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A more balanced look at Xbox Live

Although there is much about Xbox Live that could be improved, many of the criticisms leveled against it are by and large inaccurate and unfair. In fact, one gets the feeling that the service’s detractors have never actually used it enough to have a feel for its many positive features and are unaware of its true faults. As a non-partisan player of many online console and pc games, it’s my goal to provide a more objective comparison between Xbox Live and its competitors. Please note that the Nintendo’s Gamecube has been omitted because so few of its games support online play.

The subscription fee and what you get for it

Much has been made of Xbox Live’s subscription fee, which stands at $49.99 annually. Monthly, this breaks down to $4.16, which is a negligible expense in today’s entertainment market, being less than the cost of a single DVD rental and less than half of the cost of a non-matinee movie ticket. It’s certainly a far cry from the fee charged for MMORPG’s like Everquest which average about $15 a month per game. Still the question remains -- what do you get for a subscription fee for a service other companies offer for free? The answer: the convenience of a stable online community.

Xbox Live is essentially a peer-to-peer network and player matching service, not unlike what Gamespy and All Seeing Eye are on PC. Both PC services are free, but they lack what Xbox Live offers -- a single, integrated service that is uniform across all games. Users of Xbox Live have only one gamertag or identity that they use throughout all games available on the Xbox Live service (unless they subscribe to more than one Live account, which is not uncommon). Players can easily invite people they meet online to join their friends’ list by select that person’s name from a simple menu and clicking a button. Once a player accepts, his online status, as well as the game he’s currently playing will always be visible in any game, as well as in the Xbox dashboard. This means that someone currently playing Rainbow Six 3 can open up his friends list within the game and invite someone playing Crimson Skies to join him. With the upcoming Xbox Live 3.0 rollout, invites can be sent from an Xbox to users on Microsoft’s MSN Messenger service.

Contrast that with PC gaming, where one would have to actually back out to the desktop to look for friends on All Seeing Eye and send an invite that may or may not be received. On Sony’s Playstation 2 (PS2) this is an even harder feat to accomplish, as there is no uniform service connecting all PS2 games or third-party application to turn to. Each game on PS2 is a service unto itself, requiring its own login and password, as well as its own friends list (although some games don’t support this feature at all). Publisher Electronic Arts sidesteps this by offering a single EA online service its own games, but that’s the closest the PS2 comes to an integrated matching service.

The upside for both PS2 and PC gaming of course is that they’re free. But there’s something to be said for uniformity and an integrated standard service -- and considering Microsoft charges so little for its subscription service, players who value a centralized structure to managing friends lists and game matching, might not mind paying the fee.

Finding a game

Outside of the excellent community connectivity Xbox Live provides, browsing for servers and connecting to games is handled almost exactly the same way as it is on PC and PS2. Players boot up their game, browse a simple list of available servers and connect to the game they want to join.

As with PC gaming, Xbox Live includes built-in support for patch installation, as well as downloadable content (DLC) such as new maps, levels, player skins, etc. Although this content is free for PC players, it’s viewed as being part of Xbox Live’s premium service. Also, additional premium DLC is available for a fee in some games -- such as a $5 map pack in Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow, or premium song packs in Dance Dance Revolution Ultramix. This is currently a source of great controversy among Xbox Live fans, as many believe their subscription fee should cover all downloadable content.

Currently, the PS2 only offers downloadable content in Final Fantasy XI Online, the MMORPG that ships with its user-installed hard drive and SOCOM II. No other PS2 games I am aware of offer this feature.

In-game Communication

Every Xbox Live game utilizes the communicator headset for in-game communication. Although a USB keyboard adapter was created for Phantasy Star Online, it is not supported in most games and is rarely used in the ones that do support it. This means all in-game communication is done strictly through voice chat. It’s a great feature that’s implemented very well in Xbox Live. Besides in-game and pre-game lobby chat, players can also communicate through the Xbox Live dashboard, and send voicemail messages to each other.

