Xbox Live debuted in November 2002, back when the idea of a first-party online system for consoles seemed ambitious and futuristic. There had been experiments with online play for consoles before Xbox Live — playing Quake 3 Arena online through the Dreamcast was a high point — but this was the first time a console manufacturer would try to introduce an online infrastructure that could support multiple games in a simple, cohesive way across the entire platform.
It was something the Xbox could offer that its competition couldn’t match for years, much less beat. The video above was Microsoft’s way of selling the service to players, and holy heck, it’s hard to watch today. It also would have been hard for anyone at the time to do much better.
Communicating all the advantages of Xbox Live to players was a big challenge, especially since console gamers were much less savvy about the world of online gaming in 2002. Xbox Live required broadband to operate, which wasn’t an option for many players around the country, and even something as simple as voice chat felt new to people. The voice masking feature, which could hide your real voice so you sounded like a robot, a small child or other characters, quickly became one of the most hated features of the service.
I remember those early days. They were horrible. If you used a voice mask, you had to be prepared for everyone you played with to hate you instantly. It quickly became a way to troll others in games you didn’t really want to play. It even sounds annoying in the commercials that pushed it as a desirable feature.
The commercial explains the muting functions, and even includes what Microsoft was comfortable showing as trash talk. The reality was much worse, even in the first days of the service, and player moderation continues to be an issue on Xbox Live and other online services.
It’s hard to believe now, but when Xbox Live launched, you had to buy a physical “starter kit” to get online. The $49.99 bundle included a year of Xbox Live service, a headphone that connected to the Xbox controller, and trial versions of Whacked and MotoGP.
Microsoft wasted no time in bragging about the sales of the starter pack and Xbox Live in general after it sold 150,000 starter kits. “Xbox Live is the first high-speed online console gaming service to reach these important milestones in the first week of service, including the first subscription-based broadband service to surpass 100,000 subscribers,” the company said in a press release on Nov. 22, 2002.
It was a very different world back then.