband is the only option for serious gaming. Broadband has needed a killer-application to help its adoption rate. Microsoft has every intention of making XBL into that killer-app.

The second twist behind XBL is that Microsoft will host and maintain the entire network. While this runs contrary to the online plans of several publishers out there (hello EA), this is the best possible scenario for every other developer and publisher who can’t be bothered with maintaining a host of game servers. The gamer benefits as well because there will be one place to go, one account to maintain, one password, one central repository of your stats and game preferences. This is in direct contrast to Sony’s decentralized approach where each publisher will maintain its own set of servers and gamers will need to maintain separate accounts for each game they wish to play online. With XBL you’ll be able to find friends online even if they’re playing another game and vice versa. And the offensive cheaters, braggarts and brainless morons you’ll invariably come across can easily be ignored and reported to the powers that be as needed.

The third twist is an extension of the second. By maintaining the network and hosting all the activity, Microsoft has the authority and ability to mandate and to standardize how everything will work. If they want to get on Microsoft’s network, developers will need to follow Microsoft’s rules. This elevates peripherals like the Xbox Communicator from bit parts to center stage, because every single game must support the use of the Communicator in order to be played online. It also means that Microsoft can provide direct assistance to developers looking to wring the best possible performance out of the network. Eventually, it likely means that there will even be shared code libraries online that different games can pull from as needed. The possibilities here are beyond imagining. By setting and enforcing these standards, Microsoft has defined an entirely new playing field for console gaming.

And it is in this last point that we see Microsoft back in familiar territory. Microsoft’s strength has never been to invent products and originate ideas, but to re-invent them in a simpler cleaner form, introducing standards that subsequently become the industry norm (see: MS Windows, MS Office, MS Visual Studio, MS Internet Explorer). PC games launched online gaming. Atari, Nintendo, Sony, Sega and a host of others helped create and perfect console gaming. Now Microsoft is stepping in and boldly attempting to meld the very best aspects of these two worlds into an entertainment experience unlike anything that has come before. A storm of change is coming to the video gaming world. You might want to hold on to your hat.

Jeremy Graves–Funxbox Staff