“We created a new medium. None of the other consoles were really thinking about online at the time. That was our focus – we were like a crazy bull running around a china shop.”
It’s a little after nine on a hot Monday morning, and we’re sitting on the worn leather sofa of one of the men who built Xbox Live. Scott Henson, now director of Microsoft’s Advanced Technology Group, has spent the previous evening at home digging out artefacts from Xbox’s past – a disc of Re-Volt, the first game that ever ran on Live; a bottle of Champagne specially labelled to celebrate Live’s release on November 15, 2002; its original headset, a construction of such complexity that almost no one could initially figure out how it was meant to be worn.
It already seems a long time ago. It was a time before MySpace; blogs were around but hardly widespread, and the concept of social software was formative but was far from occupying the popular imagination as it does today. Most importantly, broadband was only just on the cusp of becoming common. In other words, when it was being conceived in 2001, voice chat, friends lists and all, Live was a risk, but one that Microsoft had initiated the day it decided to ship Xboxes with an Ethernet port as standard.
“Broadband was a big leap of faith, a monster bet,” Henson says with the benefit of hindsight. After all, since November 2002 Live has defined how game consoles would work online, and continues to far surpass all that its competitors have mustered in its wake. And since then, broadband uptake has spread widely all over North America and western Europe, faster than many forecasts supposed, and slowly the memberships of Live followed suit. The latest total of Live accounts, which includes both free Silver members as well as paying Gold subs, is well over 12 million. The bet, eventually, paid off.
With that surely in mind, Microsoft is making a new one. We’ve come to Xbox’s headquarters in Seattle because Microsoft is ready to show us how it’s looking to Live to take Xbox to a new level. It wants us to meet almost everyone that runs the Xbox business to understand the changes that it hopes will transform Xbox 360 from principally a gamer’s machine to an entertainment box for all.