NEWS - Monday, February 17, 2003

Xbox Live leads the charge

There's a war being waged for that spot next to your TV, the area where most of us have a VCR or a DVD player. It's a place where companies like Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo hope to one day make a home. Microsoft is leading this charge from back room to living room with a Colorado-supported online service that already boasts more than a quarter-million Xbox players. Xbox Live offers gamers the ability to play their favorite games against a world of friends and strangers online, in real time. For a nickel shy of $50, players get a nifty headset and boom mike, two mini Xbox games and access to an international broadband network supported by Broomfield's Level 3 Communications. Xbox Live launched in November, but it wasn't until the beginning of this year that Microsoft saw the fruits of their online labor, nearly doubling their best sales predictions for the Live kit. "We were pleasantly surprised," said Xbox product manager David Hufford. "We slapped some high-fives in the hall." What seems to attract gamers to Xbox and Live is the robust nature of the service. Instead of allowing individual game publishers to create stand-alone online support for their games, as Sony's Playstation 2 does, Microsoft decided to maintain firm control over a dedicated network, giving it a more reliable system with more options. Among Xbox's perks: You can have the same name in all of your games, and all your competitors will know it, so if you're Shinypants or Clownbottom while you're playing MechAssault the same holds true in Ghost Recon or NFL 2K3. And you can add friends to a universal buddy list so you can look them up and invite them for a game. Some games also track overall scores on an Internet scoreboard for bragging rights, or offer the ability to download new content. "Downloadable content is sort of the unheralded aspect of Xbox Live," Hufford said. What downloadable content means for the average player is that games like football favorite NFL 2K3 can update player rosters weekly so you're always playing with the current team. Live does have drawbacks. The first year of game play is free but Microsoft hasn't determined what if any monthly fee it will charge after that first year (beginning in November) runs out, and so far only a dozen or so of the more than 200 Xbox games support Live. But Hufford says the lack of supported games is quickly changing. By the end of 2003, he said, at least 50 games will support the service. "We are only in our infancy," he said. "Online gaming will undoubtedly broaden the market around the world. This is the beginning of something incredible." Microsoft also is working on adding more games that attract a broader base, not just the hard-core gamers who are frequently early adopters. The company's hopes are pinned on sports titles, fantasy role-playing games like the upcoming Star Wars Galaxies, and games that appeal to a wider audience, such as the highly addictive and very popular Tetris puzzle games. Already that drive for online gaming diversity is helping Microsoft grab a whole new breed of gamers. Christopher Hill, of Longmont, is 51, a husband, a father and a gamer. But the first thing Hill wants you to know is that he has a life. "I play some golf," he said. "I visit my grandkids. I probably average an hour and a half a day on Xbox Live." Hill says he was drawn into online gaming as a way to stay in touch with his children who live out of state, and so he can have fun with work friends. But his friends and family started buying Xboxes and it was either join them or lose touch. "I enjoy the interaction, playing with people instead of computers," said Hill, who works in software support at a local tech company. "I use the headset mostly for socializing, just for chat . . . and a little mild trash talk." Hill set up his Xbox in his living room, plugged it into a high-definition TV and stretched the controller cords to his couch. The only drawback is that he has to time-share the television with his wife. "She has her moments when she gets a little bit annoyed, but it's not too bad," he said. "She would ask me. 'Do these other people have wives?' and I would say, 'Yes' and she would say. 'So they're widows too.' " Hill's love of video games is a relatively new addiction. "We had video games before but it was mainly my son who had them," he said. "I would get on them and he would kick my butt so badly I just couldn't play." But in Hill's favorite game, Ghost Recon, dexterity is offset by stealth and strategy as players assume the identity of covert soldiers in a cat- and-mouse shooting game that's more like hunting than a frontal assault. Hill says many of those who play with him are in their 30s and up. Xbox Live's ability to transcend generations and go beyond simple gaming is what gives Live a bright future, Hufford says. "I think social entertainment is going to really be the buzz word for the 21st century," he said.

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