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10 years of Xbox Live: how Microsoft created the ultimate console gaming network

Looking back at a decade of innovation and exploration

A lot of fingers were crossed when Xbox Live took its tenuous first steps. Back in late 2002, the gaming landscape was very different: digital distribution was in its infancy and console multiplayer came in two flavours - split-screen or system link. It was a far cry from today's always connected, always plugged-in world. Microsoft took a serious gamble - one that paid off by ushering in a whole new era for online gaming and multimedia on consoles. Ten years on, it's remarkable how far we've come.

Imagine how different things would be if the first Xbox had launched with a dial-up modem instead of a broadband Ethernet port? It seems laughable now, but it was central to one of the early discussions Microsoft tackled for its first foray into console gaming, says Larry "Major Nelson" Hryb, programming director for Xbox Live.

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"One of the problems was convincing folks that [including Ethernet only] was the right thing to do," he explains. "If you looked around the landscape, nobody could tell in 2001 and 2002 what was going to happen. [But] we all felt it was going to happen: this massive sea change, of the internet altering our lives in immeasurable ways."

Microsoft's original vision for Xbox Live was to build a secure, functional, reliable online gaming infrastructure that was easy for people to use. However, laying the foundation necessary to make it all happen came with its own challenges. Getting games to even recognise the Ethernet port and play nice with internet connections required sending out a physical disc with the necessary software update. "It was an initial chicken and egg situation," says Hryb. "We had to get the software into people's hands - we couldn't tell them to download it because a lot of people didn't even have broadband at that point, which was a whole other challenge."

The launch of Xbox Live on 15 November, 2002, on the one-year anniversary of the original Xbox's debut, was met with a mix of excitement and cautious optimism. Over 250,000 starter kits - which included a headset and 12-month subscription to Xbox Live - were sold within the first two months of its launch. The service grew rapidly, but speculation grew over how successful it would be beyond the initial honeymoon phase.

Even those working behind the scenes had doubts on how the service would be received. Trailblazing headlong into new territory was a daunting road full of risks, recalls Vince Curley, one of the original architects of Xbox Live who now works as engineering lead at Bungie Studios.

"Xbox and Xbox Live were huge risks for Microsoft. No one was sure if the bets [the] company [was] making were prophetic or crazy, and the outcome of Live was especially hard to predict," he says. "Would people leave their PCs? Would they pay to play online? That uncertainty made it difficult to know what features to really invest in or how many servers to buy to support those features."

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Curley compares the process to building a huge global party - only they had no idea how many people would show up. The most important thing, he says, was that the team involved in creating Xbox Live believed wholeheartedly in what they were building. And their vision and hard work helped break major new ground for console gaming.

Arcade arrival
2004 was a pivotal year for Xbox Live. In July, Microsoft announced that the service had surpassed one million subscribers. With its killer deathmatches, the launch of Halo 2 drew scores of new players to Xbox Live and set the bar high for online multiplayer. Things were really taking off, and it was time for Microsoft to pull another trick from its sleeve.

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