The online extension to Microsoft's Xbox gaming console is warming up for play, as the company this week launched a beta program, called Xbox Live, to test and debug the service.
Nearly 10,000 gamers were chosen from a pool of 100,000 who offered to take part in the testing program, said John O'Rourke, worldwide marketing director for Microsoft Xbox.
Users in the US will be able to sign up for the full-fledged service from 15 November. For an introductory fee of $49.95 (£33), subscribers will receive a single online identity called a 'Gamertag', one year of service and a headset that plugs into the Xbox controller, allowing them to chat to other online gamers.
Coinciding with the November launch, Microsoft said it plans to have seven games that subscribers will be able to play through Xbox Live. By the end of 2003, subscribers will be able to choose from more than 60 game titles, O'Rourke said.
Microsoft's Xbox video game console has an ethernet port that can be plugged into a broadband connection to access the service. Xbox Live is not designed to work with dialup connections, the company said. "This is a great reason to go off and buy broadband," O'Rourke said.
The system also has an 8GB hard drive that will eventually allow users to download additional paid services through Xbox Live, such as new game characters and games that are delivered in episodes.
The hard drive will also come into play with a new game called Blinx which is being produced by Microsoft's game development studio in Japan. Blinx, which features a janitorial cat that battles evil forces with a superpowered vacuum cleaner, will include VCR-like functions allowing players to pause, record and rewind their games.
After its American launch, Xbox Live will be rolled out in Europe and Asia; Microsoft hasn't released a schedule for these further launches, but has said in the past that it will happen by the end of the year. Once the service goes global, users will be able to play against subscribers from around the world and talk to them using their headsets.