This fall, Microsoft will unleash its Xbox 360 game-console/home-entertainment uber-device unto the world, and all will be good, assuming you don't mind spending several hundred dollars on a complete setup, including the console, extra controllers, and games. Xbox 360 is interesting on several levels. For hardcore gamers, the console's HDTV-compatible video signal and high-end hardware will usher in a new era of gaming, no matter the price. But Microsoft is also marketing Xbox 360 at more casual gamers and even those who don't necessarily care a whit about games.

For the latter crowd, Xbox 360 will provide a wonderful, high-fidelity front end to digital media content stored on a Windows XP-based computer. And if you've got a Media Center PC, watch out: Xbox 360 can provide a Media Center interface that's as good or better than what you're seeing on the PC—and transmit it (as well as the content on that PC) to any TV in your home, through a home-network connection.

Casual Gamers
To my mind, Xbox 360's biggest benefit will be to the hundreds of millions of people around the world who do play video games—but only casually. That is, they like video games just fine, but they're not necessarily interested in paying $99 per year to subscribe to Xbox Live, just so they can stay up until the wee hours deathmatching with friends around the globe.

How does Microsoft target a market such as this? Well, first you get rid of the Xbox Live subscription fee entirely. As Xbox Executive Producer Jeff Henshaw told me a few months ago, today's Xbox Live has a fundamental flaw. "In order for us to give users access to anything on Xbox Live, they have to \[first\] pay a subscription fee," Henshaw said. "And that subscription is mostly targeted at hardcore, online gamers. If there are people that never want to go head-to-head, that never want to shoot, or do battle, or play sports games with other people online, they can't do anything on Xbox Live today. There are tens of millions of people who play single-player platform games today who would just love to have a new level."

And he's right. Although Microsoft will continue offering a subscription-based version of Xbox Live—called Xbox Live Gold—a new (and free) version of Xbox Live—dubbed Xbox Live Silver—will gives Xbox 360 customers many of the features that only today's paying Xbox Live customers enjoy. But Xbox Silver will also do more: Thanks to a new integrated online marketplace, even casual gamers will be able to download new levels, characters, capabilities, and other features for their favorite games. At some point, Henshaw said, it's likely that game makers will offer complete games, or even serialized versions of games—which let you download individual levels, one at a time—to subscribers.

Full Steam Ahead
This type of pay-as-you go approach isn't actually new, although its introduction to the console world is a Microsoft first. On the PC, Valve—the makers of the incredible Half-Life and Half-Life 2 titles—have started a free online service called Steam. Through Steam, subscribers can automatically access and install updates to their games. And starting this fall, Valve and its partners will begin offering all-new content (and even complete new games) to subscribers.

Valve's first move was to offer access to its complete library of classic game titles. So, if you were to purchase the Gold or Silver version of Half-Life 2 through Steam, you would then be able to easily download and play games such as Half-Life, Half-Life: Blue Shift, Half-Life: Opposing Force, Counter-Strike, and many others (all of which, incidentally, are still excellent and worth playing). Within the next few weeks, Valve will also ship a so-called "missing level" from Half-Life 2—Lost Coast—that will let players work their way through a part of the game that was originally canned.

Then, later this fall, Ritual Entertainment will begin shipping a new game—SiN 2, which uses the Half-Life 2 rendering engine—through Steam. What's interesting about SiN 2 is that Ritual isn't shipping the whole title at once. Instead, the company will offer individual levels, one at a time, to Steam subscribers. It's a cool idea, and one that we'll eventually see more of on the PC and Xbox 360.

A Preview of Things to Come
In the meantime, current Xbox owners can get a preview of this sort of system, thanks to the recent release of the Halo 2 Multiplayer Map Pack (MMP). There are two ways to obtain this release, which adds nine all-new multiplayer maps to Halo 2. First, you can go into a retail store, plunk down your $19.99, and purchase it as you would any other software title (naturally, it requires that you already have Halo 2). Or, you can purchase the maps through Xbox Live for roughly the same price, and then install them interactively. (Actually, Xbox Live subscribers received access to some of these maps earlier this summer.)

The MMP updates Halo 2 to the latest version and adds some kick-ass maps, including Containment (humongous outdoor action, with lots of vehicles), Warlock (a small level that's perfect for King of the Hill), Sanctuary (outdoor, with great team-play possibilities), Turf (an excellent urban environment), Backwash (an alien world with swamps and mists), Elongation (with lots of moving objects, creating a sense of impending danger), Gemini (a spacecraft interior with a weird garden in the middle), Relic (the ultimate Assault level with a nicely done fort and offensive staging area), and Terminal (another level with lots of moving objects—this time, speeding trains—that keeps things on edge). Most of these levels are excellent, and my Halo Havoc buddies and I (we gather once or twice a month at a friend's house to deathmatch) have spent a lot of time in Relic, Containment, and Warlock thus far.

The Future Is Now
As with music, the era in which we walk into a retail store to purchase content on a disc is coming to an end—and quickly. But you don't have to look to the next-generation consoles to get in on this action now. With a PC or Xbox, you can see the future today. And from where I sit, the future looks great.