Opinion: Microsoft's pre-E3 press briefing in the Los Angeles Grand Olympic Auditorium, was billed as being 'groundbreaking announcements' which would 'see major changes being implemented to the Xbox Live service'. However, I can't help feeling that the announcement left me feeling disappointed, and as thought it's failed to deliver quite what could have been expected.
There were the announcements of new games during the next 12 months, as expected, although most of the games had already been confirmed or heavily rumoured for several months, and there were very few new announcements - where Microsoft did deliver was with the new Rare developed titles, such as Conker: Live and Uncut.
Tied to your Xbox, day in day out...
Xbox Live enhancements and new services to help Xbox form the "Digital Entertainment Lifestyle" were announced by Microsoft. They'll let gamers have interactive entertainment experiences, linking their Xbox up with their mobile phone, Pocket PC, MSN Messenger and even new "SPOT watches" which are being developed, and will let you get text message like information sent wirelessly to your wrist watch, where ever you are.
These new services may well prove to be very beneficial for gamers who want to constantly know what's going on with Xbox Live, if their friends are online, and various other aspects of the gaming service - but do you really want to keep getting text messages from random gamers who you only know by their gamertag, begging you to log on to Xbox Live simply because they're bored and want someone to play against?
Chances are there will be a charge associated with these add-on services, with either the person sending the invitations paying to send a text message invite from their Xbox to your console, or you paying to receive the invitation - something which might not prove too popular if abused by gamers who flood you with messages in spite, knowing that it's either costing you per message, or eating in to any pre-paid allowance.
And where being able to get invites via MSN Messenger on your PC is a great idea, it means you've got to have Messenger running on your PC - I think I've used it about three times in about the past six months, and there's really nothing compelling me to load it up and have it sitting in the task tray "just in case" someone wants to invite me to play on Xbox Live. If I wanted to play Xbox Live, surely I'd be on my Xbox, instead of using the internet on my PC.
Music Mixer makes you a world class VJ...?
According to the announcement on Microsoft's Xbox website, the Music Mixer service will make it "possible for you to become a world-class VJ" - really? I doubt it somehow. It sounds like marketing hype which can't really be backed up. How many gamers who have ripped a few tracks from their CD collection, and selected a few digital photos from their PC's hard drive are really going to be on-a-par with MTV's VJ's? Almost definitely none.
The service will let you have "new ways to play, share, and have fun with the music and digital photos they love" - I can do that on my PC at the moment, and don't. And it's already on my PC, at no extra cost, where as if you want to do the same on your Xbox you'll have to pay about £30 for the Music Mixer kit - something which surely should have come built in to the Xbox Dashboard operating system.Karaoke to be a hit in Japan?
Where Microsoft might do well with Music Mixer is the karaoke feature, which rips out the lead vocals from tracks (didn't Sega's Dreamcast have a similar function in the built-in audio player?) - and will let you sing along to your favourite songs. This is bound to prove popular in the Far East where karaoke is big business, and it might prove popular in the UK, especially when joined by a few friends who all think they can sing... and clearly can't.
But then comes the crunch - Music Mixer will come bundled with a microphone. Surely this is a bit superfluous though, when you consider that Xbox Live also comes with it's very own communicator headset microphone - why the need for both? And seeing as you can only use one microphone at the time, it seems as thought not enough thought has been put in to how Music Mixer will fit in with the existing Xbox product range.
XSN Sports - so US-centric...
I know the announcement was made at E3, so it's clearly going to be made to appeal to American gamers, and quite right too when you consider the simple fact that the large majority of the market for Xbox Live is in the States.
However the trouble with this is that the services seem to be aimed at what US gamers have supposedly asked for, and not really what European gamers are crying out for. I've seen games website forums full of American gamers praising the XSN Sports and Music Maker services, yet there's been a very muted response from European websites, with gamers feeling less compelled by the services and features which have been announced.
I don't personally want to have to play in a competitive season, knowing that I've got to be in a scheduled game at 5pm each evening. I simply want to pick a game from my selection, stick it in the Xbox and play online for 10, 20, maybe even 30 minutes... even and hour if I've got some time to spare and feel in the mood for a good gaming session. But I want to simply be able to drop in to a game and play un-competitively.
Trash talk... what trash talk?
