A veritable avalanche of new information arrived today concerning Microsoft's next-generation Xbox 360 console, all courtesy of European games site Eurogamer, who interviewed Chris Satchell, the general manager of Microsoft's Game Developer Group. In said interview, Satchell spilled the beans on a large number of aspects of the 360, from peripherals to Xbox Live to the multimedia functions boasted by the console.
For starters, he was keen to stress that transferring Xbox Live accounts from your Xbox to your Xbox 360 would be dead easy. Infact, it's one of the first things you'll be asked to do once you've plugged your lovely new console in for the first time, so only the densest of individuals should struggle with getting this right. And considering how installing Xbox Live initially was a bit of a doddle compared to the nightmare it could have been, we'd be surprised if Microsoft made things any more difficult here.
Pleasingly, existing holders of an Xbox Live account will automatically get 'Gold' membership, meaning they can make use of every feature and trinket offered by Live, from online play to chatrooms to scoreboards. If you purchase the higher-end Xbox 360 'Premium System' (£279.99 to you sir, Australian price TBA), then you'll get a free 30 days of Gold membership. Opt instead for the cheaper 'Core System' package (£209.99), and you'll be unable to hook up to Xbox Live without purchasing a subscription.
Everybody on Live is to have a 'reputation' statistic, which works a bit like your rating on eBay, allowing other players to leave positive or negative feedback. Satchell wouldn't reveal whether or not you'd be able to see your own reputation rating, but anything that encourages decent online etiquette is fine by us. The Live network will also be divided into 'Zones', with different play areas for families (read: easy kills on Halo 3), casual gamers, pro gamers and another Zone that's enigmatically entitled 'underground' (which Hillary Clinton may wish to steer clear of, as we think there might be grown-up words being said in there).
Satchell also talked at length about the peripherals that would be made available to 360 owners. As we've already known for some time, Xbox 1 controllers won't be compatible with the 360 hardware, but Satchell also revealed to Eurogamer that we won't able to use our Xbox video cables either for the 360, whilst RGB video output will only be attainable if you fork out an extra £17.99 (about $43AU) for the appropriate cable, which is sold separately.
The Media Remote will come as standard with the £279.99 Premium Pack (though only for a limited time), whilst the camera is a separate peripheral entirely that's due for release 'at some point in 2006', and that'll connect to one of the USB 2.0 slots that the console has. Connecting a keyboard is also possible, but is intended for text input only. That should come in mighty handy on massively-multiplayer games - our poor thumbs will never forget playing Dreamcast Phantasy Star Online and having to type in messages via the controller. Finally on the peripheral side of things, the wireless networking adapter (date of release to be confirmed, though we fancy before Christmas) will also use one of the USB 2.0 ports, and is apparently the size of 'a pack of cigarettes,' in Satchell's words.
Messr Satchell also discussed the system itself, revealing some details on the 360 interface that were certainly new to us. We now know, for instance, that the 'ring of light' that encircles the power button actually tells us which wireless controller is being used. Thus, if player one is active, then the top-left quadrant of the circle will illuminate, the top-right will light up whenever player two is active, and so forth. The really nifty part is that lying the console on its side changes this, with the console automatically recognising its new position and using the top-left and top-right (etc.) quadrants as you see it with the machine laid flat. Clever stuff (if ultimately pointless, we guess).
Satchell also confessed what we'd long suspected; that you'll need a hard disk if you want to play Xbox 1 titles. And whilst on the subject of the hard disk, pulling it off the 360 unit while it's busy doing something won't harm the hard disk or your 360 whatsoever, though it may earn your toddler nephew/meddling friend a slap. Apparently, the hard disk is to utilise a 'transaction model', so that if you do interrupt a transfer, then the data simply isn't present, and the space is reallocated when you next save data to it. Clearly, this is all aimed at making the system as family-friendly as possible.
There's also going to be a feature known as 'Gamerscore'. Broadly speaking, this is a number that supposedly estimates your gaming ability through what you've achieved in offline games, and gives you points for those achievements (note: Xbox 1 games won't contribute to this). You're left with a single number, or your 'Gamerscore', and this will presumably be one method of finding players of a similar skill level when you're playing on Live.
Meanwhile, the Xbox 360 user interface is to be divided into three pages, each of which are to be known as 'blades'. There's the Live blade (the default if you have a Live account), which displays your Gamerscore, gamertag, the number of games you've played, your reputation, achievements and (if you so wish) an image of your gurning features. The Game blade allows the management of game saves and access to demos and trailers, while the System blade basically deals with your individual settings; think analogue stick setting, time and date, and other such frivolities.
The System blade also contains the parental control settings we reported on some time ago. It all means that Ma and Pa can monitor exactly what little Jonny and Jenny are exposed to, with an option available to cut off access to certain games and DVDs (apparently '99 per cent' of DVDs now supply ratings information directly to the console). Areas of Live can also be put off-limits, while selected friends, video messaging, voice messaging and access to downloadables can also be controlled.
Away from the rather Orwellian user interface, there's also the Guide, which is (again in the words of Satchell) 'a bit like the Start Menu' that can be found on later versions of Windows. The Guide lets you look for/sort friends, or simply muck about with playback and options. It's also a fairly strong indication of how Microsoft is keen to implement a number of PC-esque features into the 360, and it was also revealed that cross-platform development between Xbox and Windows is currently being 'actively pursued'. Eventually, it's hoped that people will be able to play games against each other using either platform.
The media capabilities of the platform were also discussed, with Satchell revealing that DVDs will play on the 360, even if you don't own the remote control (and quite rightly, unlike the original Xbox). They'll also play in progressive-scan, with the 360 'up-sampling' DVDs that don't support progressive-scan. Apparently we'll also be able to plug in a PC or laptop and play content straight from that.
Ripping music to the hard drive is also possible (but only if you possess the original recording remember, kids!), and album information is to be stored on the hard disk, with much of it there by default. iPods and PlayStation Portables are also recognised by the system when plugged in, and with an iPod plugged in music can be played directly through the Dashboard software. Connecting a PSP will also allow you to play music, or view a slideshow of photographs.
And well, that's it for now. Hopefully you'll have learnt a few new things about Microsoft's platform from that wealth of information - it's certainly cleared a few things up for us. Now if you'll excuse us, we're off to soak our poor, aching fingers in hot water for several hours.