It was Christmas 2003 and advertisements were all around for Xbox Live and it’s first game, Rainbow Six 3, showing people working together and talking into headsets with the tagline ‘It’s Good To Play Together’. Being a 13-year-old boy at the time this seemed like the closest thing to being in a genuine SWAT team… I had to have it. So, after weeks of waiting followed by weeks of trying to get it to work, the day finally arrived when I joined my first server.
I was greeted by my two teammates: 22-year-old cockney Tal and 15-year-old Welsh kid Josh, who immediately asked if I was British. They were delighted to hear that I was as they were getting beaten by three Italians and desperately needed help from, preferably, a Brit. Of course, being a noob, I was no help at all but what ensued was a very fun and friendly international game.
Of course, in between rounds, taunts were thrown between us and the Italians, but these were jovial taunts so pleasant that I didn’t mention their madres even once. This didn’t feel like I was part of a SWAT team at all. This was much, much more fun. And once the games came to an end I added Tal and Josh to my friends list and would play with them for months to come. As we continued to play and made more friends, soon Tal even began to host his own server, and here we would all meet up most nights like regulars at a bar in hell, blowing each other up and giggling like school girls. There was a great sense of community on Xbox Live back then. Was. Now the place I once loved, I try and avoid. Why?
Firstly, Xbox Live’s main selling points were its friends list system and that it came packaged with a headset. Generally most of the people buying it were doing so for the same reason I did: they wanted to verbally communicate with other players. Today Xbox Live hasn’t been marketed as a fun gaming community since this (in 2005):
Oh, and it no longer comes with a free headset. And the £10 official ones Microsoft do offer? They break pretty easily after being sat on or thrown to the ground in a fit of rage. Trust me. This is why today’s servers are very quiet; even if someone does own a headset, it’s not to help out their teammates or have a chat – it’s to insult my mum, my country, and my weak sniping skills. Hell, last week I had someone “rap” insults at me because this is the reputation Xbox Live has now, and so that’s what users believe the headset is for.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that Live was a difficult system to set up; it only worked with select service providers and routers. It actually took me days to get it all working and I ended up having to route Xbox Live through my computer as a proxy using the beta version of what is now Windows Media Connect. Ahem. My point is that you had to have half a brain to actually install it and subsequently we had a sort of standard of player unlike now when any screeching eight year old can steal their mum’s credit card for two minutes.
Matchmaking is another component which is taking the soul out of online gaming as a whole. It works with some games but not all. Gears of War was one of the last games I played on Live that only used custom player-made servers and it was so much fun. It’s a game where you shoot peoples’ heads off and stick grenades to their back for Christ’s sake; if you can’t have a laugh and make friends with someone while you’re chainsawing them in half then I don’t want to know you.
Gears 2‘s multiplayer is primarily a matchmaking system which takes two minutes to find a game before lobbing you in with a bunch of strangers for a five to ten minute match. Then you’re thrown out again for another two minute wait to play with yet another set of random people. Fast-forward to Gears of War 3 and everybody is loving this matchmaking, enduring it so they can rank up to level 22 and get a pink Lancer (which looks as ridiculous as it sounds) or unlock the Cole Train with a backwards cap. The idea of having a laugh, being a part of a community, or that the player in front of me is more than just a frag, has gone.
What happened to these people?! They used to be so… fun.
Nowadays to find my old slice of comradery I turn to games like Left 4 Dead 2 on Steam, where great teamwork and the use of a headset are often essential if you want to succeed. Once again my friends list has filled up with interesting people I’ve met from around the world whilst fighting through the zombie apocalypse, and on the nights when we all play together I feel like I’m back on Tal’s server again – playing not to abuse the enemy, for ranks, or for unlocks, but just because ‘It’s Good To Play Together’.
Ben Pearse The first video game I ever played was the 18-rated Duke Nukem 3D at the age of five, and my life continued to spiral out of control from then onwards. Ex-Halo fanboy and current Battlefield enthusiast.
Game hard, die young.