Microsoft seem adamant on selling the "trash talk" (we'd call it banter here in the UK) aspect of Xbox Live, claiming that Sports gamers specifically love the competitive edge "where trash talking is part of the game" - this is obviously true to an extent, and there's no doubting that the voice communication of Xbox Live is one of the most impressive features, but the talking during a large majority of games (with team based play such as Ghost Recon and the like excepted) is simply next to non-existent for most of the time.
This is a point which Xbox's J. Allard has admitted to in an interview on the xbox.com website, where he says "Another thing I've discovered about gamers is that when a new game comes out they try to figure it out and help each other, but there comes a point when it's war. And it's just silent." - it's only the new gamers, or the people who are there for a bit of fun and are new to the experience that seem to "chat" during gameplay. Everyone else is simply too busy playing the game and concentrating to be "chatting". So it's a bit puzzling how one moment Trash Talk is being talked up as being a major feature, and the next they're admitting that people don't actually trash talk as much as they thought.
So could it be that they've misunderstood quite what gamers do want from an online gaming service? It'd seem obvious to me that most people want to play against other real humans, instead of artificial intelligence, and that want lots of good games to do so. League tables are great if you're near the top, in the top 100, or even better then top 10, but when you're in 253,468th place, amongst a list of random gamertags which you've never seen on the service and probably never will see, then it all seems a bit pointless.
Organised teams and leagues of real life friends will no doubt help solve that situation to an extent, as you'll maybe only be playing against a few other friends, where everyone will be in the closed private top 10. Another problem with the XSN Sports service is that from the announcement you'll need to have access to the web to set up your teams and leagues, and even to simply register to play. If this is going to be the case, why not just do away with the Xbox and only play PC games. Or maybe build a web browser in to the Xbox console, and allow access to the XSN site via that?
Where Microsoft leads...
There's no doubt that where Microsoft leads, the future will follow, and I'm sure that the hopes that Microsoft has for the Xbox and the new services which they have announced will become common-place. In fact you'll wonder how you ever managed without text messages popping up on to your mobile phone (and watch) letting you know that XboxGamer12345 wants to have a game of Halo 2 against you, or that some other random gamer on your "friends" list that you only know by their gamertag, and don't even know where in the world they are, wants to chat about the latest tactics in the new Splinter Cell downloadable mission.
It's also clear that by providing the services, Microsoft are allowing Xbox gamers to experience new things which haven't really been possible in a major way with gaming before, and by providing the content and services, they're letting it naturally develop - just it all feels as though it's being squeezed along a path that maybe it doesn't want to take.I really do want Xbox Live to succeed...
I hope that the announcements from Microsoft about how they're going to evolve Xbox Live really do work out for them, and that gamers flock to the new services - I know I'll definitely give them a try, and I'm all for innovation in gaming - I just can't help feel that the real wants and needs of gamers has been ignored or misunderstood in favour of revenue generating bolt-on services and novelty features which don't really improve the overall experience of playing online.
Microsoft could have announced new gameplay modes for existing online games which could be delivered via the downloadable content service, or announce new measures to prevent cheaters spoiling the fun for other gamers, or even announced that they've got Switch debit card activation as a new way to set up your Xbox Live account - really beneficial things which would improve Xbox Live for both existing and new gamers, and provide something that will help the Xbox Live community grow.
Maybe less than 24 hours after the announcement (and long before the services have launched), it's a bit early to lay in to the announcement, so we'll keep a close eye on the information as it comes out of E3 during this week and follow the progress of the services once they become available during the next 12 months, looking at how the new features are accepted by Xbox gamers around the world, and what changes Microsoft makes to make them appeal to European gamers, who clearly have different wants and needs from our American gaming brothers.
Possibly I've just mis-understood Microsoft's concept of the gaming community that they're trying to develop, or maybe it's just that I'm grumpy after spending all night awake waiting for a webcast of the press conference to appear on their Xbox website, simply for it to not be there - a surprise when you consider the company is so actively promoting their Windows Media Player 9 and it's advanced streaming video features, and make so much of people being connected to the internet in their Xbox press briefing.
We'll bring further details about the full Xbox games line-up announced during E3, all this week here on GamesPaper.Related articles: E3 2003: New Xbox Live features announcedE3 2003: Xbox Music Mixer details revealedMicrosoft announce XSN SportsFeature: Get started with Xbox Live