How often does the world of videogames see a genuine revolution? Certainly not very often; not even every time new console hardware is released, we'd argue. The last time home consoles really saw a revolution was a decade ago, when we moved en masse from 2D gaming to 3D gaming, so it's surely high time that something came along to upset the apple cart a little bit and change the way we experience videogames?
If we were gambling types here at Eurogamer, we'd say that connected gaming is that something. We probably wouldn't get very good odds, though, since most of the rest of the world seems to agree with us, and thousands of people have already been playing their games online for years. It seems like an obvious bet, in other words - but for our money (about Â£2.82 from a quick office whip-around), the online, connected gaming revolution didn't start for the majority of console gamers until late last year, when Xbox 360 hit the shelves. (Well, okay, let's be fair - the majority of console gamers probably don't queue up for hours in the rain, so the connected gaming revolution didn't really start until some time after Christmas.)
What makes us say that? Here's what; the Xbox 360 brought with it a number of "firsts" which we expect will become commonplace on other consoles down the line. For a start, right out of the box, you can plug it into your internet connection and get onto the Xbox Live online service, without paying an extra penny. That's a first. Another first is the incredible range of ways in which Xbox Live builds a community around its users - making it into a great way to keep in touch with your game-playing friends, compare scores and games with them, and of course, to compete directly with them in multiplayer games. Last, and certainly not least, Xbox 360 is the first console to give you the ability to download content, right out of the box - allowing you to get demos, arcade games, trailers, themes and tons more stuff over your 'net connection.
In other words, Xbox Live on the Xbox 360 has gone far beyond what was offered on the original Xbox, or by any other console's online service. We'd go so far as to say that it's a key part of your Xbox 360 console; sure, you can play games without it, but you're missing out on a huge part of the whole experience if you're not connected to Xbox Live. For the first time, too, we can say that even if playing online games isn't your thing - and let's face it, playing multiplayer isn't everyone's cup of tea - Xbox Live still has tons to offer you, and you should definitely make the effort to get your Xbox 360 connected.
The World's Going Live
Of course, if a big part of the lure of Xbox Live is the ability to interact with your friends on the service - we'll talk more in a bit about the many different ways of doing that - then obviously it's no good to anyone if it doesn't have loads of friends, or potential friends, using it already. Microsoft might not like admitting it, but Xbox Live on the original Xbox was actually a bit of a minority interest; here in the UK, far fewer than 10 per cent of Xbox owners ever signed up to the service, which isn't exactly stellar performance and meant that the online population was pretty limited.
On Xbox 360, we expect things to be different - and early signs are promising. The biggest change, of course, is the simple fact that your basic Xbox Live membership, called Xbox Live Silver, is totally free. You simply plug in your console, create your identity, and off you go - you're free to download content, chat to friends, and even play certain multiplayer games like Massively Multiplayer RPGs, without ever paying a penny for your Xbox Live subscription. Better again, if you're signing up to a new BT Broadband subscription to use Xbox Live, you'll get a 12 month Xbox Live Gold membership for free with your connection, which is a nice bonus to welcome you to the world of connected gaming!
That'll undoubtedly make a big difference, but let's not forget either that people's access to high speed Internet has improved massively in the last four years or so; far more people now have high speed broadband connections, and many have home networks or home wireless networks that they can hook their Xbox 360s up to without any hassle at all. The way the Xbox 360 itself treats Xbox Live is different, too; we can't imagine that many owners of the system will leave it unplugged and lonely for long without wondering what could await them behind inaccessible options like the Marketplace, Xbox Live Arcade, Achievements, the demos and trailers section, or any of the other many core parts of Xbox 360 that only work with a network connection.
In other words, we expect that far, far more people will be going Live on Xbox 360 than ever did before - which will make finding your friends or building a community on the network much easier than it was before. But if you still think you need a little convincing about whether hooking up Xbox Live is going to be worth the effort (or if you're worried that the effort is a bit daunting), then read on to find out why you should go Live - and what's involved in getting there.