It's a brutally cold day in Stalingrad and in the past 15 minutes I've been killed a dozen times — shot down in my tracks, blown to...

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It’s a brutally cold day in Stalingrad and in the past 15 minutes I’ve been killed a dozen times — shot down in my tracks, blown to bits with grenades and picked off by snipers.

I’m playing with six people from around the world, and though we could talk to each other no one says anything. The violence is too intense and fast-paced for socializing.

I’m on Xbox Live, playing the World War II shooting game “Call of Duty 2.” The aim of this level is simple: Kill everyone you see. The level ends when 15 minutes have passed or if someone gets 25 kills. The game is heartless, savage and bleak, but my bloodlust demands I continue. The experience is thrilling.

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Microsoft launched Xbox Live in 2002, and since then has been a favorite of the hardcore-gaming crowd, the players (mostly male) that just wanted to whup the virtual tar off of each other in shooting, driving and sports games.

That’s more of a niche audience than Microsoft was hoping for, and so with the Nov. 22 release of the Xbox 360 video game console it remodeled Xbox Live to make the service more friendly to nongamers. The service is at some level another example of Microsoft’s focus on delivering services over the Web, a business Chairman Bill Gates has directed the company to pursue full bore.

So far, the audience doesn’t seem to have changed much. On the Xbox Live games I’ve tried, the players are overwhelmingly male and have no problem filling the chatwaves with locker-room talk before checking to see if the locker room is co-ed.

Once in a while I would pipe in to the conversation, with generally the same result.


Then, a bewildered voice: “Was that a CHICK??”

More silence.

I often feel like I’ve invaded the treehouse on Xbox Live. But if Microsoft can successfully broaden the mix of games and features on its service, the gender ratio will likely change as well. Microsoft executives are hoping that 50 percent of all Xbox 360 users will participate in Xbox Live.

To truly get the Xbox Live experience, you need a broadband connection and a $20 headset that plugs directly into the video game controller. You also need to buy a gold-level membership, which costs $50 a year. A silver-level membership is free, but you don’t get to play others online.

Lots to spend money on

This is a good time to review the Xbox 360 pricing. A basic system costs $300, but a premium bundle with a 20-gigabyte hard drive, a headset and other extras costs $400. Finding either system in stores before Christmas is proving to be difficult, unless you live in Japan, where retailers are apparently trying to sell them as scrap metal. OK, not really.

There’s more to spend money on. Microsoft has beefed up its Xbox Live Arcade, which sells the casual, downloadable games that have proved a hit with women and nontraditional gamers on the personal computer. The arcade has only about 14 games, including Tetrislike puzzlers, card games and even backgammon, but Microsoft is aiming to have 35 there by the summer.

It’s free to try one of the Arcade games, but to keep playing it you need to buy it at the Xbox Live Marketplace — Microsoft’s new experiment with online microtransactions.

It works like this: You purchase Items in the Xbox Live Marketplace using a point system. You can buy points online, or in stores by purchasing a $20 card with 1,600 points on it.

Most of the games on the Xbox Live marketplace cost either 400 or 800 points. You can also buy themes that personalize Xbox Live or pictures for your online “gamer card,” a profile that shows up on the main page.

Building a community

To really build a community of Xbox Live players, Microsoft had to ensure that there were lots of ways people could talk to each other on the service. That is partly accomplished. Players can send e-mail and voice messages or invites to games. An unobtrusive message pops up on the screen to notify the recipient.

Microsoft is working on video chat for Xbox Live, and has debuted this feature on the original Xbox in Japan. For now, players can hold one-on-one audio chats, even when they aren’t in a game. It’s almost enough to make me wonder if anybody will pay for long-distance calls in the future, except for the poor quality of the audio.

There’s quite a bit of static on Xbox Live. On the games where players generally seem to be more chatty, such as “Project Gotham Racing 3,” some people came across clearly while others’ voices were lost in a scree… kshhh of fuzziness. The quality is better with one-on-one chats, but there were still times when delays would make the conversation stilted.

The static comes from the strength of a player’s broadband connection, according to Microsoft. When I played “Project Gotham Racing 3” with people at Microsoft, who presumably have about as good of a broadband link as it gets, the voice quality was fine.

But there’s a far worse problem than static on Xbox Live. Playing “Call of Duty 2” can be infuriating when the game’s servers get overloaded. The game becomes choppy or freezes completely, making it impossible to play.

This seems to be a fairly widespread problem, to the point where players are circulating online petitions asking publisher Activision to take action. I talked with Ken Murphy, the producer of Activision’s “Call of Duty 2,” about the problem Friday, and he said that if one Xbox Live player has a bad connection — slower than 256 kilobits per second or so — then the game could lag for everyone else. I suspect the problems will disappear as “Call of Duty 2” loses its novelty and people move to newer games on Xbox Live.

So far, Xbox Live isn’t to the point where I think it will be a draw for half of all Xbox 360 owners. There isn’t enough diversity of content to appeal to a broad audience, and the audio quality isn’t consistent enough to make it a useful communications tool.

But Microsoft’s vision for Xbox Live is becoming more clear. It is a gaming service, no doubt, but on its way to becoming a communications platform. It’s not there yet, though.

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360