By Mike Musgrove
Thursday, February 16, 2006
A recent King Kong video game available for the Xbox 360 doesn't seem to be well loved among some owners of the new console -- yet many of the game's critics are admitting in online discussion groups that they rented and played it even though they knew in advance that they might not like it.
Well, it turns out that the game, published by Ubisoft Entertainment SA and based off the recent Peter Jackson flick, has a reputation for coughing up an easy 1,000 points that Xbox 360 owners can add to their "gamerscore," a number publicly attached to their online identities as a measure of their gaming "skillz" and dedication.
Taking the new Xbox onto the Internet has been more fun, in some cases, than the games themselves. And the perceived importance of gamerscore bragging rights among Xbox 360 owners online is just one example of the clever hooks Microsoft Corp. has thrown in to keep players' hands wrapped around the new system's controllers.
Players' gamerscores ratchet ever upward as they unlock various "achievements" tucked away in the games in their collection. Each game that you can rent or purchase off the shelf at retail stores has about 1,000 points to dispense; downloadable arcade games for the Xbox 360, like the classic game Joust, have 200 points.
Having finished up playing the slick World War II game Call of Duty 2 on "normal" difficulty, for example, I unlocked 150 points for my Xbox 360 gamerscore. To get most of the remaining points, I'll have to go back and play it again on the more difficult "veteran" setting.
Once upon a time, I would have put this game on the shelf and forgotten about it at this point, but now it bugs me knowing that I haven't milked more out of the game. My gamerscore is at a grand total of 345, whereas many of the random strangers I've played online -- in games like Quake 4 or the latest Tony Hawk-branded skateboarding title -- have four digits to their name. It's pathetic. It also has me tempted to give King Kong a second chance.
And it gets worse. If you're away from the console, but at an Internet-connected computer, you can log on to Xbox.com and see how all your Xbox-360-owning friends are doing. You can see which of your Xbox-360-owning friends are playing right now and, yes, check out how far along they've gotten in the games in their collection.
In individual games, you can see both how well or poorly you're doing against your friends as well as against all the other Xbox 360 players on planet Earth. In the new fighting game Dead or Alive 4, I'm ranked No. 103,685 out of 142,915 online players. I don't even like the game that much -- but somehow it's fascinating to know that there are almost 40,000 people in the world who are worse at it than I am. And hey, there's a long weekend coming up -- I might even break into the top 100,000.
With the original Xbox, only one owner in 10 bothered to hook the thing up to the Internet. With the Xbox 360, over half of the owners have gone online -- and even those who aren't connected now can still rack up points and plug in later to show off their skillz. It doesn't hurt that Microsoft made some online features free with the console; full, paid subscriptions cost about $8 per month, or less if you buy several months at a time.
Game console makers have been yakking for most of this century about making a device that will serve as a home's Web-connected entertainment center, and Xbox 360 appears to have found some traction on that front. So far, Xbox 360 owners have downloaded 7 million pieces of games, music and movie content from the Xbox Live marketplace, according to Microsoft.
Most of those downloads were free, but about one-fifth of online players have made a purchase. Where owners of the original Xbox had to have a credit card to buy stuff online, you don't for the Xbox 360. You can buy, for example, 1,600 points for $25 on a card available at Best Buy. (Don't be confused: These are buying-stuff points, not gamerscore points.)
Plug in the code on the back of the card and suddenly you have some currency to spend online at Microsoft's Xbox Love Marketplace. A typical downloadable arcade game, such as a new hit called Geometry Wars, costs 400 points.
You kind of have to admire Microsoft, though I'm a little wary of the monkey it is trying to put on my back. Features like the gamerscore and credit-card-free purchasing probably cost little to develop and implement, compared with the total expenses of developing a new game system -- yet it's already clear that they might turn out to be diabolically effective ways of getting players locked in during the running start the company has on Sony's next console, due out later this year.
In the previous installment of the game console wars, gamers who were fans enough to own both a PlayStation 2 and an Xbox would frequently reach for the Xbox version of a game, because the graphics were regarded as slicker on Microsoft's machine. This time around, players might reach for the Xbox 360 version -- just to add points to their gamerscore.
That is, gamers might do that if they actually ever get their hands on the new console. Even after the console's well-documented holiday shortages, the new Xbox is still hard to find -- BestBuy.com, for example, was reporting yesterday that it doesn't have any in stock.
Nintendo DS: Japanese fans of the Nintendo DS will soon be able to wirelessly surf the Web with the device, thanks to a new browser available for the portable game player designed by Opera Software ASA, a company that also makes browsers for desktop computers and mobile phones
Okay, so this isn't the first mobile game device to make this possible: The Sony PlayStation Portable comes with a built-in browser these days, though getting addresses via the gadget's buttons is a bear. The Nintendo DS, however, has a touch-screen that might make the process of surfing the Web a little easier. Nintendo would not say yesterday if or when the browser program might become available for players in the United States.