Xbox Live is a subscription-based online gaming service for Microsoft's Xbox and Xbox 360 video game consoles. It went online on November 15, 2002 and allows players to play games with or against other Xbox Live players from around the world. As of November 2007, the service has over eight million registered users in 25 countries. It also made voice chatting during gameplay popular.
On the original Xbox, Live's two driving features were voice communications (through a headset bundled in the starter pack or available separately) and a game-independent "friends list" of online associates. How the friends list was displayed depended on the individual title, and only games with a multiplayer component or those which were "Live Aware" displayed that list or messages. Some games supported downloads, in two forms: patches, which addressed bugs in the game; and downloadable content, which could take the form of a new track for Project Gotham Racing 2, as an example. Downloadable content, in many cases, cost money, which was charged to the credit card used to register for Live. Live Aware games, those which did not have a multiplayer component but still supported viewing the friends list and messages, were a later addition to the system.
With the release of the Xbox 360, Xbox Live received a major overhaul. Through the new Xbox Guide feature, which overlays a blade on part of the screen when the Guide button is pressed on the controller, the friends list and messages are always available, even if the game being played does not support any sort of online play. This in effect makes every game Live Aware. Additional features added include video chat (with the purchase of the Xbox Live Vision camera); the Xbox Live Marketplace, which provides both free and paid game downloads, trailers, movie rentals, and TV show purchases; and Gamercards, which provide an at-a-glance view of a user and their in-game accomplishments.
Unlike other online multiplayer systems (including those used on the PC, PlayStation 2, and PlayStation 3), Xbox Live is highly centralized. This means that while game companies supply the networking code and gameplay, Microsoft provides the server bandwidth and user front-end; this, in turn, removes much of the financial burden from game developers, adding incentive to add multiplayer modes to games. This system simplifies paying for online services, since users must only make one payment, directly to Microsoft, for online play across almost all Xbox and Xbox 360 games (with the notable exception of MMORPGs; see below). This centralization also allows for features such as a username (known as a gamertag on Live) that is consistent across all games, and one friends list with the ability to send cross-game invites.
Centralization does have its downsides, however. On the PC, for example, few games charge a separate fee to play online. Players pay monthly fees for most MMORPGs, even on PC, but for those MMOs available on Live (currently Phantasy Star Online and Final Fantasy XI), this translates to paying that fee in addition to the Live subscription fee. The centralized requirement of Xbox Live was also a reason why Electronic Arts was initially reluctant to support the service. However, following concessions from Microsoft in which EA was granted permission to use their own servers for hosting the actual games, E3 2004 saw the major announcement that EA would soon release its first title to support Xbox Live, Burnout 3.
- November 15, 2001: Microsoft releases the original Xbox with an Ethernet port. At the time, its' only use is for linking systems across a local area network (LAN) for gameplay.
- May 2002: At E3, the service's official name is unveiled and show-goers are able to test it out using Epic Games' Unreal Championship.
- November 15, 2002: Following extensive beta testing, the Xbox Live service is launched. Initial games to support Live include Unreal, MechAssault, NBA 2K3, NFL 2K3, Ghost Recon, and Whacked!.
- March 22, 2004: At the Game Developers Conference, Microsoft announces plans to make newer versions of Windows support Xbox Live, thereby opening the service to computer gamers.
- May 10, 2004: In a joint presentation with Microsoft at E3, EA announces support for Xbox Live, initially with the release of Burnout 3. Previously, EA had only supported the PlayStation 2's online capabilities, which were decentralized—a major sticking point with EA. In fact, EA became the first publisher to be given permission to run their own game servers, hooked up to Live's front-end. For some gamers, however, EA's variance has not been a good thing, with many complaining of subpar performance from EA's servers versus other Microsoft-hosted Live-enabled games, particularly in Europe.
- July 8, 2004: Microsoft announces that Live subscriptions have topped one million, reaching the mark faster even than AOL.
- November 4, 2004: Microsoft launches the Xbox Live Arcade. Comprised of casual games, the Arcade was enabled by an installation disk that came bundled with Ms. Pac Man. Additional games could be downloaded for a fee. Titles included PopCap Games' Zuma and Midway's arcade classic Joust.
- November 9, 2004: Xbox Live's "killer app" arrives in the form of Halo 2, a game which set entertainment industry sales records and, as of October 2006, has seen over four billion multiplayer Live matches played. All Halo 2 games played over Live are also tracked by developer Bungie, who uses the information to create detailed statistics including "kill maps", which are made available on bungie.net.
- 2005: Microsoft Japan releases a webcam for video chat, with a price tag of 6800 yen. Due to slower internet speeds, the camera never made it to the US. (Official Xbox Magazine, March 2005, p. 26)
- July 20, 2005: Just over a year after reaching one million, Microsoft announces that Xbox Live has surpassed two million subscribers.
