Multiplayer for the Masses: The Legacy of XBOX LIVE

The story of video games as a medium, and an industry has so many small alcoves and curiosity inlets connected to it that we could spend years chasing all of them down. For a technology that hasn’t existed that long by the grand scheme of things, it has developed rapidly enough that whole books have been written on single moments in its history. But there have been a few things that have always been part of the cannon of video games. The very first video game that became widely known was the two player tennis simulator Pong. As much as single-player games have always been central to the industry and its development, the desire to use video games to compete and connect with others has also played a central role in how developers have conceived of their work.

For most people before the year 2000 this was a strictly local “couch” multiplayer affair. For a long time it was with two controllers, and then the Nintendo 64 increased it to four, matching what many arcade cabinets had started doing. There were, of course, games like Quake and Diablo, but they were PC games and required a much higher speed connection than most people had. For those who are too young to remember (very nearly including myself) using the internet used to be a long, slow process. Dial up didn’t have the speed most games needed, and for many kids whose parents would only buy them games for a console, playing with someone who didn’t live with you or came to visit you was almost impossible. For a lot of parents, PCs were still thought of as an “education tool” and they weren’t seen as something to play games on.

Even PC gamers would often decide to forgo trying to connect online and would just haul their massive set ups to each-other’s houses for LAN parties. We’ve all seen the now famous picture of one of these parties where they decided to maximize the small space by duct taping a kid to the ceiling. This is the origin of some of the most popular gaming conferences that still happen to this day. Both Blizzcon and QuakeCon started out as massive LAN parties where people would travel for hundreds of miles to spend three or four days running dungeon raids in Diablo or playing match after match in StarCraft, Warcraft, or Quake.

Missed Swings and Broken Dreams

There’s an old saying that the first soldier through the wall always gets the bloodiest. It usually doesn’t end well for the first couple of people that try doing something new or different but everyone that follows benefits from their work. Online console gaming played out this truth as much as anything else. Nintendo had internet connectivity on the Super Famicom in Japan but it never gained much steam and ended up being shut down. The same happened when they tried the same with the N64. Then Sega went wide by having the Dreamcast offer a full set of basic online services. But it, too, failed to be the first major success with its slow connections and limited user base. 

When Microsoft first decided to enter the console gaming market there was a lot of mistrust among both fans and press. Microsoft already made hardware that ran games for sure. DOOM had a higher install rate than Windows 95 did the year the operating system was released after all. But they were a much more buttoned up, business technology oriented company than Sega, Nintendo, or even Sony was at that point. Video games were about fun while Microsoft and its shrewd (and often vindictive) CEO Bill Gates were about profits and efficiency. What could they offer to video games that the established brands couldn’t? Especially compared to the other half dozen companies that were attempting to launch consoles at the time. At this point no one knew that the Dreamcast was going to be such a market failure. Nintendo and Sony were both about to drop their next consoles, both of which were some of the most anticipated console releases of all time.

A Strategic Advance

The team at Microsoft decided that the leg up that they had on everyone one else would be their experience with the internet. Up to that point, no one who had been a large name in PCs had taken a major swing at consoles. Sony had specialized in other home electronics like speakers, TVs, and VCRs. The same goes for Panasonic and a host of others. It would have been a punchline to even imagine IBM making a gaming console. The online multiplayer of Microsoft’s console was going to be a big deal if they could make it happen. 

There was also another factor that was going to be a hurdle and it was one of infrastructure rather than public perception or company experience: high speed broadband adoption. Most people in 1999 and 2000 in the U.S. and abroad still only had Dial up. And what’s more it took a special box called a broadband adapter to access high speed internet. Microsoft decided to overcome this by building the adapter right into the box. They handled the memory problems associated with online multiplayer by having their console have a hard disk drive as well. These were not normal at the time and some scoffed at them for just making a PC set on its side. Others figured that because broadband had not been adopted by most people there wasn’t a place for a console that required it for a primary feature.

The decision was made to make the service a paid subscription. The idea being that it would be money dedicated solely so they could afford to maintain the servers needed to keep the online working. This was also a bold move, and one that has never stopped being controversial even as it came to be accepted. Up to that point the online subscription model was only used for specific games that had a high bandwidth of players at any given time. Other games just used a portion of the sales profits to keep the servers up, and then take them down after a few months when they weren’t making money on it any more. This was a different take: All the games would have active servers for the foreseeable future (which in the case of the original Xbox turned out to be 2009). It was a point both for and against the new console. Steady servers but extra cost.