One major criticism of Microsoft’s voice chat feature is that although you can mute your microphone, players rarely do it -- meaning you often hear telephone conversations, domestic disputes, random noise and singing you wouldn’t have to hear if Xbox Live used a push-to-talk button. To my knowledge only two Xbox Live games use a push-to-talk feature -- Ghost Recon and Ghost Recon: Island Thunder. Every other game uses a voice-activated set-up.

Another drawback is that the trolls who used to type taunts, insults and offensive things in PC games, now speak those things in Xbox Live. And although you can mute individual players (which once done, makes them muted in all Xbox Live games), you still have to listen to people you don’t want to hear. Female players who may want to keep their gender secret are clearly female, opening them up to abuse and harassment they may otherwise avoid on a game that does not use chat. Children are also frequently harassed by the so-called “adults” whenever they speak.

There is a system for reporting abuse, but there is some question of whether or not it’s effective. Feedback, including the category of abuse (such as lewdness, cheating, harassment, etc.) is accessed through the “players” menu. Reportedly, if a player receives enough negative feedback, Microsoft will investigate. I have yet to hear of a case where an individual was banned from Live for bad behavior. The potential for harassment continues to be a major problem for Xbox Live’s otherwise excellent voice communication.

On the PS2, only select games provide USB headset support and not all USB headsets are compatible with all PS2 games. My only experience with the PS2 headset has been in the SOCOM games -- and while SOCOM I featured laggy chat, SOCOM II offers better quality. Both are push-to-talk only, which is a plus, but the only way you can ignore a player is to actually type that player’s name into a virtual keyboard. Unlike Xbox Live, you can’t just select them from a list of players in-game and choose “ignore.” This is especially a problem, since many players use special characters in their names, which makes spelling them correctly frustrating.

In addition to the headset, the PS2 offers USB keyboard support. This brings it in line more with PC gaming, and some games such as Timesplitters 2 and the Red Faction series. However, many PS2 games do not support keyboard/mouse controls, meaning one must put down their controller to type a message to other players or use an unwieldy keyboard/controller hybrid.

As with the PS2, the PC does not have any unified voice communication solution. Communication by-and-large is done through typing messages on the keyboard, although some games are starting to support built-in voice communication options. At the time of writing, most in-game voice chat is still done through free third party applications such as Teamspeak, Ventrilo and Roger Wilco.

Clan support

In-game support of clans is promised for Xbox Live 3.0, scheduled to roll out in August 2004 with the release of Rainbow Six 3: Black Arrow. Rumored features include a calendar to schedule matches, clan logos and insignia that display on a player’s in-game uniform, and special clan communication tools and clan statistics.

In PC gaming, there is no built-in clan infrastructure -- clans schedule their matches through third party websites, maintain their own discussion forums, etc. On PS2, there is excellent clan support in SOCOM II, particularly for match scheduling, though I have not encountered it in any other PS2 game.

Game hosting

Unlike PC gaming, where players rent and set-up their own dedicated servers, all Xbox Live games must be hosted on an Xbox. Although you can have a dedicated Xbox set up as a server, it is not very common. This means that most games are hosted on personal cable or DSL connections with the host actually participating in the game, raising the resource overhead required by the Xbox console to provide smooth online play.

Obviously, lag is a considerable problem. It’s not uncommon to attempt to connect to multiple servers before finding one with an acceptable level of performance. Especially frustrating is the prevalence of low-bandwidth hosts who set up servers merely to exploit net latency to raise their statistics. It’s very uncommon to be part of a game where the host is not the top scorer, or at the very least, not in the top three. Call it the “home team” advantage.

As mentioned earlier, some games do offer a “dedicated server” option, though it can only run on an Xbox. This means the host isn’t playing while the server runs, but it is still limited by bandwidth and the Xbox’s own hardware. Even with this pseudo-dedicated server feature, the player cap on most Xbox Live games rests at 16, which isn’t bad compared to the 6-8 clients most players can reasonably host when they play, themselves. Still, it’s a far cry form the 32- and 64-person servers available on PC games.

