It’s difficult to remember a time when games consoles didn’t connect to the Internet. I’m now so used to online features being an integral part of the gaming experience, that it’s easy to forget that this wasn’t the case just a decade ago. A decade is how long Xbox Live has been with us, with Microsoft launching the service in 2002.
At that stage in time PC gamers had been playing online for many years, and the Xbox wasn’t even the first console to feature Internet connectivity. That honor went to the Sega Dreamcast, but using a 33k dial-up modem to play online was never going to cut the mustard. It was left to Microsoft to innovate, and to get online gaming on consoles right.
Xbox Live debuted a year after the launch of the original Xbox, on Nov. 15, 2002. Meaning Xbox Live has recently celebrated its 10th birthday. Since its inception Xbox Live has evolved and grown far beyond early expectations. It’s formed an integral part of two consoles, had numerous makeovers and feature updates, and aided the adoption of online television.
In addition, Xbox Live – and to a lesser extent its competitor PlayStation Network — has changed gaming in a variety of ways. Some good, some bad, most a little of both. What follows are five ways in which I feel Xbox Live has changed gaming for better or worse.
Multiplayer Is King
This is first on the list because it’s the most obvious way in which Xbox Live has changed gaming. There was a time when gaming was all about the single-player experience. A title would have multiple levels or a large environment, a challenging difficulty level to add some longevity, and a campaign or story mode which needed most of the developer’s attention. Now, the tables have turned.
There are still games dedicated to single players, particularly RPGs and action adventures, but generally speaking the multiplayer elements have taken over. This is especially true of first-person shooters, a genre which is only as popular as it is because most people play online for weeks, months, or even years. Hence why the latest Call Of Duty sells a gazillion copies each and every November.
Good or Bad? A little of both. After experiencing the diverse range of people you encounter online, I prefer to play offline most of the time. Doing so means picking and choosing certain games whose single player experiences have had as much time and effort spent on them as their multiplayer experiences. However, playing online has increased the longevity of many games by an incredible amount.
I remember a time, not so very long ago, when once a game shipped it was untouchable by the developer’s hands. Barring a huge recall any bugs found after a game was released into the wild would forever more remain part of the code. This meant most developers would spend more time and energy on QA (Quality Assurance) testing. Now, thanks to Xbox Live, patches has changed this culture completely.
Games are still rigorously checked for bugs and errors by QA testers (as can be seen in the credits of most titles), but developers know they have an easy out should anything slip through the net. Gamers are now essentially the last line of defense, providing the final round of QA testing. If any issues are found and reported then a patch can be released into the ether that fixes the problem.
Good or Bad? A little of both. It’s certainly nice — both for gamers and developers alike — to have the opportunity to fix any bugs, but those bugs really shouldn’t be there in the first place. There have been numerous instances of games being rushed out in time for the holiday season on the understanding that any problems encountered with the final code can be patched later.
Each Xbox Live member has a Gamerscore, which is calculated by the number of points earned through Achievements. These points are awarded for each challenge achieved. An Achievement could be beating a certain level in a game or getting a certain number of kills in a multiplayer match. Some Achievements are easy, some are hard, and some are almost impossible.
Achievements can be ignored altogether, which is what I personally tend to do. If I get them, then great, if not, then the world keeps on turning. However, not everyone is as easy going about these things as I am. And that is when the need to gain Achievements to up a Gamerscore total can cause problems. If you have OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) in the real world then you’ll likely have trouble leaving any Achievement unfulfilled.
Good or Bad? A little of both. Achievements are a nice little extra to most games, and can add a little longevity to a title that has a short campaign and limited multiplayer appeal. However, I hate to think how many hours have been wasted by people chasing Achievements in order to get better Gamerscore totals. And to what end?
No PC, No Problem
PC gaming has been in the doldrums for several years now (cue PC gamers spitting bile in unison). It’s not that playing games on a PC sucks, it’s just that only the truly dedicated can be bothered to go down that route. Unless, like myself, you only play games on PC occasionally, and then only ones that are several years old.
The Xbox, and then the Xbox 360, helped diminish the relevance of PC gaming further than ever. And Xbox Live was the straw that broke the camel’s back. When you have a choice between playing a game on a huge television in your living room by doing nothing but inserting a disc, or playing a game on a monitor in your bedroom after fiddling with installations and compatibility issues then the console will always win out.
Good or Bad? Good. PC gaming isn’t dead yet, and will probably never die completely. But what the Xbox and Xbox Live did was give those of us who don’t appreciate playing games on a PC an experience that’s very close to it. It has enabled console gamers to grab the best things about PC gaming (ignoring the worst) and present them in a much more user-friendly environment.
This is an often overlooked change that Xbox Live (and later, PSN) has given us. But it’s an important one that shouldn’t be ignored. It is, in essence, the emergence of a whole new market for small and/or independent games developers to sell their wares directly to gamers. The Xbox Live Arcade is full of great games, some of which are the highest-rated titles on the system.
These immense indie games include Braid, Super Meat Boy, Castle Crashers, and the unfettered awesomeness that is Minecraft. Some of these games would probably not exist without Xbox Live, and they would certainly not have found the audience they have. They may not be visual masterpieces created from vast budgets, but they’re still fantastic slices of gaming heaven.
Good or Bad? Good. In many ways the indie games that have become hits through this live service have reminded us what makes a good game. It doesn’t matter if the graphics are sparse or uninspiring, as long as the gameplay and story are entertaining and compelling. In the longterm it may mean big-name publishers lose their stranglehold on the industry.
All of this is, of course, just my opinion. As noted by the [Opinion] in the title. This means you’re free to either agree or disagree with my views, and I welcome any discussion on the subject.
Do you think Xbox Live has been a force for good or bad in the 10 years since its appearance? Did you prefer gaming before online multiplayer became the first concern for many developers? Are there any ways, other than those mentioned above, you feel Xbox Live has changed gaming? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.