I've wanted to play console games online since the summer holidays of the 16-bit era. I didn't even have an Internet connection back then, something completely unthinkable to me now, and the thought of growing up with game playing friends on-tap 24 hours a day seemed wondrous.
Dreaming of Mario
Escaping the in-laws for a few rounds of Mario Kart was always fun, particularly when the alternative was wasp-addled picnics in the park next door and games of football which always seemed to end in one of the dads disputing some decision well into the night, but having to shave hundredths of a second from a lap time when in the absence of a co-player is, well, frustrating. I should have been chasing a friend around for hours and smiting him down with that elusive red shell, then yelling "suck it down" loudly, developing the sorts of grudges that only a race to the bottom of a vodka bottle can expunge.
I want to play games with people. I always have. What's so wrong with that? Indeed, what's so bloody complicated about that, my young mind asks? A little further down the line and I'm slightly beyond the "surely Mr. Console can talk to Dan like I can on the phone" stage, balking at broadband proposals and watching with a look of contempt as money rains down on the subject before it's even ready.
The penny drops. Online gaming isn't ready yet.
It's an exciting time though. Here we have Microsoft attempting to break through into the games market with all the humility of Don King, and part of their strategy is the newly announced Xbox Live. Packing your company to bursting point with people who supposedly know about gaming and then running around inviting everybody who has a game in development into your bank vault is all very well, and it seems to be true for the big M that if you throw money at a problem long enough it will go away - as evidenced by the impressive array of titles finally on display at E3 this year. But I'd be intrigued to see what, if any, research Microsoft is brandishing to back itself up in this online venture, as it races headlong into the quagmire of uncertainty that is Xbox Live.
Poised on the knife's edge
Out of the hundreds of PC titles that are released in a month, it wouldn't be too far wrong to say that none of them have thriving multiplayer communities. Games like Championship Manager enjoy enormous support online, but websites and forums are completely irrelevant in the context of online console gaming on something like the keyboard-less and Internet Explorer deprived Xbox.
Fortunately this is one area where Microsoft does not plan to slip up. In the absence of a keyboard you can kiss half-baked flames goodbye and say hello to nice, wholesome conversations over voice communication. Their plans seem to focus on the social elements and user experience side of the equation, and certainly online communities will be strictly policed, but getting people to understand this without first seeing it in action will be difficult, especially given the tabloid-manufactured hysteria surrounding internet chat rooms and the like. And it's going to take a concerted effort on their part to eliminate abusive players, cheats and so forth.
Going back to the issue of PC releases, the fact that Microsoft is already promising a huge breadth of games that can cater to everyone's multiplayer needs ought to be a warning. It's not hard to have a net connected PC these days, but how many of the hundreds of titles appearing over the course of a year actually become timeless multiplayer classics? How many even achieve cult status? Very few.
Instead of just a handful of extremely popular games we will see literally hundreds of titles springing up with multiplayer options. Now, critics might bring up the Dreamcast at this point, but this plan didn't work on Sega's doomed console for one plain and simple reason: people who play games on consoles do so because they want immediacy and ease of use, of which a modem is the antithesis. Dialling up for each individual game was also off-putting.
Microsoft has the right plan with its lobby system, which will mean you can happily swap discs in and out of the Xbox whilst remaining connected, but I doubt it will prove as popular as they will need it to be to offset startup costs. Plus, they are going to demand subscription money to try and help make up for the damage. In my opinion, this is a big mistake. Ultimately, if public perception of the service is tarnished by the gossip-seeking tabloids, and the number of games completely overwhelms the small number of users, Microsoft is going to have an awful lot of egg on its face.
Furthermore, I think the notion that more people are working on Xbox Live than were on the Xbox launch is in itself a scary misallocation of resources. Microsoft has decided that multiplayer is 'the future', and that without it their consoles will be naked and fall into obscurity. That's rubbish. Very few people who buy these consoles will buy a DSL or cable connection purely for online gaming, because the pricing is all wrong, the rollout won't cover a decent amount of the globe for another decade, and nobody wants to play NHL Hitz on a modem with players lagging all over the ice.
You know, if I were in charge I wouldn't have told people that Xbox was ready for online gaming from day one. I wouldn't have ruled out keyboards and mice. I wouldn't have put such a heavy emphasis on voice communications, and would instead have emphasized how and why these gaming communities will be pleased.
In fact, I wouldn't even have aimed to launch an online service this year. The world isn't ready, and Xbox has a hell of a lot of great single player games coming up anyway. Allowing i.Link style networking as an added benefit is a great idea, but with Xbox 2 and HomeStation already being talked about, and PlayStation 3 gradually taking shape on the horizon, Xbox Live has a very small window of time to deliver before it inevitably becomes part of something larger. And with all things considered - games, attitudes, connectivity, and installed base - perhaps before it actually receives much patronage.
Online gaming has been hyped far beyond anything it can reasonably expect to deliver in the current technological climate. Microsoft firmly believes from a public-facing standpoint that online gaming is the future, but when you weigh up the realities they seem keen to ignore, it becomes very clear that we won't be basking in seamless worlds and meeting people in a virtual pub for a bit of generic first person shooting for quite a while. The hardcore might, but as we so often forget, the hardcore represents a very small proportion of users. And they all play Counter-Strike with keyboards and mice, not gamepads.