One of the biggest announcements at E3 was that Microsoft is developing Live Anywhere, a network infrastructure that will allow players to communicate and interact seamlessly with the Xbox 360, Windows Vista PCs, and Windows Mobile and Java-based mobile phones. As explained, the service will allow not only communication between the devices, but also share information between users, in much the same way Xbox Live links together users of the Xbox 360. During E3, Gamasutra sat down with Chris Early, studio manager for Microsoft Casual Games for a demonstration of the service.
“Today we have 25 to 30 million people playing monthly on all of Microsoft's different game services,” said Early. “What Live Anywhere is doing is bringing them all together so that there is one common identity for you as a gamer across all of those different platforms. One common Gamerscore, one set of friends, one common set of messages, all together in one identity, but not in one place. That is the “Anywhere” portion. That is why mobile is an important part of the announcement, because it is about how we extend the gaming experience of those 25-30 million people out into the mobile environment.”
On the show floor at E3, attendees could see Live Anywhere with Shadowrun as it worked and communicated between both an Xbox 360 console and a PC running Windows Vista. Microsoft's current plans are that within the launch window of Windows Vista, players will be able to have a common identity between those two platforms. And that, while seemingly a simple thing, is according to Early: “one of the hardest pieces to get working right,” specifically how to get the Xbox Live system to work with the MSN Messenger system running on a Vista PC.
This represents what Early and his team are working on now. During the meeting he presented a demonstration of where Microsoft is heading in the future, introducing the mobile aspect as the third pillar of the Live Anywhere model. The key, according to the presentation, is to “make it simple, and make it about games,” a concept that echoed what Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates talked about during the company's pre-E3 media briefing.
Early brought out a mobile phone, and upon starting up the Live Anywhere interface it showed what games were available on the phone, as well as information about those games that the user might find important, such as high score, unlocked achievements, the player's Gamerscore, and the next person on the player's list of friends to beat at that particular game, regardless of platform.
That last portion is the key to what Microsoft is attempting to do with Live Anywhere – to build and extend a player's community so that it is not restricted to a given platform.
“What is important to me is the people I play with on a regular basis,” said Early. “Where do I stack up compared to them?”
He also commented that Microsoft is working on a way for users to download a game once and have access to it on just one platform, or across all platforms, with a different download fee assigned depending on the choice made by the user.
In addition, since Live Anywhere allows for a single list of friends across all platforms, the service's interface shows the platforms that users on the list are currently using. In this way, a user can best decide what method of communication to use when messaging a particular friend, be it a voice or text message, or even a challenge to play a game. In addition to the Friends List, Live Anywhere will also allow players to use and build upon their one central Gamercard. Players will also be able to compare Gamercards as well, seeing how each stacks up in terms of score and achievements, as well as the games currently being played.
Early then showed an example of pulling up a potential download of the popular puzzle game Luxor on the mobile phone. However, using Live Anywhere another set of download options appeared on the screen. “We could download this to our phone, or we could turn around and download the demo version of Luxor to our Xbox 360 or to our Vista machine as well. This is essentially turning your phone into a remote control device, giving you contact with other platforms as well.”
Another feature of Live Anywhere is what is called an Alert, which allows a player to be informed once content for a specific game is available for download. Once a download is available, the user is notified on their mobile phone, prompting them to download the new content, such as a new map, for example. Live Anywhere is smart enough to not download the content to the phone, however, but rather to the places where it knows the user has the game installed. Early did note that if, for example, the user's Xbox 360 or Vista PC is not turned on at the time, the download will simply be scheduled, and will commence once the machine is powered on and connected to Live Anywhere.
The benefits of Live Anywhere were shown for the casual user, as well as the more traditional, or hardcore type of game player. For example, Early's daughter was demonstrated to be having trouble completing a crossword puzzle game on the PC, and she sent a message to her father for help. Early responded by completing the word she was having trouble with in her game, and sending that information back to her using his mobile phone. Another example was shown again with Shadowrun, wherein a member of Early's clan unlocked an achievement, and upon being notified on his mobile phone, he was able to watch a video of the achievement being earned.
“This is a capability we give the developers to allow players to stay connected,” said Early. “Additionally, if you have a video-capable phone, and the game supporting it, you can actually spectate that game from your phone as well.” He also commented: “I think the most interesting side of this is going to come from the game creators. We're giving them the platform to be creative with, and that's what I really want to see.”
Early also noted that Live Anywhere is being developed to be compatible not just with Windows Mobile handsets, but also Java-based mobile phones as well. In addition, the interface is generally the same for both mobile platforms, with one important difference. As different games are available to be played on these two separate platforms, Live Anywhere is smart enough to only display those games that are playable on that device. He finished his demonstration by iterating that this is a long term project for Microsoft, and is expected to be rolled out over the next couple of years. “There are no dates specifically here. But what I will say is that by this time next year you'll start to see some parts of this on your phones.”