The first time I saw Xbox LIVE? I thought it was from the future. Like a hoverboard, or walking on the moon.
I simply wasn't prepared for it. I didn't play games on my home PC, which was archaic. I didn't own a Dreamcast. I had never dialed up a modem to play death match on Doom and I was barely aware of the existence of Phantasy Star Online.
Xbox LIVE: the marketer's dream. The itch I didn't know I needed to scratch.
At the time Xbox LIVE felt monolithic, and I pounded upon it with the clumsy fists of an ape. What was this strange virtual object? What could be done with it? What were the possibilities?
Years of playing Halo 2 online. Years of simply connecting, garbling through the headset at strangers. Years of twiddling my thumbs, years of being humbled, years of genuine enjoyment. It's easy to dismiss the impact of Xbox LIVE — particularly if you were a PC gamer — but for those who did most of their gaming on a console, it felt like a small, but significant, revolution.
Then came the Xbox 360.
LIVE on the 360: like watching colour TV for the first time. The scope and scale of the leap was equally bewildering. It was unlike anything we'd seen on a console before, and Microsoft's competitors would be playing catch-up for years.
Profiles, messaging, new games, transactions, online stores — in hindsight it all sounds so trivial, but back then? It was like giving a caveman sherbet, like a slick reinvention of the wheel. It was a grand, incredible leap forward for console gaming and we ate it up greedily.
Nowadays? I turn on my Xbox. I look at the dashboard and wonder — what happened to my Xbox LIVE?
Back when Xbox LIVE was orange and garish it looked a little silly, but it was difficult to find fault. Now it's doused in cobalt gradients and feels adult, but overwhelmingly sterile. Even if video games were the reason you turned on your Xbox 360, it's hard to shake the feeling that Microsoft wished you were doing something else instead.
Home. Social. Video. Games. Fourth in the list. Surrounded by lifestyle shots and advertisements, scrolling past graveyards of failed initiatives and products you don't want to buy. This is the new Xbox LIVE experience as we now know it.
Look, I get it. I understand. The Xbox 360 is no longer a console, it's a multimedia device. I have no issue with that, that state of affairs does not concern me. I use my Xbox 360 (and my PlayStation 3 for that matter) as a multimedia device. I watch movies, I'll use it to stream content, or watch DVDs — but it's the sheer disdain being shown for video games that irks me, as Microsoft continues to pile feature after feature atop what should be the primary function of the Xbox 360.
Video games are being buried on the Xbox 360 and on Xbox LIVE. Almost literally buried.
Games on Xbox LIVE, particularly if you want to actually pay money and buy them, are like books with three years worth of Cosmo subscriptions piled on top. You have to sift for them — you have to wade through crap, you have to suffer.
And then, you have to pay for them using one of the most outdated payment system on the internet.
When Microsoft began selling points as the main currency within Xbox LIVE, we tolerated it. We tolerated it because we didn't know any better. We tolerated it because buying digital products online was a relatively new thing and, for all we knew, it may have been the most efficient and worthwhile way to engage in this kind of business.
Now we know better.
Fast forward to the present. Buying things online, digitally, is a part of everyday life. We buy music online, we rent movies online, we buy apps online. We buy these things with money. Not with points.
Going back to Xbox LIVE, to buy a video game, feels like getting in a time machine, and going in the wrong direction.
You can't spend the precise amount of money you want, you have to buy points in packs. You are left with points you can't use. Points that just sit there, stagnant until the point when you decide you want to buy other online content. It's archaic, dishonest, and wrong.
Worse still, it's out of date.
At one point, Xbox LIVE represented the cutting edge when it came to digital content and online gaming. It was a service worth paying for. Sony scrambled frantically to imitate it. Now? With Android, the App Store, iTunes and practically every other online system you can name, Xbox LIVE looks like a dated, sprawling mess in comparison. It needs a complete overhaul, on all possible levels.
What happened to my Xbox LIVE? What happened to the service that I gladly forked over cash for — the service that made my head spin? What happened to the Xbox LIVE that gave me quick easy access to Indie games, what happened to the Xbox LIVE that boldly pushed forward with innovations that would define gaming? Where did that Xbox LIVE go?
When did Xbox LIVE get left behind?
The Xbox 360 came out in 2005; that was a long time ago. Xbox LIVE may be a service held back by the 360's aging technology. That's a strong argument. But there's no excuse for Xbox LIVE as it currently exists — a service that makes it difficult to find games, not easier. A service that uses outdated and intelligence insulting payment mechanisms. A service that bombards you with services you neither use, want or need.
That's not the Xbox LIVE that dazzled me, the Xbox LIVE that felt like a hoverboard; that felt like walking on the moon. That's not the Xbox LIVE we signed up for.