PS2 online games are similar to Xbox games in that they must be hosted on a PS2, though this is changing. Lucasarts’ crossplatform Star Wars: Battlefront, while offered on PS2, PC and Xbox, promises a true dedicated server option for both PS2 and PC players. Although players on different platforms can’t play together, a PS2 player can set up a dedicated PS2 server on a PC, leaving open the possibility of traditional dedicated server rentals becoming available for PS2 players. No other developers have announced a similar option for their PS2 games, though given the need for stable servers to play on, it could prove to be very popular.

Cheating and glitching

No matter what, if someone creates a game, certain players will do whatever they can to find a way to cheat. With PC gaming, the use of hexeditors makes it easy for cheaters to hack games and turn them to their advantage. It’s somewhat harder on consoles, but with the advent of prepackaged cheats such as Action Replay’s commercial cheat devices, and in-game glitching (which refers to exploiting glitches or bugs in the game, such as being able to fire through walls, become invisible or invulnerable, etc), it’s not uncommon to run into cheaters.

While PC developers release regular patches and integrate products like Punkbuster that attempt to deal with the problem, Microsoft is much more negligent in stopping it on Xbox Live. Action Replay is compatible with certain Xbox Live games, and glitching is prevalent. Some games, such as Splinter Cell Pandora Tomorrow and Return to Castle Wolfenstein, are so plagued by cheaters and glitchers that they are basically broken.

Developers do patch their Xbox Live games, which in many cases solves the problems (though other problems inevitably pop up), but not as often as PC developers patch their games. This contrasts with Sony’s attempts to deal with cheats on the PS2 -- although they are unable to patch PS2 games, they have a technology designed to bar any third party devices, such as Action Replay memory cards, or hardware modifications, from operating in conjunction with certain online games. This doesn’t stop glitching, although it does keep out a lot of the third party cheats and hacks one sees on Xbox and PC games.

The problem Microsoft faces is that Xbox Live is a subscription service -- even the cheaters are subscribers. Although they ruin the game for other players, they also pay their subscription fees. Does this make them entitled to cheat? Microsoft has yet to adequately address the question.

A final comparison

Having been an online PC gamer since the early days of Quake II and an online console gamer since the Dreamcast’s 56K modem, I think it’s safe to say that Xbox Live provides one of the strongest overall console experiences to date. Although it is in general inferior to PC gaming, it does have its advantages. For instance, its integrated system for finding games and connecting with other players is superior to the ad hoc system employed by PC and PS2 developers for their games. It makes online gaming accessible to mainstream players while offering features hardcore veterans can appreciate. The integrated voice chat is also a terrific plus.

The fact that the Xbox is a stable platform is also a big bonus. Unlike PC gaming where players with the latest and greatest system have an edge over players with slower machines, everyone has the same Xbox. The only difference is internet latency.

On the downside, the lack of a serious dedicated server option hurts the overall experience. I accept laggy play in Rainbow Six 3 that I would never accept on a PC. Still, the network latency is superior to that of the horsepower deprived PS2, and it doesn’t stop the games from being fun. The major negative that I know turns players off to the service is the large number of cheaters and griefers, devoted almost exclusively to ruining the experience for other people. I have real life friends who will only play when someone they know personally is on, because of bad experiences they’ve had in public Xbox Live rooms.

All and all, there is a lot of trial and error involved in the current generation of console online gaming machines. While the PC has had many years to refine gaming on the Windows and Macintosh platforms, figuring out what works best for consoles is a difficult process. Both Xbox Live and Playstation Online have made tremendous strides since the primitive days of the Dreamcast -- but I doubt we will see a fully refined product until the next generation of consoles is released in 2005 and 2006.

Thanks to amib for clarifying some facts regarding the PS2.