For two full years after the original Xbox launched, thousands if not millions of people claimed the console was little more than a Halo adapter for their television. When Microsoft launched Xbox Live, the early adopters realized something radical was afoot, as online gaming hadn’t before been as intuitive on a console. Yes, there was a fee, but Xbox Live kick-started a feature we now all take for granted: online cooperative and competitive multiplayer gaming on a console.
Say what you will about the subscription fees and what they bring, but online gaming is here to stay. Yet the definition of “online gaming” changes by the minute. From those early days of Xbox Live, the concept has gone from those nighttime basement affairs online with friends across the country to a 24/7 worldwide scene filled with cash-prize competitions and career gamers.
Elements like an eSports league were nary a twinkle in gamers’ eyes when Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network launched. Nor was the idea that Microsoft and Sony would actually give away multiple games each month to their XBL and PSN subscribers. The concept of Twitch.tv, by which people can voyeuristically watch other people play online games to learn their tricks? Nobody had even fathomed that sort of application.
Yet the word “application” has multiple meanings for online gaming now, which makes it the most appropriate word to use in this situation. The world of online gaming has expanded beyond regional approaches like Casino websites or national events like QuakeCon to an individual level of ubiquity nobody could have predicted. Casino websites have given way to smartphone- and tablet-based gambling apps. Poker, blackjack and roulette have evolved from cheap little pieces of hardware with no consequence to apps and sites dedicated to those games that offer real-world prizes.
Even the very notion of online multiplayer has changed, with simultaneous player counts ever rising and gamers opening Party Chats to maintain VOIP conversations with friends while they play a game online with strangers. The idea of downloadable content (DLC) is also in its technical toddler-hood, with microtransactions both becoming the norm and becoming more and more robust. The concept of downloading a full multi-gigabyte game, once a total fairy tale, is now a fully realized option with most major game releases. And in just one year, the idea of pre-loading has gone from novelty to a virtual expectation.
So what’s next? According to some analysts, a full cloud-based gaming solution. Sony has already taken steps in that direction, having turned its Gaikai acquisition into subscription-based PlayStation Now. Microsoft is rumored to be dabbling in streamed games, though it doesn’t appear to have made nearly the progress Sony has. Could this be the final generation of dedicated console hardware? Could the fanboy battles about hardware specifications finally end, with on-site bandwidth holding a trump card over processing power? Absolutely. We are approaching a day when the term “online gaming” morphs to just “gaming.” In fact, its first days are already upon us. And you need look no further than the smartphone in your pocket to realize it.