The Diversification of Xbox Live

Nearly two years ago, at the Electronics Entertainment Expo, Microsoft made a point of saying that Xbox Live was going to be so robust that it would even win the favor of non-gamers. They proposed that, eventually, a system would be in place that would allow non-gamers to create game content and sell and trade it over Xbox Live. Obviously, they weren't suggesting that these people would design mods or make multiplayer maps or anything like that, but rather that they would design character clothing, or snazzy graphics for snowboards, or perhaps maybe even wallpaper to use in a polygonal game house. At the time Microsoft's bold proclamations were met with what may have well been a Guiness record-setting number of people rolling their eyes in unison.

The ability to create user content for the Xbox Live Marketplace hasn't yet come to fruition (although I expect it's on the way for 2007 or 2008) but Microsoft has been making steady progress towards their real goal, and that is to make Xbox Live something people of all walks of life can enjoy. Enter an online match of Spades or Uno and you'll know exactly what I mean.

It's safe to say that in the days of the original Xbox, the online populace was dominated by teenage and twenty-something white males. And I'm sure it still is today. But whereas hearing a heavily accented male voice or that of a woman gamer on the other end of your microphone on the old Xbox was a cause of shock, it's now much more common. And it's not because Microsoft is courting non-gamers with the ability to sell virtual trinkets and widgets for 50-cents a pop, but because of Xbox Live Arcade.

When a lot of people think of Live Arcade, they immediately think of the game Geometry Wars, the futuristic shooot 'em up originally released as a mini-game inside Project Gotham Racing 2. What people may not be aware of is that the Live Arcade also contains Uno, Spades, Hearts, and Backgammon as well as many other fun titles. Players can download each of these games for $5 to $10 worth of Microsoft Points and instantly head online for some pleasant competition and kibitzing. And you'd be surprised by how many people are using this high-end, expensive game console to do just that.

What Microsoft has done is taken their wildly popular "Game Zone" that resides on MSN (and currently has over 105,000 people playing as I type this) and transformed it into something much better -- a way to play and talk without being tethered to the computer. The Zone is a collection of games not unlike the ones listed above that feature ranking systems and statistics and the ability to chat in an Instant Messenger-like setting. I used to play a lot of Backgammon on The Zone at night when I was in grad school and the majority of my opponents always said they were sleepless housewives. I rarely believed them. Based on my experiences playing Spades and Uno on Xbox Live, I'm beginning to think they were telling the truth. My recent Live Arcade exploits have consistently been against women of varying ages, as well as a higher percentage of minority players. And while I have no scientific data to back this up, I guarantee anyone that if they spend some time with these games they'll come to the same realization -- Xbox Live is becoming a melting pot.

In just 7 short months, thanks to Xbox Live Arcade, Microsoft has made the Xbox 360 into something the entire family can enjoy individually as well as together. Sure, the console always had four controller ports for the rare instance mom and dad would join in with some split-screen action, but what about just mom? Thinking of my step-mother for a minute, I know she's quite the night-owl and while she does occasionally play Xbox games with my three sisters, she never plays alone at night. Owning an Xbox 360 and gaining access to Live Arcade would give her not only more games to play, but also a social outlet at a time of night when she's most often alone in silence watching television. I know Microsoft tried to spell this out to us so-called hardcore gamers two years ago, but we were too narrow-minded to see it. We, as a group, struggled to see past all the deathmatching and trash-talking to see the real potential of what Microsoft was delivering. That potential is now abundantly clear.

This isn't to say that Live Arcade exists solely for the sleepless moms of the world. By growing the library of games in all directions and not just in the area of mature-themed blockbusters, Microsoft is also cultivating a community that moves the kitchen table online and allows anyone to play the games of their youth, cheaply, any time of the day or night. It's clear from playing the card games on Live Arcade that there are a lot of people who grew up playing these very same games. It's also clear that they did so speaking in accents and hailing from parts of the country you almost never heard represented online two years ago. Now they have games that are appealing to them and they are out there in number having a great time.

Given all of the bells and whistles of the Xbox 360 including high-definition video and surround sound support, connectivity with Windows Media Center, and the included hard drive to name but a few, it can be difficult to justify the $400 cost of the console if all you're going to do be doing is playing $5 downloadable card games -- more than a few of my Uno opponents have laughed at that very observation. But when it comes down to it, what's fun is fun. And just as rental services like Gamefly are making it easier for me to play an abundance of games despite the new $60 sticker price for software, Live Arcade's $5 to $10 price structure is similarly bringing a collection of games -- and experiences -- within reach of those on even tighter budgets.

But ultimately, that $400 entry fee and broadband connection doesn't seem so prohibitive when one realizes that it costs just $5 more to be playing cards and chatting it up with their distant family members like they used to do around the kitchen table on a rainy day. Campbell's soup sold separately.

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