With Sony still only talking about what’s going to happen with its PlayStation online service, Microsoft took its opportunity to remind developers just how well Xbox Live is performing, as well as highlighting where it’s headed in future, in a lecture at the Develop Conference in Brighton, England.
The headline figure for Jeff Sullivan, one of Microsoft’s developer relations managers for the Games Technology Group, was the attach rate for Xbox Live amongst Xbox 360 users - a massive 60 percent, which is a huge increase over the 10 percent gained by the original Xbox.
“Every time I do this presentation I have to check what the new figures are,” Sullivan said, before rattling off up-to-date stats such as Xbox Live has hosted over two billion hours of gaming, including over 500 million games of Halo 2. It also handles over 900,000 voice and text messages per day. But there’s plenty more where that came from, with Microsoft on-track to hit its target of six million Xbox Live accounts in 2007.
Two key drivers of this growth will continue to be Xbox Live Marketplace and Arcade.
Used by 75 percent of connected users, Marketplace has handled over 30 million downloads; a figure that’s jumped significantly over the past couple months as features such as the ability to queue downloads, or have them operating in the background, have been added. Future developments will see Marketplace content integrated more fully into games, so players can download new content such as cars without leaving the game.
Meanwhile, over on Arcade (which is used by 65 percent of connected users), over five million games have been downloaded. Conversion rates between free content and paid for downloads currently averages around 21 percent, with top games such as Geometry Wars and Uno up at 50 percent, while the lowest conversion rate is around 10 percent.
However, as Sullivan argued, compared to the industry-standard of 1-2 percent in the case of casual PC games available on the Internet, even 10 percent is a huge improvement.
Of course, such success comes with its own problems, and as more developers and publishers have tried to hitch themselves to the Arcade wagon, so Microsoft has had to impose stricter approval processes, with the most recent addition a portfolio team to filter game proposals.
Looking to the future however, the biggest shift for Xbox Live is what Microsoft is calling its Live Anywhere initiative. A way of bringing converge to Xbox 360 users and Vista PC gamers, it’s a process that will see a common interface employed across both platforms, as well as bringing all the advantages of Xbox Live, such as community, skill matching, anti-cheating and unified billing systems into the online PC gaming space.
The first titles to use the service will be Halo 2 for Windows Vista and the cross-platform shooter Shadowrun, due in early 2007. Sullivan said, these will initially only offer a limited subset of Xbox Live features, acting as guinea pigs to test how opening up Xbox Live within the PC Internet works.
Clearly, security is a major issue, and even though traffic from Vista gamers on Live Anywhere will be encrypted as Xbox traffic has always been, opening up Xbox Live could throw up some problems. Hopefully though, the first non-Microsoft games to support the service should be available in fall 2007, with a full rollout planned in 2008.
And indeed, on a more strategic level, opening up Xbox Live remains one of Microsoft’s medium term goals. For example, publishers are now being encouraged to integrate their own services into Xbox Live through the XLSP program, which enables third party servers and data centres to fully interact with Xbox Live content, for example, enabling publishers to stream out in-game video feeds to website; something that up to this point has only be available for in-house teams such as Bizarre Creations.
Sullivan said this openess would also help publishers to link into in-game advertising company Massive, which Microsoft recently acquired. Further details of how this service will work, amongst other announcements, will be revealed at Microsoft’s GameFest to be held in Seattle, from 14-15th August.