As the sun begins to set on the Xbox 360 and the second generation of Xbox Live, we thought it would be good to look back at the service to see how far it's come. Achievements, avatars, gamerscore, DLC, and Netflix are all part of the evolution, but where did it all begin?


In the beginning…

Before Microsoft raised eyebrows amongst gamers with the announcement of the original Xbox, people were happily gaming over phone lines with 56.6K modems. PC Gamers shrugged when the Dreamcast found success in connecting living rooms to the Internet. They had been playing with one another since before graphics were something people cared about. 

However, the groundbreaking Phantasy Star Online showed platform holders that there was a market for online console gaming. Sony and Microsoft both took notice, but went down different paths to bring distant gamers together. While Sony opted for an external attachment (released alongside the first SOCOM title), Microsoft chose to include a broadband adapter inside each black-and-green console.

In 2000, when the Xbox was first announced, Microsoft came under fire for choosing to restrict online access to broadband. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, only 4.4 percent of households in the United States subscribed to a broadband service in 2000. By 2010, adoption had skyrocketed to 68.2 percent. 

When we spoke with Microsoft in 2002, we were told that the purpose in choosing broadband was to push multiplayer as far as possible. They didn't want developers to have to dial back their ambitions to work on a dial-up connection.

Every Xbox owner would have the hardware in place to take advantage of Microsoft's broadband service without need of a peripheral, but they'd have to wait a little while. Xbox Live didn't launch until November 2002, which gave gamers an entire year to figure out how to play Halo: Combat Evolved over the Internet. 

Thanks to two pieces of software, Xlink Kai and the GameSpy Tunnel, it was finally possible to ask the most important question in online gaming: "Why is that guy crouching and standing up over and over again?"

Voice chat wasn't possible in those early days before Xbox Live, and even when the service did become available, talking with strangers could sometimes be very odd thanks to the since-abandoned voice masking feature. Microsoft's former chief experience officer, J Allard, shared a story when we first covered the Xbox Live rollout.

"In 1999, we decided to do voice. We had eight hardcore gamers come [to Microsoft] to test out the prototype. I [said], 'You guys are going to be the first gamers to hear voice on a console game. Are you ready for it?’ They were like 'Hell, yeah! Bring it on!'

“They were all pumped up and everything, so we sent them off to eight different rooms. I sat in the lobby watching. I had my little headphones and they don't talk to each other. So, I bring them all out and said, 'What the hell is wrong with you guys? Is the system broken? Why aren't you talking to each other? Your lips aren't moving! I know it's not broken!'

“They responded with, 'We don't know each other.'

“I said that I knew that they spent all of their time in EverQuest and ICQ and are constantly messaging people they don't know, but they said, 'Well yeah. But I'm anonymous there. That's just letters on a screen with a *** name. Here, it's my real voice.' I never thought about that. With the exception of telemarketers, you really don't talk to strangers that you can't see or have some reason to meet.”

Before the service was rolled out to the world, I was part of a group of gamers that were selected as beta testers for Xbox Live. For our $50 entry fee, we received a memory card, Xbox Communicator puck, a headset, a slick carrying case, and a one-year subscription to the service (that started on the official launch date). NFL Fever 2003 and Revolt! were the two games included in the kit, and both worked extremely well for testing purposes. 

Later on, as a token of appreciation, Microsoft sent beta testers a t-shirt that read "I've got great hands." Unfortunately, this begat an entire community site of "not safe for work" images featuring the apparel.

Allard was true to his word. Xbox Live launched in November 2002. Servers for the two launch titles, MechAssault and Unreal Championship, were flooded with eager fans. The service remained stable for the most part, which is a feat even by today's standards. At the time, Xbox Live was powered by five data centers located in London, Seattle, Tokyo, Redmond, and Tukwila. 

More impressive than the system's integrity in those early days, I recall friendly banter and a general air of sportsmanship. The teabagging returned later.


The first Xbox DLC

We take for granted (and sometimes grimace) at the thought of downloadable content. Too often, publishers roll out new content immediately upon release, raising questions about what should and shouldn't be included on the disc. 

There was a time when the very concept of additional maps, vehicles, and play modes in a console game seemed magical. I recall downloading my first add-on, a free pack of additional mechs for Day1 Studios' MechAssault. It wasn't long before Microsoft began charging for content. 

The first paid DLC also belonged to MechAssault. For $4.99, players could expand the game with two new game types and three new maps (in addition to the mechs, maps, and modes available for free). After all the complementary content, kicking in a bit for some more felt like a fair deal. It wasn’t until later that users became more cautious about value for the DLC dollar as more publishers tested the waters with different types of add-ons.

Back in September 2002, J Allard told us, "We don't expect Activision to nickel and dime you for new levels and clothing." Today, most publishers charge for new multiplayer maps, and Microsoft has the market cornered on new clothing. We'll talk about Avatars later, though.

Next, the Xbox 360 is announced, bringing with it a host of changes for Xbox Live.