Microsoft's Xbox goes online

Microsoft has unveiled Xbox Live, a plan to take its gaming console online in Northern Autumn, and promises more than a dozen multiplayer games will accompany the debut of the broadband-only service.

A US$49.95 Xbox Live starter kit will include 12 months of service plus an Xbox Communicator, a headset that plugs into an Xbox controller so gamers can spread their voices over the network. The Monday night event was the first announcement of the annual E3 gaming conference here.

It is also the first of several expected announcements about online game services; several Microsoft competitors are scheduled to unveil their offerings this week as well. While Microsoft is newer to gaming, the company emphasized its expertise.

"At E3 this week, you'll hear a lot about online gaming," said J Allard, Microsoft's general manager of Xbox. "But you won't hear any company that's delivering more than Xbox Live. We're the only console company with a decade of online experience." The company is signing up 10,000 beta testers to try out the service this summer.

Pushing broadband

Microsoft claims half of its more than 1 million Xbox owners already have broadband access to the Internet, and that Xbox Live will encourage others to upgrade from dial-up. Allard compares gaming via narrowband to sucking pizza through a straw. "Technically, it might be possible, but it's decidedly unsatisfactory," he said.

Besides releasing more than a dozen titles at launch, Microsoft expects more than 50 will be available by the end of next year. Among the scheduled offerings are Counter Strike, Unreal Championship, Star Wars Galaxies, and NFL Fever 2003. To show off the service and the headset, Microsoft demonstrated a video of NFL quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Matt Hasselbeck playing their teams and avatars head-to-head between Indianapolis and Seattle, complete with sacks and smacks.

"It'll be the world's biggest playground with the coolest rides," Allard added.

In addition to multiplayer gaming, the service will let gamers share content on the Xbox's hard drive. They can swap and download game enhancements from vendors, collecting new play levels, characters, and other enhancements, Allard said. Each user will get a unique identity in the service, so friends can find each other wherever they're playing.

Games galore

Microsoft also demonstrated myriad upcoming Xbox titles. Chief Xbox officer Robbie Bach promised more than 200 Xbox games will be available before the 2002 holiday season. Judging from audience hoots and applause, several were literally crowd-pleasers.

Project Ego, Lionhead Studio's role-playing game, features characters that evolve depending on how you control them. Microsoft's own Blinx: The Time Sweeper, stars a time-controlling cat and supports TiVo-like effects such as pause, rewind, and record (to double the cat's actions) in midgame. But the biggest cheers from the predominantly male audience came for the campy Dead or Alive Extreme Beach Volleyball. In it, pixel-bouncing bikini-clad women of Capcom's Dead or Alive 3 fighting game take combat to the beach.

In the six months since its release, Microsoft's Xbox has weathered market challenges. Xbox executive and cheerleader Seamus Blackley recently departed, and last week Microsoft cut console prices along with its competitors, notably Sony. But still, Microsoft's Xbox team is optimistic.

"It was a fun week," said Ed Fries, Microsoft's vice president of Xbox game content. "We were ready for it. We just provide so much more value than what you get from other consoles." Now the team hopes its players will find that value out of the box and online.

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Joel Strauch

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