M'soft lauds Live at Leipzig

Exec talks up Xbox Live to game developers; confirms Halo 2 and Shadowrun to be first Live Anywhere games, releases slated for early next year.

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LEIPZIG, GERMANY--For many players, Xbox Live is an integral part of the Xbox 360 experience, and Microsoft is hoping to capitalize on that success by expanding the reach and scope of its premium online service.

At the Games Convention Developers Conference in Leipzig, Germany this week, Microsoft third-party account manager Steven Blackburn gave a presentation about the past, present, and future of Xbox Live. The presentation began with a summary of the history of Xbox Live from its beginnings in 2002 through two revisions during the life span of the Xbox, and the relaunch of the service in 2005 with the release of the Xbox 360.

After noting a handful of milestones and key features of Xbox Live, Blackburn turned to the numbers. According to the figures presented, Xbox Live has a 60 percent attach rate to Xbox 360 consoles, which is a huge leap from the 10 percent attach rate of the original Xbox. By Microsoft's estimates, Xbox Live is on track to reach 6 million subscribers, though when that number will be reached was left to speculation. Also, according to the data more than 2 billion hours (about 236,000 years) have been logged on Xbox Live to date, with an average of 900,000 text and voice messages sent through the service each day.

Blackburn then moved on to discuss Xbox Live Marketplace. First he discussed the various types of available content on Xbox Live, emphasizing the impact of demos in particular on sales.

Once again, Blackburn backed up his pitch with statistics. According to the data presented, 80 percent of the users on Xbox Live are using Marketplace, and 30 percent of users have purchased Microsoft Points, which are required to pay for premium content. More than 1 billion Microsoft Points have been activated, which by the current exchange rate comes to about $12.5 million (US dollars). Blackburn also noted that the average Xbox Live user has downloaded about 25 pieces of content, with about 45 million overall downloads.

After getting the audience caught up on the current state of Xbox Live Marketplace, Blackburn offered a brief and intentionally vague glimpse of what Microsoft has in store for the future. He began by stating that there will be a switch to "in-game enumeration of content."

Put simply, that means that instead of browsing downloadable content from the Xbox 360 dashboard, the feature will be built into the game. Blackburn offered the example of a combat flight simulator, where you can peruse new airplanes and weapons in a hangar and access the downloadable content without ever leaving the game.

The second improvement in store for Xbox Live Marketplace is an update that will allow players to preview premium content before purchasing it. Currently, players have to purchase content sight unseen, but eventually the downloadable items will include pictures so that the buyers can see what they're purchasing.

The third and final point regarding the future of Xbox Live Marketplace was simply a brief mention of the Live Anywhere service announced at E3 2006, which will allow players to earn achievements and download content for multiple versions of the same game.

The next subject discussed was Xbox Live Arcade. Once again Blackburn let the numbers do the talking. According to the data, 65 percent of connected Xbox 360 owners are playing Xbox Live Arcade games, with 5 million total downloads so far. He noted that the price structure of the games doesn't have a negative impact on sales, with the 800- and 1,200-point games bringing in more revenue than the 400-point games.

The top five most downloaded games according to the figures presented are: Geometry Wars, Uno, Marble Blast Ultra, Gauntlet, and Zuma. There was no mention of when that data was gathered, so it's unclear if the list is still current. There was very little discussion of what the future holds for Xbox Live Arcade, other than noting that Microsoft has plenty of new games in the queue.

Before the presentation, Blackburn made a point to boast about recently earning 1,000 achievement points in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, so it seemed inevitable that he would discuss achievements. This time there were no numbers, only suggestions to developers about how to make achievements an integral part of every Xbox 360 and Windows Vista game.

He said that achievements are effective at broadening the audience for a given game by providing incentive to play the game in many different ways. He criticized games that make achievements too easy to earn, as well as games that award points for simply finishing a level. Blackburn said that achievements must be attainable, but not too easy, so that the player always feels as though he or she can earn points by playing "just five minutes more."

After a quick mention of the Xbox Live Vision camera and its features, Blackburn said the peripheral would be released on September 19 in the US, and two weeks later in Europe and Asia. There was little discussion of how the camera will be implemented into games aside from creating a custom avatar in Uno.

The presentation ended with a look toward the future, with Blackburn stating that in early 2007 the first two Xbox Live Anywhere-enabled games will be released. The first is Halo 2 for Windows Vista. It's not clear exactly how the Live Anywhere service will be implemented in the PC version of Halo 2, since the Xbox version is without many of the current Xbox Live features. The first true multiplatform game to showcase the functionality of Xbox Live Anywhere will be Shadowrun, which will ship for the PC and Xbox 360 in early 2007.

The session closed with Blackburn taking questions from the audience. One question was about whether or not Microsoft would demand exclusivity from third-party developers who want to sell games on Xbox Live Arcade, since it seems likely that Sony and Nintendo will have similar services when their respective consoles launch later this year. Blackburn said that Microsoft has no intention of making all Xbox Live Arcade games exclusive, so it's feasible that a developer could create a multiplatform title for download on the Xbox 360, Windows Vista, PlayStation 3, and the Wii, as long as such a service is available on each platform. However, Blackburn didn't seem particularly concerned with the competition, perhaps because it doesn't exist yet.

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