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Microsoft talks up Xbox online service

The online gaming service will include voice chat in every game, while Sony's online approach for its PlayStation 2 console will initially offer voice capability in only one game.

It's all about trash talk.

The Xbox Live service, set to debut online Nov. 15, will include voice chat in every game, said John O'Rourke, worldwide marketing director for Microsoft's Xbox video game console, as he promoted the upcoming online service for the console Wednesday. That contrasts with Sony's online approach for its PlayStation 2 console, which initially will offer voice capability in only one game.

Microsoft's experience with online gaming via its The Zone site and other properties convinced the company that communication was a vital part of the online gaming experience, O'Rourke said in an interview with CNET after his speech at Microsoft's Silicon Valley campus.

"We saw in our experience with The Zone and just from talking to gamers that the social aspect of communication is hugely important," he said. "On the PC, you've got this great communication outlet with the keyboard, but that doesn't work on consoles. Voice is the only thing that makes sense."

Voice capability also is part of the reasoning behind the broadband-only approach for Xbox Live. The service will work only with an existing cable modem or DSL connection.

"It's technically feasible to make voice work over a dial-up connection, but you have to make so many compromises," O'Rourke said. "The trade-off we made was between offering a mediocre service available to everyone, or do we do something great that will be available now to a smaller audience but will really motivate people who don't have broadband to think about getting it."

O'Rourke defended the closed network approach of Xbox Live, in which Microsoft maintains control over the network, even bandwidth used to run titles from third-party publishers. Many publishers haven't invested in network resources and appreciate having Microsoft do the heavy lifting, he said. The unified approach will also benefit customers, as they will need only a single user name and password to access any online game.

"We sort of think of their approach as 90 percent do-it-yourself and 10 percent good luck," he said of Sony's online plan, which leaves infrastructure up to individual game publishers.

O'Rourke acknowledged that the Xbox Live approach isn't an immediate win with every game publisher, most notably leading game maker Electronic Arts, which has already built a huge network infrastructure for online PC gaming.

"Because of their business model, the discussions with them are a little more complicated," he said.

O'Rourke also rejected reports that Microsoft plans to use the Xbox as a general conduit for digital entertainment and content in the living room, saying the focus remains solely on games.

"We're redefining how people think about video games," he said. "We didn't design (the Xbox) so you can do your taxes in the living room."