Flashback: How The First Online Game Consoles Changed Everything

Flashback: How The First Online Game Consoles Changed Everything

The Xbox, Dreamcast, PS2 and Gamecube marked the first generation of connected consoles. Illustration: John James

This week marks the 15th anniversary of the Xbox and Gamecube, which were both part of the first connected console generation.

This week marks the 15th anniversary of the Xbox and Gamecube, which were both part of the first connected console generation.

Fifteen years ago, a night of 16-player Halo required lugging gigantic televisions up flights of stairs with skinny teenaged arms, setting four of them up in different corners of a room, persuading three pals to bring their Xboxes over, and connecting them with cables. (Illicit cans of cheap booze were also involved.) These Halo parties were a memorable part of my years growing up: incompetently driven Warthogs, improbable long-distance kills with the never-bettered M6D pistol, ridiculous match rules enforced either by popular consensus or the game’s limited customisation options. People would drop in and out over the course of the night, but everyone would play. (Except Chris. Chris would always be making out with girlfriend-du-jour on a sofa.) 

By the middle of that same decade, I was dogfighting in Crimson Skies against strangers on another continent. It was a signal the era of connected gaming had finally arrived. 

Internet connectivity has transformed everything about how we play games with each other, as well as how they're made and sold. The Xbox, Gamecube, PlayStation 2 and Dreamcast – the first two of which will celebrate their 15-year anniversaries this week – all made tentative forays into the connected gaming world that we now take for granted. People had been playing games over the Internet in one form or another since the 1980s, of course, but it had previously only been accessible to PC players. These consoles – and particularly Microsoft's dedicated online service, Xbox Live – were the start of online gaming’s ingress into everyday life.

Nobody who had to actually use the online functionality of any of these consoles would tell you that the transition was seamless. Actually getting the damned things to work could be torture. If there wasn’t a problem with your connection, you could bet that there would be one with the game’s servers, because back then, the internet infrastructure to support online gaming simply did not exist. A good illustration: Sega's ill-fated but much-loved Dreamcast, the first online-enabled console, came packaged with a full year of free dial-up internet access when it was released in Japan in 1998 – essential because internet service providers were still charging customers by the minute. Incredibly, according to Satoshi Sakai, who worked on the console’s flagship network game Phantasy Star Online, Sega’s chairman Isao Okawa paid for that generous promotion out of his own pocket.

Looking back, this generation of consoles’ differing approaches to online gaming and connectivity seem prophetic. Dreamcast would be Sega’s last console; its big bet on network play was one of several ways in which it was perhaps too far ahead of its time. Sony's PlayStation 2, meanwhile, released in 2000 without built-in internet connectivity, taking a more cautious approach – a broadband adapter was eventually released, but developers who wanted to experiment with online play had to maintain their own servers, minimising Sony’s need to invest in a central online-play infrastructure. The Gamecube’s steps into online functionality, meanwhile, was most cautious of all. Nintendo released an online-capable network adapter, but it was only ever used for the Gamecube versions of Phantasy Star Online and a Japan-only curio called Homeland, which allowed for 35-player games that all ran off the host's own Gamecube as opposed to a central server.

though games have gotten vastly more expensive to make over the past 15 years, the amount that we pay for them has not increased.

It was the Xbox that really moved things forward with Xbox Live. Microsoft made the same big bet on network play that Sega had in 1998, but by late 2002, when Xbox Live launched, both the technology and the audience were ready. Two features gave it a leg up over both Dreamcast and PlayStation 2: firstly, the expensive-but-necessary hard drive inside every Xbox console, which allowed storage of downloaded data; and secondly the built-in ethernet port. Xbox Live only supported a broadband connection, which was not yet all that widely adopted, but enabled things like voice chat and matchmaking – both essential components of online gaming as we know it now. A unified online ID, the Gamertag, also meant that you didn’t have to fiddle around with different logins and friends lists for every separate game that you wanted to play. No other console of the time could compete with that. Xbox Live had 2 million users by 2005. It’s got around 50 million now.

But the Xbox was never a big deal in Japan, and that may be why Japanese players and developers haven't embraced connected gaming to the extent we have in the West. While Xbox and PlayStation were fighting on the online battlefield, Nintendo went completely the other way, focusing on family-friendly living-room play with the Wii and the DS (and, later, the Wii U). 15 years ago, the Xbox made online play a mission, a fundamental part of its strategy. The Gamecube dipped a toe into the waters before quickly retreating. The ramifications of those two approaches stretched far beyond Nintendo and Microsoft’s balance sheets and profoundly impacted the way that we play games today.

These were the last games machines where you could just slide in a disc and play, without groaning at the inevitable 6GB system update or huge day-one game patch delaying your enjoyment.

Online play also brought with it huge changes in how games are made and sold. Patching and updates now allow developers to make enormous changes to games long after they would previously have been committed forever to a disc (Nowadays, my beloved overpowered Halo pistol would have been balanced out within a week.) The Xbox and Dreamcast were also the first consoles to offer downloadable add-ons that extended a game in some way. DLC, whether in the form of weapon packs or whole extra story chapters, is now a vital part of most video games’ business model, reflecting a troubling truth for developers: though games have gotten vastly more expensive to make over the past 15 years, the amount that we pay for them has not increased.

For all the advantages of connected gaming, I sometimes miss the simplicity of this generation of consoles. These were the last games machines where you could just slide in a disc and play, without groaning at the inevitable 6GB system update or huge day-one game patch delaying your enjoyment. When you bought a Gamecube or a PlayStation 2 disc, you never had to fret about missing out on the DLC. And for all their impracticality – the tired arms from lugging equipment around, the tangles of cables, the organizational nightmare that was congregating teenagers in one place for an evening – I miss those Halo parties, the mess and humanity of them. It was mildly heartbreaking to sit down with my partner in front of Halo 5, only to find out that it has no split-screen multiplayer at all. Great though it is to be able to shoot aliens in Destiny with a friend on another continent, playing with your friends in the same room is a pleasure that the connected generation is missing out on.

That said, a recent resurgence of colourful, riotous indie multiplayer games like Overcooked, Nidhogg and Towerfall: Ascension, however, shows that video game creatives have not forgotten the irreproducible joy of living-room play. Nintendo, meanwhile, ever mindful of the power of games to either connect or isolate us, has finally embraced the best of what connected gaming has enabled, but remains stubbornly committed to the idea of playing Mario Kart with other real people. More recently, thanks to livestreaming, people are sharing their gaming experiences without needing to share controllers, which brings a whole new dimension to the concept of playing together.

Much else has changed since the week 15 years ago when the Gamecube and the Xbox made their debuts. Many of the traditional spaces where people came together to play games have steadily dwindled: the arcade, the LAN party, and perhaps soon, the specialist video game shop. The connected gaming that this generation of consoles pioneered, however, has allowed us to create new spaces online – and alongside all the additional opportunities for connection that online gaming has enabled, we’ll still always have the living room.