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Xbox Live Bootcamp - October 14-15, 2002

The future of gaming is online, and Microsoft means to be there in the front row. Xbox Live is being launched as a service next month, but it's just the tip of the iceberg, as far as its architects are concerned. Get it right this time, and the next iteration will be a genre buster. That's the hope, at least.

On October 15, Microsoft assembled a group of fansite maintainers (and some other interested parties) for a day of gameplay and information transfer—in both directions. The locale was a conference room in the MS gaming complex, wired for internet play and laden with 8 monster TVs and a few dozen Xboxes. (It's much easier to switch between games, and indeed networks, by swapping cables than by swapping internet settings.) A large collection of people involved in one way or another with Xbox Live, from project managers to directors right up to the Vice President of Xbox Gaming and the Xbox General Manager, were brought in to explain facets of Microsoft's vision for this service. We were brought down to one of the network centers to see the level of detail MS has thought this through to... but mostly, we played games. Combat games, racing games, sports games... the variety of offerings already ready for Xbox Live is impressive, and grows almost daily. Before we get to the games, though, let's begin at the beginning.

The shindig actually started on Monday night, when 15 people piled into a stretch Hummer and headed to an extremely nice dinner at Kirkland's Fish Cafe. XBL's Director of Technical Strategy Andre Vrignaud presided over a get-to-know-you session with good food, pleasant conversation, and all the wine you could drink. (Influenced by good food? Me? Never.) Representatives of a variety of websites (including a couple of GameCube sites) were among the crew assembled by MS. Even the Penny Arcade boys were there (though that might just have been for the food). Microsoft made it clear that they want to strengthen the connections between Xbox Live and the fan-run websites that cover it (and the games that run on it).

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Much thought has gone into the security behind Xbox Live. There are multiple mirrored networks; the network the players see is not the same as the network the developers work on, which is not the same as the network that is used for beta-testing the Live code itself. All three run simultaneously, out of the same centers... but do not intersect.

We were given a tour of one of the network rooms; rows and rows of server racks, miles of cables, all neatly organized and packaged up behind lock and key. Access to the room itself is biometrically controlled. The server cabinets are locked, and the servers themselves, inside the cabinets, are locked. (The server locks are kept in two locations, both offsite; if a server needs manual access, both keys need to be brought in.) Even the circuit boards inside the servers are locked down - they've been sprayed with acrylic to keep the chips from being tampered with. The operations centers are staffed 24/7; not only do the watchers monitor the network with diagnostic tools, it's part of their job description that they must play games on a regular basis - there's no better way to detect subtle problems than by experiencing them yourself.

Access to the gaming network (from your Xbox) requires Kerberos-based authentification - and that just gets you to the gaming servers. Most of the backend stuff (credit card processors, statistics maintaining databases, and the like) aren't even connected directly to the internet; you CAN'T get to them from outside. They weren't willing to talk about details, but they did say that modded xboxes were immediately visible to the gaming servers; "you haven't seen a gameshark-type device yet, and you probably never will." What does this mean for you? It means Microsoft has put a lot of time, money, and brainpower into assuring that your gaming experience on Xbox Live is as cheat-free (and fraud-free) as possible. (Note the 'probably' in that claim; they're confident, but not so arrogant as to believe that NOBODY will ever break their system.)

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All this infrastructure is useless, of course, without a killer game lineup, but luckily, it's looking like Live's got that. We started the day off with MechAssault... and man, what a way to start. The project manager gave us an overview of the game, and its controls, and set us up in two groups of 8. We played timed free-for-all games, and the top 4 from each of the first two rounds played a final round, set up as Last Man Standing. You get one death, and the winner is... the last man standing. Gabe, from Penny Arcade, walked away with this one; he racked up 6 of the 7 kills in the game. (The Mad Cat mech helped him do this job.) There's a pretty wide range of mechs to choose from, though the big, slow, heavily-armored ones might be bad in larger games. (They were recommended to us for beginners, because they're so well armored... but the fast little guys were literally running rings around the big ones; you couldn't really get a shot in before you were taken down from behind. Raptor against T-Rex, sort of.)

Next up was Unreal Championship. Despite a minor glitch in the Live-specific demonstration (an attempt to show us how the map download code worked ran into snags, due to some changes made in the build we were using), gameplay was pretty amazing - 16 players over a 512k dsl connection were fragging smooth as glass. They cranked speed up to 150%; it was not much fun (I couldn't get the hang of moving so fast), but it was totally smooth. Again: each of our Xboxes headed out of the room on an internet connection, then back in from the data center; we were playing in close proximity, but it wasn't a LAN setup, and I saw no slowdowns in the 16-player game. The voice component of Xbox Live is configured by default to place you in one of four channels - great for teamplay without the other side being able to listen in, but also great for keeping total bandwidth down. If you have a monster pipe, though, UC is happy to comply; you can override the default settings and broadcast to all 15 other players. UC also gives you the option of setting up your own Xbox as a game server, or joining an existing server. Caveat: if your box is configured as a server, you can't actually PLAY on it if you that; it's dedicated to serving. MS plans to run some dedicated servers from the gaming centers, in addition to the players who will act as hosts. When you're configured as a server, the box will test your network connection, and recommend a maximum number of players. You can override this value, if you choose... but folks connecting to you will see that you're overloading the pipe. Pretty nifty! [A side note on some interface issues might be in order here. I had some problems playing this game, mostly due to my ingrained Halo habits; the preset options for controller layouts are very limited (and don't cater to left-handers at all), and while every button is individually configurable, when you've got half an hour to play a game, total, you can't afford to waste 25 minutes of it setting the buttons up the way you want them. Digital Extremes acknowledges Halo in several facets of the UI - why not make it easier for people coming from the most popular Xbox FPS to pick up where they're comfortable with? More presets would have been VERY much appreciated.]

