Can thirtysomethings survive on Xbox Live?

The art of play.
Sept. 7 2005 11:46 AM

The Gaming Graybeards

Can two thirtysomethings survive on Xbox Live?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.
Click image to expand.

Seth: Chris, I'm fresh off our initial foray into the Xbox Live universe, and I am feeling so many new feelings. Here are the moments I enjoyed most:

1) I liked how—just so we could log on and play the shoot'em-up game Halo 2—I had to spend 10 minutes downloading ancillary programs, including something called the "Killtacular Map Pack."

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2) I liked how, when we finally started, I was killed within eight seconds. Then I came back to life in another part of the game … and was again killed within eight seconds. I don't think I ever survived longer than 20 seconds. At one point I accidentally detonated something (maybe a plasma grenade) right next to myself. In that instance, I committed suicide before other players had a chance to kill me.

3) I liked when I got in the driver's seat of the "Warthog" assault vehicle and one of our remote Xbox Live teammates quickly hopped onboard and manned the turret gun, as though he expected me to drive us somewhere useful. I instead drove off a cliff and killed us both. Boy, was he surprised!

How was it for you? Notice I've left out the part where we squared off in a head-to-head match. I'll let you describe that.

Chris: I believe I defeated you 7 to 0, meaning I killed you seven times and you killed me zero. That left me falsely confident when we entered our next team match, which we lost 50-11. We started with two other teammates, but they quit halfway through, presumably despondent over being paired with two aging, 30-year-old newbies.

Let me back up a bit, for the uninitiated. Xbox Live is the online gaming universe that's an extension ofthe Xbox console. Certain Xbox games are "Live enabled," which means you can log on and play against people from all over the world and/or download additional content. Players join the Live community by purchasing a kit that retails for about $70 and includes a free game or two, a 12-month subscription, and the "Xbox Live Communicator," a headset that allows you to hear the other players and talk to them. (That's right, when you play Xbox Live, you dress up like a telemarketer.)

Xbox Live has been around since late 2002, and at this point there isn't a decent multiplayer game—racing games, first-person shooters, fighting games, even Madden—that isn't Live enabled. Xbox Live reached 2 million members in July, just a year after Microsoft announced it had reached the 1-million subscriber benchmark faster than HBO, America Online, or TiVo.

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, I think Xbox Live is as culturally significant as all three. It's being adopted more quickly than critical darling TiVo, which started up in 1997 and only this year hit 3 million users. Xbox Live is changing the nature of console gaming in terms of game design, game play, and business model. We chose to play Halo 2 first because it's the most popular Live game and has become an obsession largely on the strength of the twitchy, adrenaline-filled chaos of its Live mode. According to Bungie, the game's developer, nearly 500,000 people play Halo 2 on Live every day.

Seth, I know I liked playing Halo 2 online more than you did. On Xbox Live, Halo 2 is usually played in short, 12-minute bursts as you run around a series of changing maps, picking up weapons (from pistols to swords to rocket launchers) and killing the other players with them. I'm terrible at it, but the brief nature of each minigame (each one ends with a stat-filled "Postgame Carnage Report") provides the optimist in me with an irresistible chance for redemption. For years, the trend in console gaming has been to create games with longer and more open-ended plots. On Live at least, Halo 2 upends that with short, repetitive minigames that are reminiscent of the quarter-plugging addictions of my youth.

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