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Console War Goes On-Line

I must admit I was an XBox sceptic when it was first announced. I thought it provided for an interesting entrant to the console market due to it being backed by Microsoft, but I thought it had a hard fight on its hands. You see, whenever three consoles have been on the market, one of them has bowed out of the race. It has been repeatedly shown that there is only room for two main contenders. I now think the Gamecube will be the loosing console, leaving the PlayStation and the XBox to duke it out for the top spot. The Gamecube only really survives because of the strength of certain key titles, as did the Nintendo 64 before it (to some degree), and it does not take a genius to see that the money is in those titles not the hardware itself. I also don’t think Nintendo is interested in controlling the ‘device in the living room’ which is the war Sony and Microsoft are fighting, it’s not so much about games consoles anymore.

As for the XBOX and the PlayStation? Well, the PlayStation has an installed user-base that the Xbox is likely to unseat this generation, and will be hard to grab in the next round of the console wars as well, but the XBox has one unique feature that could help it in its struggle: XBox Live.

The PlaySation and the XBox are going on-line in Europe this year (you can already take part in the XBox Live tests) and this could decide the relative successes of each unit. You see both companies have taken different strategies: Microsoft has decide to control and brand the on-line service, while Sony has gone the PC route and put the on-line infrastructure into the hands of those developing the games. I think Sony have made the wrong decision, as this introduces ‘PC thinking’ into the console market, and I don’t think this is what the typical console user wants. They don’t want variable service per game; they don’t want multiple identities per developer, and no firm way of being able to speak to each other on-line (which is becoming an essential feature as games with America’s Army type functionality become ever more popular, especially when you remove the keyboard).

XBox Live has the following, important, selling points:

  • It is accessed in the same seamless way no matter what game you are playing, as Microsoft determines a common format for menu options.
  • It provides you with a logon ID that is the same across the XBox Live network, and can even be used on a friend’s console.
  • It provides a way to tag and log friends you play with constantly and see if they are on-line on the XBox network.
  • It provides clear voice communication via a headset microphone that comes with the subscription pack.
  • The service is for broadband users only, dial-up access is not supported.
  • The quality of service is under one companies control.

In short, XBox live provides common, easy to use functionality that works as a natural extension of the consoles operation. The real selling point is it’s fast. I’ve played three games on XBox live now and the fact your playing the game on-line is invisible, the games work as fast and as smoothly as when playing them on your own console, even when your opponents are harassing you over the headset and are playing in the US.

Microsoft certainly has a winner in the XBox Live service, and as more varied games enter the market (such as sports games and some strategy and role-playing titles) it will go from strength to strength. It’s not going to wipe the PlayStation off the market, but it is another strong tool for the XBox to eat away at the leaders position. You see it seems to me more of a natural thing to do, to take your XBox on-line, while I’ve got no inclination to do that with the PlaySations, and I own a PlayStation (and not an XBox). Why? Simply because I don’t want the hassle, while with the Xbox, I get a console on-line service, not one with all the problems of a PC and a console.

It’s certainly an interesting battle.

About Ian O'Rourke

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