- November 22, 2005: The Xbox 360 console is released in North America, and with it a host of new Xbox Live features are unleashed. A new, free, Silver membership level is introduced, allowing users to maintain friend lists and send text messages without the yearly fee. However, playing online, voice chat, and voice messages are still restricted to the renamed, paid Gold subscription level. System-wide integration of the friends list and messaging through the Xbox Guide, a much improved version of the Xbox Live Arcade, and the debut of the Xbox Live Marketplace are but a few of the new additions. With the release of the 360, downloads are now paid for with Microsoft Points, which can be purchased in a pack of 1600 Points for an MSRP of US$19.99 at retailers, or directly through Microsoft in other pack amounts. Some viewed this as the company trying to disguise the cost of downloads, since one point does not equal one cent; most initial Xbox Live Arcade downloads cost 400 Points, which equates to US$5.
- September 19, 2006: After a longer-than-anticipated wait, the Xbox Live Vision camera is finally released in the US. Initially only supporting video chat, on October 4, 2006, the motion-controlled game Totem Ball is released.
- November 11, 2006: Gears of War, an exclusive original shooter from Unreal creators Epic Games, is released, and shortly thereafter, Halo 2 is dethroned as the most played Xbox Live game.
- July 19, 2007: Xbox Live hits another milestone as Microsoft announces the service has reached seven million users. Other new statistics released show that more than two billion hours of gameplay have been logged on the service, and an average of one million text messages are sent between users each day.
- September 25, 2007: One of the largest entertainment product launches in history occurs as Halo 3 is launched. The game propels sales of the Xbox 360 above the juggernaut of Nintendo's Wii for the first time since the release of the latter, and in just the first week, 40 million hours of online gameplay are logged.
- November 14, 2007: On the eve of the service's fifth anniversary, Microsoft announces that subscriptions to Xbox Live have exceeded eight million. However, the company fails to distinguish how many of those are free Silver memberships, of which an unlimited number can be created for free, and how many are paid Gold subscriptions.
- November 15, 2007: The "Live is 5ive" celebration is unveiled, to mark the end of Live's fifth year of operation. The Live Arcade game Carcassonne, a strategy game based on the board game of the same name, is given away free for 48 hours, and several new Xbox 360 dashboard themes based on the most popular Xbox Live games are distributed. Users who have been active subscribers for all five years are given 500 Microsoft Points (an amount which is derided among much of the community as a pittance, since it is worth approximately US$6.25, averaging out to US$1.05 per year of membership).
- December 4, 2007: The biannual Xbox 360 dashboard update is released, and with it came the launch of the Xbox Originals program. For 1200 Points (US$15), users could pick from an initial assortment of six original Xbox games (including the first Halo and the critically-acclaimed but poorly-selling Psychonauts) and download them straight to the hard drive of the 360.
- April 15, 2010: Microsoft discontinued Xbox LIVE support for the original Xbox, including original Xbox games being played on the Xbox 360.
With the launch of Microsoft's next-generation video game console, Xbox 360, Xbox Live will go through a major upgrade. The most notable upgrade are two forms of subscriptions called Silver (the default, free service, online game play for weekends only) and Gold (requiring a subscription and featuring online gaming).
Note that some of the below details are based on speculation, and remain unconfirmed by Microsoft.
- Universal features (1) also available offline
- Free Xbox Live weekends
- Access to MMOs (additional fees may apply)
- Avatar for your gamer profile (1)
- Motto for your gamer profile (1)
- Personalized look for the Xbox system guide (1)
- Offline achievements (1)
- Online achievements
- Access to other players' gamer cards via Live
- Cumulative gamer score (1)
- Location/language profile (1)
- Recent players list
- Free and premium download game content
- Free and premium downloadable movies, music, TV
- Downloadable demos/trailers
- Custom playlist in every game (1)
- Play music from portable devices (1)
- View images from digital camera (1)
- Stream media from Windows XP (1)
- Interactive screen savers (1)
- Track information for CDs (1)
- Communicate with voice, video or text
- Gold Service Features
- Seamless transition of Xbox Live account from Xbox to Xbox 360
- Multiplayer online gameplay
- Enhanced matchmaking using cumulative gamer score, reputation, location/language profile and skill level.
- Gameplay style profile (casual, competitive, etc.)
A webcam has been unveiled with the Xbox 360 system, to support the video messaging described above. Unlike the first iteration of Xbox Live, the Live system will be built into the Xbox at a low level; friends lists, messages, and chat will be accessible at all times (during games, movies, music and any other time the Xbox is switched on).