Next up: Midtown Madness 3. This one is at least 6 months from store shelves, and parts of it showed that clearly. (Nothing that can't be fixed, of course.) It was also one of the most limited games we saw, in terms of network play; you can do 4-player games over XBL, or 8-player games (one per Xbox) in a LAN setup. They simply couldn't figure out how to make splitscreen work well, given the amount you needed to see. Most of the demos seen to this point have been set in Paris... but we were playing in Washington, DC. Scenery was gorgeous. The fact that you can pick any vehicle—from a tiny electric car up to a city bus or a dump truck—tickled me, and there'll be lots of unlockable/downloadable extra content (skins and such) for getting to hard-to-reach areas.

Last game before lunch: Moto GP. This one rocks. There was some interesting use of the headsets in this one; you hear only the three closest players. Good for taunting folks who you've just passed... not so good if you want to rail at the leader. Again, though, it keeps bandwidth usage to a manageable level. (I found it interesting that every game had its own way of dealing with this, even though they're all using the same network; I'd have guessed that there would be more standardized techniques in place. Maybe it's just early.) The non-Live version of Moto GP is not enough to go online with... but if you have it, you can unlock the tracks and bikes there with your online version.

We came back from lunch, and checked out a demonstration of Steel Battalion. I saw this game at E3, and it's come a long way, but it's still got a pretty specialized audience. This one's hardcore; you need a $200 controller just to play, and keeping track of what all the buttons do is non-trivial. It's also hardcore in the sense that if your mech is destroyed, and you don't eject in time... everything is wiped out. Not just your current saved game... everything. You start from scratch. Ouch! (This one's also not Live-compatible - they showed it to us because it's cool, and because we asked.)

I'm not much of a sports game player... but I still had a lot of fun playing NBA 2K3. Control was pretty intuitive... and once I'd gotten past the stage of running way off the damn court every time I was trying to see what was going on, Chris Millner (of XboxAddict) and I kicked a little butt, before they turned the screens off so we could get going on Ghost Recon. The Live headsets worked pretty well with this game.

Ghost Recon... hmm. Plus side - this game has a killer 4-player coop mode; the only shortcoming that was immediately obvious was a way to quickly identify which of your teammates you're looking at. ("Hey, whoever's up in front of me - there's a guy in that guardhouse on your left! No, not that guy... um, you're standing at the right edge of the bridge; look left!") It's a pretty complicated game to play with the Xbox controller, but it still worked pretty well. Minus side - the graphics were surprisingly underwhelming... I'm not sure if that's an Xbox problem, or an across-the-board problem (I haven't seen screens of this game on other platforms). I also had a problem with the 'realism'; take aim at a baddie 50 yards away with a sniper rifle, steady the shot until the cursors tell you you're pretty solidly focused, squeeze off a round into an unprotected skull... and he'll reel back, then shake it off and keep coming. In contrast, from the same range, a short 3 or 4-shell burst to the chest with an assault rifle will take 'em down every time. It's quite possible this wasn't done yet, though, and I did like the UI quite a bit. If you're into this type of shooter, it's definitely worth checking out.

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So what does all this mean to the average Halo player? (After all, this is a Halo site.) Well, for now, nothing. Halo: Combat Evolved is not Xbox Live-compatible, and almost certainly never will be. Halo 2 will have full XBL support, but won't be out for over a year. However, online gaming is hot, and will likely remain hot for the forseeable future. Fast internet connections are prevalent enough to make counting on them a viable marketing strategy. Look at any popular game out there, and you'll find that the long-term players have one thing in common; a community. Sometimes, it's a mod community; new content is created by fans, and that keeps even the single-player game alive. This isn't really feasible for the Xbox, though, and likely never will be. The other type of community that keeps a game alive is the players community, and this is what Microsoft is shooting for. It's exciting to see how seriously they've taken this; it bodes well for multiplayer online Halo 2 gaming, and that's certainly something to look forward to. Is it perfect? No. But it's the first generation, and they've already got their eyes on the future. The content and new features coming out in the next year or so should easily satisfy hardcore gamers and casual gamers alike. Wanna get together with your friends for a quick game of Basketball? XBL. Want to devote your life to getting to the top of the worldwide Unreal Championship ladder? XBL. It's ready now, and it's only gonna get better.

Other Coverage
HBO is sorely behind on getting this article written; several other Bootcamp attendees have already put up their thoughts on Xbox Live. For your convenience, here's a list of articles. (We'll be adding to this as new ones come online.)