When the Xbox (so named for the Direct X chips they contained) finally released it didn’t come with the online features turned on yet. It would be six months of testing before that could happen. Initially they didn’t have a full name for the service. Eventually with much pomp and circumstance they announced it was to be called XBOX LIVE. You’d be playing in real time with real people, and you could purchase special headsets to communicate. Again this wasn’t an original idea overall. But most people up to that point hadn’t ever gotten to try this type of gaming. Then the service launched. It opened to huge numbers compared to what was expected by the naysayers. People were ready to upgrade, they just needed the process simplified and delivered in a streamlined way. There were a handful of games that offered online play in various forms, but even still there wasn’t a big must-play game. Unreal Tournament, Epic Games’ first major multiplayer success, was highly popular. (Yes, that’s the same Epic Games that owns and operates Fortnite today.) But it would be another futuristic shooter that became XBOX LIVE’s killer app.

Evolving Combat

In some ways, it would be just as appropriate to call this article “The Legacy of Halo.” The impact that Halo as a franchise had on video games and the Xbox brand is, itself, worthy of a whole other retrospective. Halo Combat Evolved launched alongside the original Xbox and was a massive hit. It easily became the primary IP of the new console. But when Halo 2 launched in 2004 — three years after the Xbox had launched — it did for XBOX LIVE and internet gaming for the average person what Super Mario Bros. had done for Nintendo and Final Fantasy 7 had done for the PlayStation. The hype around the game’s multiplayer was palpable. Given that the first entry already had highly popular local multiplayer meant that this online and expanded multiplayer was about as hyped as any other game had ever hoped to be. When the game finally released the single-player component had a mostly positive but still mixed reaction. The campaign’s story ended on a cliffhanger and as a result left people wanting more, even while the rest of the campaign was highly praised. The multiplayer took what Unreal Tournament and Halo CE had laid as a foundation, and grew it into something that would set the tone of multiplayer games going forward and is even still felt to some extent today.

An All Around Next Step

It would be a mistake to not mention one development that Microsoft didn’t make but definitely had an influence on online multiplayer that Microsoft would glean off of. In August of 2002 SOCOM U.S. Navy SEALs was released on the PS2. It was a complex tactical squad shooter with a focus on online, but other than the stellar gameplay it came with a headset to communicate with your squad. SOCOM and its sequel became huge hits in part because of this emphasis on communication. The Original Xbox had a headset sold separately and online voice chat but when the time came for the next XBOX, Microsoft made a move to integrate the experience PS2 players had with SOCOM to all of its games.

When the XBOX 360 was released, Microsoft harnessed the lessons of the first console and the experiment that LIVE had been. Rather than each game being a separate online experience without any console level connective tissue, Microsoft decided to create a profile system that would reach across all games. This time online functionality wasn’t just an option for developers, it was a requirement. All games had some level of LIVE integration. Achievements were introduced as a way to add a profile level measure of progress whereby you’d get points for completing challenges. They added more personalization options like Gamer Pics and “Domains” that described what type of gamer you were. Other features like the ability to host live voice chat lobbies, called “Parties,” and send messages all independent of specific games were introduced as well. And while things like the Domain groups didn’t really add anything to the experience as a whole, it contributed to making XBOX LIVE feel more like a community than it ever had before.

Competitors took notice again. On the original Xbox the idea of online multiplayer as a widely available feature resulted in both Sony and Nintendo making adaptations in their consoles to include broadband access which led to the aforementioned release of SOCOM. Xbox had made console online gaming a viable reality for most people where the Dreamcast had fallen short. The 360 in turn made this sense of platform community widespread. Sony would later  go on to include their own version of Achievements called Trophies and made online profiles also function as a shared platform level identity. Even the mighty Steam would integrate an Achievement system eventually.

Achievements and the requirement of some kind of online function that was created on the 360 didn’t go without their detractors. The idea that every game had to have another meta-game layered on top of it was argued as being a distraction for developer resources. Games like Homefront, that in previous generations wouldn’t have had any collectibles, now did because it was an easy way to pad the list of Achievements to make the 1000 Gamerscore requirement.

