Anthony J. Pennings, PhD


Xbox One – Extending Virtual Reality and Multi-Player Games

Posted on | August 2, 2016 | No Comments

Today we got the first look at the new Xbox game console, the Xbox One S. It’s been three years since the original Xbox One was introduced xbox-one-sin a broadcast live on Spike TV from the Microsoft campus in Bellevue, Washington when representatives from Microsoft’s Xbox team and strategic partners such as Activision and EA demonstrated and hyped the new system. The new Xbox One S is smaller and lighter with more processing power and 2TB of internal storage. More relevant for this discussion is the backward compatibility (including Xbox 360 classics) and the continuing trend towards immersion and augmented/virtual environments.

It’s clear that Microsoft doubled down on the living Microsoft-xbox oneroom and large screen 1080p HDTV. Despite the recent popularity of mobile games, the Xbox One series was designed to return us to an immersive gaming experience within the home environment that integrates games with movies, music, live TV, Skype, and web browsing.

It’s too early to evaluate the Xbox One S, but I wanted to review one related technological trajectory, virtual reality (VR) and its relationship to the gaming experience and related industries. The new Xbox One Architecture combined the Xbox OS with Windows and a new connective tissue that works with Kinect to respond to voice, gestures, and body movements. With games such as Call of Duty: Ghosts designed for it, Microsoft promised a whole new level of immersive gameplay.

For a variety of reasons, Kinect was cancelled by Microsoft in late 2017.

Virtual reality began as an idealistic notion of the early 1990s, popularized through avant-garde magazines such as MONDO 2000, non-fiction best-sellers like Howard Rheingold’s (1991) Virtual Reality, sci-fi novels like Neal Stephenson’s (1992) Snow Crash and cyberfiction movies like The Lawnmower Man (1992). Star Trek: Next Generation provided the most dramatic example of what virtual reality could be like with its Holodeck. But VR’s future, at least its immediate future, was in the gaming industry.

Drawing on flight simulation technology and research, VR captured the imagination of pre-Web techno-enthusiasts deliberating the future of what William Gibson’s termed “cyberspace”. Conceptualized with electronic accessories such as high definition LCD goggles, surround sound, fiber-optic laced gloves and pressure sensitive body suits, VR was designed to simulate the world in a computerized artificial reality. It was conceived as a system that would suspend the viewer’s belief that the environment is produced and immerse them in a highly responsive, multi-sensory apparatus. The Renaissance invention of perspectival art, with its vanishing point creating a first-person view, proved to be one of the most important drivers of VR as it focuses attention and reinforces the ego.

While most of the technology and associated software was developed for various simulation devices, it was the digital game industry that fully capitalized on this innovation. Castronova pointed to three reasons for this new path.

  1. One was that the digital game environment focused for the most part on software, not hardware. From Magnavox’s Odyssey in 1972 to Microsoft’s Xbox 360 in 2005, the game console proved to be a crucial platform for video game play, but it was the “killer app” software applications like Pong and Pac-man that propelled the industry’s success. VR development, on the other hand, was dominated by gadgetry such as the goggled helmet, the force-feedback glove and the sensor-laden body suit. The console was a major contributor to the video game explosion, but it was a series of good games that propelled the development of virtual game environments.
  2. The second reason VR was less successful than game virtual environments was that the virtual reality industry was pushed more by research concerns than by commercial concerns. The game industry on the other hand had no compunctions about its profit-making origins and goals.
  3. The third reason “the game version of VR” proved more successful was that it focused “on communities, not hardware.” From shoot-em-up Quake II free-for-alls on networked PCs to the programmed pandemonium of Atari Test Drive on Xbox Live, the social experience has been central to the success of the game experience.[1]

It was a young company named id Software that pioneered many of the virtual environment features that characterize the contemporary game environment. The small Texas-based company used the ego-centric perspective to create the first person shooter (FPS) game, Wolfenstein, in May of 1991. Id followed with the extraordinarily successful DOOM in December 1994. The game extended an image of a weapon into the vanishing point to orient the player’s perspective as they hunted a variety of monsters through a research facility on an alien planet. DOOM combined a shareware business model with the nascent distribution capabilities of the Internet. Just two months after Netscape introduced its first browser as freeware over the Web, DOOM enthusiasts by the droves were downloading the game by FTP to their PCs, many of them with a 14.4 kb modem. The first third of the game was freeware while another 27 levels and several new weapons could be purchased for a modest sum.


