Reading Between The Xbox Livelines

UPDATE: Since I wrote this entry last week, it was announced that the new Halo 2 multiplayer maps will make some XBL playlists 360-only, since the maps are only being released for the 360. In defense, we've been told that most Halo 2 players are using 360s. However, Microsoft does not release breakdowns between the two consoles. Microsoft, I find it hard to believe that so many gamers have drifted away from XBL that there are more Halo 2 players using 360s on XBL than there are on the original console, given that there are three times as many original Xboxes. Players I know that have both prefer to use the original to play online because of the lag caused by emulation.

Is it really necessary to use Halo 2 maps to try and pressure more gamers onto the new platform? Is Halo 3 really so far away that you can't wait for that to draw gamers to the 360? Is two years really too long to support an online game?

If you want us to believe that original console owners really don't count, show us the numbers!

GhaleonB, via Louis Wu at HBO, points out that Microsoft has put out a nice press release (even attributed and with a dateline, thanks guys) touting the six million user milestone reached by Xbox Live.

Now, don't get me wrong. I love Xbox Live. While not an ardent online gamer, the service as a whole is well put togther and thought out: the integrated friends list and messaging, content downloads, gamerscore achievements; the works. The idea of separate friends lists for each game (Sony) and cryptic friend codes (Nintendo) really make me wonder what anybody else is thinking as far as online console gaming goes.

However, just because I've been a subscriber since Halo 2 launched doesn't mean I'm ready to drink whatever kool aid Microsoft is going to serve up regarding the service; and this press release is at least as interesting for what it doesn't say as for what it does say and the way it says it.

Microsoft is proud to announce today that more than 6 million gamers worldwide are connected to Xbox LIVE, a milestone that was reached 4 months ahead of schedule.

Six million is nothing to sneeze at; that's a number that's in World of Warcraft country, although there are some caveats, as I'll get to in a moment.

More than 10 million Xbox 360s have hit store shelves since launch in November 2005.

The release doesn't quote a figure for the original Xbox, but the last figure I remember seeing was around 24 million; not surprising given that the original console is now nearly six and a half years old, while the 360 is less than 18 months.

Some elementary arithmetic may avail us here. As a percentage of Xbox 360 owners, 6 million XBL members out of 10 million consoles looks pretty good, a nice round, convenient 60%. Problem is, not all those XBL members are using 360s, since Microsoft calls the same services "Xbox Live" regardless of what console the user accesses it with. In truth, the two services bear little resemblance to one another. For the original Xbox, you get a friends list, messaging, and gameplay on a per-game basis, a far cry from the content-coming-out-its-ears proposition that is Live on the 360, not to mention Achievements, demos, and Xbox Live Arcade integrated into the box. It existed on the original console, but as a regular on-disc title.

Since Microsoft doesn't break down their Xbox Live membership figures by consoles, and doesn't release figures for what the overlap between Xbox and Xbox 360 ownership figures are, the best we can do is simply add the two figures together and simply assume that the actual number of console owners this represents is somewhat lower. That gives us 34 million, and an Xbox Live membership percentage of 17.6%.

Ouch! That's a far cry from 60%. No wonder Microsoft never quotes the ratio of console owners to XBL members, or the number of original Xboxes connected to Live.

Speaking of "members" what does that mean, you might well ask. Isn't Live a subscription service? Aren't we talking about subscribers?

Not so fast. On the original console, this was the case. If you wanted to use Xbox Live for anything, you had to pay. Without paying, there was no reason to even connect your console to the network. The only way to get a sample of the service was a free trial.

Contrast that to the way things work in Xbox 360land. Every Xbox 360 is a potential "Silver" member of Xbox Live. You get some of the features, but not all of them-- in particular, you don't get online gameplay. You can make a friends list, you can message people, you can download demos and videos, but you can't play online. From time to time, access to Gold services is given free to all Silver members in various regions, to serve the function of the old trial packages, and give users a taste of why they might want to subscribe at the Gold level.