There also was the issue of the ubiquity of online multiplayer. People had gotten a taste of the fun to be had with competitive or cooperative multiplayer from the likes of Halo and Call of Duty that had both single-player campaigns and online modes. The common wisdom among publishers became having both single-player and online multiplayer, even if the game really didn’t need one or the other. Resources that could have gone to making the focus of a product better got diverted to creating a tacked on arena mode, or a weak, short single-player campaign to act as a tutorial for the multiplayer. The problem was a self perpetuating one. Players wanted the most bang for their buck possible and publishers wanted to sell as many copies as they could. The solution was to try and make games artificially longer by adding unneeded content. 

Eventually these issues would both work themselves out. Developers got used to the idea of Achievements and found clever ways to implement them. Gamers began to see the value in playing games where the devs focused resources on the aspects they were passionate about. The factors around video game development shifted as a whole. In fact, one could argue that these two problems helped solve themselves. By creating Achievements that took a longer time to complete, or were just really hard, the length of a game stretched out on its own without unnecessary added content. Suffice it to say that the innovation of the times was not without growing pains.

Independent Variables

So we’ve talked about how XBOX LIVE was the advent of the popularization of online Multiplayer for the masses; we’ve also talked about how Halo and the 360’s profile level social features created a different way of looking at video games for console players. There is one last thing that XBOX LIVE did that has been part of the industry going forward ever since in a bigger way than it ever was before. 

Video Games are a much more corporate art form, as far as publication is concerned, than other mediums. Movies could likely be called a close second. If you’re a musician you can get local gigs and start getting your name out there. If you’re a painter or author you can sell your work on a one off basis to different types of buyers like websites or organizations needing help with creative projects. But for a very long time video games didn’t have a great network of channels for individuals working alone or even in small teams to publish their games. There were places on the internet where you could exchange indie games with each other and the odd online store here or there, but to get your small game in front of a wide audience was essentially impossible unless you got a publisher to somehow take interest and agree to fund you and then pay for distribution. This meant that for much of the history of video games all most people could play were big games from big publishers and developers. Especially in the 8 and 16-bit eras when you had to manufacture actual cartridges and even whole arcade cabinets to house the software. 

On the 360 however, Microsoft made the choice to have a process for indie developers to publish their content. For those of us that hadn’t previously had the opportunity, suddenly getting to try games that just one guy created in his free time was mind blowing. PlayStation would also end up having a similar feature but it would unfortunately take a little while to catch up to what the 360 did. 

Two titles in this indie program come to mind as particular examples of what a small team could afford to do that a big one couldn’t. One seemed to have been aimed more at children but was still a fun little experience for adults called Avatar Drop. The primary mechanic was dropping your Avatar from the top of a cylinder and spinning and bouncing them through large hoops while bouncing off of balloons. The Avatars may have been a blatant rip off of Nintendo’s Miis, but they were put to good use in this case. The other game that was actually a huge hit and showed the value of the program was the LEET speak titled twin stick shooter I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MBIES 1N IT!!!1). Both of which were single developer games.

Avatar Drop on the Left. I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MBIES 1N IT!!!1 on the right. (That one is available on Steam now by the way and I cannot recommend more that you try it out if you never have.)

Nowadays the Nintendo Switch is the console that has had the most robust association with indie games as of recent. And Steam has hundreds of indie games released every week. But the taste that has taken hold in our modern sub-culture for smaller, shorter, more personal games from independent developers can in large part be traced back to XBOX LIVE’s influence on what we expect of our online gaming platforms. Most would consider a lack of indies available on a platform to be a blind spot in the modern landscape. Games like Cuphead, Stardew Valley, Rocket League, Valheim, and the ubiquitous Minecraft may not have been XBOX LIVE originals (except the unforgettable Cuphead of course) but they still owe something to the demand that the service created in the market.

ONE Bad Step

After the success of the 360 and the way that it had rocketed Microsoft to the front of the line in the U.S., excitement for the third XBOX was blistering. However, the team that had gotten the XBOX to where is was had mostly shifted places or left completely. Rumors started to leak about features that were giving fans cause to worry. Game journalists speculated that Microsoft wouldn’t be dumb enough to shoot themselves in the foot. So either these rumors must have been blown out of proportion or were just straight up lies. Unfortunately, no one told the new team at XBOX that.

