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Xbox 2 Rumours

Right up front: I’m not on the Xbox team. I have no direct connection with the Xbox team. If you imagined the distance from Sydney to Redmond, and then doubled it, that’s still less far away from the People Who Know than I am.

So, this is purely from the perspective of a regular, man-on-the-street gamer. The Microsoft hat is off. Well, if not off, at least askew.

The Love

Up front: I love Xbox Live. It’s the killer app for the Xbox for me, it pushed me from “passe Xbox gamer” to “raving XBL-evangelizing lunatic” – I’ve spent many, many happy hours in PGR2 screaming at people as we pass each other, or apologizing to teammates I’ve slaughtered in Wolfenstein (when you can find a server with friendly fire on – the way Wolf needs to be played). It’s good. I like it a lot. Xbox Live support has become a primary factor in my purchasing decisions on what titles to buy. I don’t get as much time to play Xbox as I used to, partially because I don’t have have a telly any more and there’s no DVI output for the little black box (note to Xbox team – DVI adapter for Xbox 2 please!), but I’m sold on the platform as an online gaming experience.

At heart, though, I’m a PC gamer. I like mouses for FPSs, I much prefer them to any given console controller. I like sitting upright and gaming.

And I’ve been reading that part of the XNA (PC/Xbox 2) hybrid platform might be some type of PC integration for Xbox Live.

Xbox live gameplay will be enabled by the XNA cross-platform development technology that Microsoft has been busy beaverying away at.

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To that end, Longhorn will natively support the XNA development system, and Longhorn-based PCs will directly benefit from this. “Xbox 2 peripherals will all work on PC,” said Lester, clarifying that Xbox controllers, steering wheels, and other console-related peripheral functionality will all be brought into Longhorn’s portfolio, as will Xbox Live functionality.

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Before you cough, scoff or scream – after my first weekend on Live, with low expectations, I came back in to work and couldn’t stop raving. One point I made at the time was that if XBL were available for PC, I’d buy it.

This makes me excited. Very excited! Not super excited, mind you – I have some reservations mixed in with the good bits:

One Identity, One System

One of the most powerful things about XBL is that it’s the way everything’s tied together for the Live crowd. Every game supports a common set (or subset) of features. Your buddy list is constant, and the game doesn’t need to spend any time in one of those awful “get to know you” web forms applying for an account (there’s just one painful setup process typing stuff with the console controller, and from then on in, it’s pretty much voice all the way). With one large, notable exception, I think the identity system has worked really well, and been accepted by most developers as a Good Thing. Less time they need to spend on programming their own voice/messaging/buddy list identity infrastructure.

In the PC world, it’s very different. As an established platform, the PC has literally tens of identity systems, often one per game. I have a different login for Novaworld, for Gamespy, for any MMORPGs I might be playing, for my ISP’s game servers, and so on, and so on, and so on. Each provider has a different reason for running their own identity system, and there’s no hint of a standard (Gamespy might be as close as you come to one at present). The games all work differently, all have buddy lists (or don’t), have their own voice support (or don’t), have their own infrastructure (or don’t), and billing system. No common features.

Folk can run Ventrilo, TeamSpeak or Game Voice, or anything else to provide their own voice communications around a game (and essentially cheat in some ways), and people meet to play using ICQ or Gamespy or MSN Messenger or whatever.

It’s chaos, I tell you. Chaos!

XBL would (IMO) bring some welcome standardization to the table. Having used XBL on the console, I’m sold on centralized identity and billing (and accountability). It would be a selling point for me that a PC game supported Live, but I don’t imagine that the rate of adoption would be superluminary, or that everyone would like the idea of centralized identity.

Open vs Closed

One of the rather twistedly good things about Xbox Live at the moment is that it’s pretty much a closed system. It’s hard for people to cheat. It’s hard to run a process under a debugger and figure out how to hax0r your binaries to guarantee a win, or muck around with the timing, or download wallhack drivers, or any of the thousand other things PunkBuster have to deal with all the time. The openness of the PC is widely regarded as its greatest strength, but in this case, it’s also its greatest weakness. And The Kids are always looking for new ways to cheat.

Putting an unhackable Xbox up against a hacked PC doesn’t sound fair; some type of integrity check would quite possibly need to be used, and that adds more cost to the PC side of the equation.

Also potentially making life unfair, many (most?) PC gamers like – and are used to using – their mouse. This gives them a distinct advantage in just about any game (especially FPSs), unless the mouse turn rate is capped, which would annoy me no end (ever try playing Descent with a mouse?). If Xbox gamers are able to use a mouse-equivalent controller, fine, fair’s fair, but if not, you might see some fragmentation.

Maybe fragmentation isn’t a Bad Thing – PCs provide different roles from their console relatives…

So what if we now brought Windows into that? Wow, that community could grow; you could take on new roles, etc. So from a gamer point of view, I could take on the role of the commander. I could use the hi-res screen of my PC and act as a general leading and directing my troops.

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I’m not sure. I don’t know if being consigned to the commander’s chair is a net positive for me (it’s definitely not for any troops under my command, if my Dawn of War demo experience is anything to go by!) Still, it’s early days yet, and the Xbox Live folks have both proved me wrong and won my confidence one time already.

If nothing else, based on my XBL experience on the Xbox 1, I’d subscribe to a PC/Xbox hybrid Xbox Live. I’m still waiting for Xbox Live integration with MSN Messenger down here in Oz.