Microsoft doesn't ever say how many of those 6 million XBL members are gold, and how many are silver. Back in the Xbox 1 days, all members were paid subscribers. With the subscription fee and member figures all known quantities, you could figure out a lot about the service: you knew how much revenue they were making. Not so after the advent of the 360.

Perhaps Microsoft doesn't want the service to be that transparent, financially. Or maybe the percentage of Gold members is low enough that they do not want to reveal it.

Various other figures are mentioned, including messages, hours played, achievements unlocked, and aggreggate gamerscore points. Without information on the average usage rates of these features for XBL members, there's not much to be gleaned from them.

The world-wide, all-time unique players list, however, does suggest some interesting things:

  1. Halo 2
  2. Gears of War
  3. Hexic HD
  4. Call of Duty 2
  5. Ghost Recon 3
  6. Call Of Duty 3
  7. Oblivion
  8. PGR3
  9. Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six® Vegas
  10. Perfect Dark Zero

Unlike the lists that Major Nelson puts out every week, this list is cumulative. Each individual Xbox Live member who ever played at least one game of the above titles counts towards each game's total.

From the bottom up:

Perfect Dark Zero is still in the top ten, but barely. It's been out longer than Gears, but not as long as Halo 2. It was the closest thing to Halo 2 you could get at the 360's launch, but now it's less popular than games with no online component at all. It's got to be hard for Microsof to swallow the idea that a game that, at least in terms of online, is charitably called a failure is still in the top ten.

Rainbox Six Vegas hasn't been out that long, as so probably hasn't settled into its place just yet. It's one of several tactical shooters on the list (depending on how you define it) as opposed to the more action-oriented titles like Halo 2, Gears, and PDZ. None of these shooters does better than fourth on the list, but this may just be because the audience for these games is spoiled for options. Then again, it may be the same guys playing them all over and over, but that there simply aren't enough of them to put any one title in the top three.

PGR3 is the only racing game in a top ten dominated by shooters. Given that the racers don't sell as poorly against the shooters as they place on this leaderboard, indications are that racing game aficionados are just less interested in getting online than fans of shooters.

Oblivion gets on the list, which requires me to make mention of the fact that this is technically a list of "Live Enabled" titles, and not a list of multiplayer titles. If you've set your console to login to Xbox Live at startup, or if you login to check your friends list or send messages and then start up Oblivion before logging out, then Xbox Live knows you're playing Oblivion and you count towards its player total. What does this mean? Not that much. Given that even the most optimistic figures reveal that most console owners don't play online, it's hardly surprising to find that even those who do spend time playing games without multiplayer components as well.

Call of Duty 2, Ghost Recon 3, and Call of Duty 3 make up the rest of the potentially "tactical" shooters in a shooter-heavy list. That COD2 tops that group is not surprising, as it was a launch title. In fact, I've had a copy of it on my shelf, a Christmas gift in 2005 for a console that never came until last week. It's a testament to COD3 that it's nearly caught up to its older brother already.

Hexic HD clocks in at third, and I'd make a lot of this if it weren't for the fact that this game comes in every Xbox 360. Like Gears, and, in fact, most games on the list, it can only be played on a 360, giving further evidence for the idea that Xbox 360 owners are a disproportionate percentage of Xbox Live members. If that's the case, though, why doesn't Microsoft release more detailed figures? What it does say is that there are enough casual gamers, or hardcore gamers that enjoy the occasional casual game, to put a falling-blocks title in the top 3.

Gears of War has taken only four months to shoot to the #2 spot on the all-time unique player list of a service that has been online for nearly seven years. To call this impressive is to damn it with faint praise. What isn't damning is to say that Gears still has one hurdle left to clear, if it can.

Halo 2 still sits atop the list, for now. Shortly after launch, Gears took the weekly crown away from the king, and if things go as they are, Gears will eventually pass Halo 2 on the all-time list as well. The only question is, will it get the chance to do so, or will Halo 3 intervene?

