Game Articles: Xbox 360, Live and Direct

Ever since we learned that Xbox 360TM was on the way, one of the biggest mysteries about the new system was what it meant for Xbox Live®. How would Xbox 360 go online, and what would we be able to do once we got there? After all, it's been a long time since the service debuted in 2002, and already it's grown to more than two million members, with games like Halo® 2 adding even more innovation to the mix. I got a chance to talk to Patrick O'Kelley, lead Microsoft® program manager for Xbox Live features, to learn more about the new iteration of the service and what it means for your online gaming lifestyle.

What does a lead program manager do? O'Kelley told us that he manages the team that does "virtually all the Xbox Live features that don't involve a credit card."

Always Live The first thing we learned from Patrick was to expect the unexpected with the next generation of Xbox Live. "We have created new features, but they have no corollary," O'Kelley said. "We've taken the feature set and the things that people like the most about Xbox Live, and some of those have just exploded into a whole new category of experiences that didn't even exist [on the original Xbox Live]." But don't worry, that doesn't mean you won't recognize the new Xbox Live. "A lot of the core experience is still going to be there," O'Kelley continued. "A friends list, being able to send invites and messages … all those experiences are there."

They're just, as you might expect, different, expanded and oh-so-much cooler than anything we've seen before. For example, Patrick told us, "Everybody who has a high-speed Internet connection in their house will be able to connect to Xbox Live." Well sure, that's how it is now, right? Not exactly. Xbox 360 connects to the service without making you buy a separate package, as with the original Xbox®. "You have to pay money to play multiplayer games on Xbox Live. But [without paying] you can download content, contact friends, communicate …"

Though plans are not completely finalized, we learned that "paying money to play multiplayer" could be achieved in a variety of ways—but most likely, that aspect will be familiar to gamers who already enjoy blasting their pals on Halo 2. "A subscription is always going to be there, that's the basic model," O'Kelley said. "I imagine people will get free play opportunities, like cable TV has a free-cable weekend … I bet we'll see different models to make it available to as many different people as possible."

Xbox Live: the next generation. The "Social Ecosystem"

The most important concept for the new version of Xbox Live that O'Kelley wants to get across is the expansion of the gamertag into a full-blown gamer profile, a sort of combination bio and trophy case that gives your fellow gamers (and the Xbox Live service itself) important clues that are crucial for making online play challenging and fun.

The transition from 'tag to gamer profile "is huge," he told us. "So many studies have been done that show that people have the most fun in any game when they are challenged to play just a little bit better than they already are. It's boring if the game is easy for you. If you're playing with someone who's much, much better than you are, it's discouraging and not fun either. When [developers] are designing their campaign modes and their A.I., they do a lot of work to tune it. But when you're playing a human being, the game is out of control."

The gamer profile, as well as a new way of matchmaking driven by a system called TrueSkillTM, is how your Xbox 360 and the Xbox Live service makes this happen. Many gamers are familiar with the ELO system used in Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell® Chaos TheoryTM and other online games, which theoretically matches up players of similar skill levels. However, as O'Kelley told us, ELO was created for chess.

"That's a two-person game, and [the mathematicians at Microsoft Research in Cambridge] thought 'we can do better.' They're hardcore mathematicians, and their [new] system was tested specifically for online gaming environments. This TrueSkill algorithm works very elegantly with a 16-person free-for-all, or it also knows how to deal with teams and team play. The more you play, the smaller the uncertainty gets. Anywhere from ten to twenty games, we're thinking. Early on, it's doing a lot of data-gathering to understand where your skills sit."

Make Me a Match

Your TrueSkill ranking is the mathematical way the matchmaking system does its best to ensure you're playing with gamers around your skill level. But that's not enough for O'Kelley's team: They also want to make sure that, socially, you're playing against gamers that you enjoy playing against. A lot of this information is input by the gamer themselves, by self-identifying yourself with a Gamer Zone. The system also looks at the games you've been playing online and your reputation to help match you up with the most suitable group.