The Xbox One is one of the greatest missteps in video game history. Rarely has one of the major players so thoroughly fallen flat on their face when announcing and attempting to build excitement for their new primary console. From the stupid name (more on that in a upcoming article,) to the forced inclusion of a camera and listening device in the form of the Kinect 2, to the attempted use of single use licenses for the disc copies of games, and even the always online DRM checks, the whole thing was a mess. 

It’s not much of a surprise, but Microsoft’s influence that had been firmly established with the 360 seriously waivered with the Xbox One. For most of this last generation of consoles XBOX LIVE was mostly playing catch-up. The idea of your gaming console being a single box hub for all home media was a misunderstanding of their market. People don’t buy consoles to watch TV. People that want to watch TV have more efficient ways of doing that. People buy consoles to play video games. The idea is having a machine where every inch of the hardware and the online software is geared towards games. People may stream Netflix, but that needs to be in the background because you can stream Netflix pretty easily on most any platform. 

After years of floundering with LIVE, not to mention a severe lack of first-party games, there was one development that came along towards the end of the Xbox One’s life cycle that has managed to shift the narrative around XBOX LIVE. For years there was a desire for a service that would work like “The Netflix of Gaming.” Gamefly has existed for some time but it is still a disc based service like Netflix used to be. There was still a place in the console market for a subscription service that lets you download games directly to your console. When Microsoft launched Game Pass it was a weak offering. Almost exclusively consisting of first party games of which, as stated, there were few. It didn’t start off as much more than a raw concept. But under Phil Spencer the decision was made to really aggressively pursue the service as a fully featured answer to “Netflix for Games.”

It has only been in the last couple of years with the ramping up of Game Pass that XBOX LIVE has become interesting and differentiated again. Eventually they shifted the focus of the Xbox One to be a gaming-first device. The Series X and S however came out of the gate as gaming-first devices with Game Pass integration front and center. It seems that the combination of LIVE and Game Pass has proven lucrative and the studios making and publishing the games offered on the service seem happy with the deal (the exact nature of which has been kept behind closed doors). One curious choice is that earlier this year Microsoft dropped the name XBOX LIVE all together and rebranded it as the Xbox Network. The reason for this choice is likely an attempt to emphasize Game Pass Ultimate, which is the integrated subscription service that has superseded XBOX LIVE GOLD as the premium membership tier of the service. Sony and Nintendo have not yet created anything that’s an exact equivalent of Game Pass but they have both moved in that direction. Nintendo offering some of their retro games as part of their annual subscription service for example.

20 Years On and Still Moving Up

The Legacy of XBOX LIVE is still being developed. Xbox is still an active brand after all. In another way however it’s locked in. The service isn’t called that anymore after all. At this point and when most people think of XBOX LIVE they don’t think of how it is now. They think of the glory days of the earnest and goofy aspects of the 360 era. They think of unlockable gamer pics, early indie games, prices being listed in points instead of currency, the invention of Achievements and Gamerscore, the meta narrative of your profile across all games, and the harrowing nature of voiced game-chat. And if the term XBOX LIVE doesn’t make one think of that then it conjures up memories of the early days and how exciting the prospect of accessible online multiplayer was and how far it has come.

It’s a legacy that has personally touched my life and countless others. It’s always so strange when you find yourself emotionally connected to a product sold by a massive faceless conglomerate who really only cares about taking your money. But it’s a place a lot of us find ourselves as we look back on our youth. Recently when using Microsoft’s XBOX Museum website I found myself remembering old friends I’ve lost contact with and moments in my life that in some way helped define who I am. We’re a generation that came of age online and for so many of us XBOX LIVE was a part of that. What about you? What are your memories of XBOX LIVE? What’s a feature you really loved that’s gone or one you hate that you wish they’d get rid of? What info in the XBOX Museum surprised you? Let us know. 20th anniversaries only happen once. Leave a comment below! In the meantime, I think I’ll get on the Master Chief Collection to lie to myself about still being good at Halo Reach because I don’t want to believe that it’s really already been 12 years. 

This article is part of our recognition of the 20th anniversary of XBOX. Take part in the discussion about the history of Microsoft’s first foray into home consoles across all the articles and our Facebook and Twitter pages. We’d love to hear from you.

Tim Lawrence

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