So while Gears of War, shortly after it was launched, surpassed Halo 2 in the number of unique players on the service each week, the sum total of all unique players for Halo 2 from November 2004 to now is still higher than the sum total of all Gears players since it launched in November 2006. Given how much longer Halo 2 has been on the service, this is not surprising.

If each game had the same number of players playing each week, then there would be no difference between the weekly totals and the all-time totals; each unique player would count once and only once. That this is not the case suggests several possibilities, at least one of which might be true:

The number of Halo 2 players on the service reached a peak sometime in the past and has declined since that time. One might as well label this obvious, as most people would assume this to be the case. New games come out, players lose interest and move on to other things. This might have been happening steadily since shortly after the game was released, but never revealed until Gears was released.

That it took a second-generation title on a new console to unseat Halo 2 from its lofty throne atop Xbox Live, and that Gears was able to do so, despite being a game that required a new console with a smaller installed base than the original Xbox, may indicate that the percentage of Xbox Live members who play online using Xbox 360s is higher than that for the original console. This could be true even if the 360 players are numerically in the minority.

This may also indicate that the number of Halo 2 players dropped precipitously not with the release of the 360, but with the release of Gears. After all, anybody with either (or both) consoles can play Halo 2, and there are over 30 million of those people. Only 360 owners can play Gears, and there are only 30% as many of those people. Either 360 owners play online a higher percentage of the time than Xbox owners, or 360 owners who used to play Halo 2 defected directly to Gears in numbers large enough to overcome the gap between the two consoles' installed bases.

Assuming that the Xbox and Xbox 360 sales trends are roughly equivalent; assuming that the percentage of consoles connected to the service between the two consoles is constant; in short, assuming all other things are equal, and that the Gears playerbase continues to grow and the Halo 2 player base does not, one would expect Gears to equal or surpass the worldwide all-time unique player total of Halo 2 by November of 2008 if not earlier. Two years is how long Halo 2 had to build up its lead before Gears was launched. If Halo 2 remains strong, it may take longer. If Gears, or the Xbox 360, perform better than their predecessors, it may happen earlier.

Gears of War may, or may not, ever surpass Halo 2 on the all-time list. While Gears and the Xbox 360 continues to sell it will close the gap. However, until the installed base of the 360 and the Xbox are equalized-- or, at least, the installed base of the 360 reaches the same size as the installed base of the Xbox was at when the unique player pool for Halo 2 stopped growing-- then Gears would have to be a proportionally more popular game than Halo 2 to ever catch up. This is assuming that no new unique players are added to Halo 2's totals, which even at this late date is not certain. While Xboxes remain on the shelves at good prices, there will be new Halo 2 players. Assuming Microsoft counts unique players by gamertags, anyone who lets a membership lapse and then rejoins may be counted twice; so even if the Gears total is growing faster, the Halo 2 total is not staying still, eating into the rate at whch Gears gains.

Lastly, there is the Halo 3 factor. Halo 2 had a two year span within which no game challenged for supremacy on Xbox Live. Gears won't have that luxury. By the end of this year, Halo 3 will be out; and by the time Gears would have had the two years it presumably needs to equal Halo 2's unique player total, Halo 3 will likely have been out for an entire year or more. Halo 3's launch will almost certainly mean a drop in the player bases for both Gears and Halo 2. If it is popular enough, it may take enough players away from Gears to stop it from ever overtaking Halo 2 on the all-time list. Unless something goes spectacularly wrong with it, I'd expect Halo 3 to take over the top weekly spot from Gears upon launch, and perhaps have a shot at overtaking Gears on the all-time list after a year or so, given that Gears will only have been out for one year at that point. If the installed base for the Xbox 360 is high enough at that point, it may even have a chance to unseat Halo 2 eventually.



do you have any idea when the'll be reallising these new maps and I agree with you it's kind of stupid to presure peaple into bying a 360 they almost did the same thing with the wii and twilight princess


How old are you?

Learn to spell.

"Only 360 owners can play Gears, and there are only 30% as many of those people." Well, approximately 33.3% (1/3).

(just an excuse to comment...)