In a prescient move, id decided to make DOOM’s source code available to its users. This allowed their fans to create their own 2.5D (not quite 3-D) levels and distribute them to other players. Making the code available also allowed new modifications of the game called “mods”, including a popular one that involved the characters from the Simpsons’ animated TV show running around the DOOM environment with Homer Simpson able to renew his health by finding and eating donuts. The US military created a version called Marine DOOM designed to desensitize soldiers to the idea of killing. Many of the company’s new employees were recruited because they had developed expertise by designing their mods.

Id’s innovation streak didn’t stop there as they also pioneered multiplayer capability. While other games had developed an interactive mode between two players, DOOM allowed up to eight players over local area networks (LANs) or modems. Their next few games, QUAKE and QUAKE II, increased the capacity to 32 players while using true 3-D graphics to create a virtual world of stunningly immersive environments and player mobility.

Multiplayer games took off with QUAKE II and have since morphed into multiple variations including the Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG) that can involve hundreds of players at a time. One of major early innovators of the MMOG was Archetype Interactive who conceived Meridian 59 using DOOM graphics technology from id and sold it to 3DO who coined the term “Massively Multiplayer” to market the innovative game.[3] It was Ultima Online that proved there was a market for online multiplayer games. Based on the popular Ultima game, its subscriber base grew to over 200,000 in over 100 countries. But Ultima Online was also the first to face a number of technical and community problems including synchronizing the game experience for all participants and establishing a system of player etiquette. In 1999, Sony Entertainment Online (SOE) opened up its Everquest universe online. It made national news when players started selling virtual items on eBay and established the validity of an online 3D role playing game. Motivated by Everquest’s success, Microsoft pushed up the release its Asheron’s Call on its gaming site.

Virtual worlds have morphed into a wide variety of environments and games for all ages. MMOGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Games) emerged as one the biggest revenue producers of online games and are expected to remain so in the near future with on-demand games running a fairly close second. These games connect hundreds to thousands of game players in a virtual environment that often includes its own internal economy. The “fairies and elves” genre and particularly World of Warcraft reigned. At its peak it had upwards of 12 million subscribers sending in $30 million a month in subscription fees. But other games like RuneScape are challenging its dominance and sci-fi games like Eve Online and Planet Calypso have also prospered lately.

So what is the future of gaming in virtual reality or what the Xbox people are calling “living and persistent worlds“?[4] Nintendo released the WII on November 19, 2006 that was notable for a remote that could be used as a handheld pointing device. Gamers flocked to their sports package with games like tennis and baseball that could be played virtually using the Wii Remote as a racket or a bat. Microsoft responded with the Kinect in 2010 that could sense body movements. It immediately broke records by selling over 8 million units in its first two months. The Xbox One has an improved Kinect that reads its environment with a HD camera, taking in some 2 GB of photonic information every second with its Time of Flight (TOF) technology. Its algorithms allow it to register the details of each body it scans, gauging the direction and balance of the skeletal system, the energy of each motion, the force of each impact, and even monitoring the heart rates of each player.

The Xbox may not be living up to VR ideals of sensory force feedback and other forms of haptic connectivity, but the level of popularity suggests that successful gameplay is often achieved. Kinect provides a level of bodily interaction that have made games like Dance Central and microsoft kinectDance Central 2 quite popular. The Xbox controller, despite a relatively steep learning curve and limited body engagement, provides a number of options that once learned, adds levels of complexity that reward those who master them.

For a successful virtual engagement, it appears that what is most important is that a level of psychic/cognitive stimulation is achieved by participating in an artificial challenge or conflict that operates within defined parameters or rules, and results in an observable change or quantifiable result. In other words – a game.[5] As long as these conditions are being met we can expect a rich pattern of future innovation in this area.


[1] From Castronova’s “Appendix: A Digression on Virtual Reality”, in Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games. p. 285.
[2] Anthony J. Pennings, “The Telco’s Brave New World: IPTV and the “Synthetic Worlds” of Multiplayer Online Games” for the Pacific Telecommunications Council Proceedings. January 15-18, 2005 Honolulu, Hawaii.
[3] Information on the first MMOGs from “Alternate Reality: The History of Massively Multiplayer Online Games”, By Steven L. Kent Sept. 23, 2003. Located at on November 28, 2005.
[4] Marc Whitten’s presentation on the technical aspects of Xbox One was broadcast live on Spike TV.
[5] For a great explanation of games and gameplay read Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman.




AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea and from 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.


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