Friday, August 14, 2009

A Work in Progress: How to Ensure Xbox Live is a Service Worth Paying For

work in progress This past Tuesday, Microsoft released an update for the Xbox Live Dashboard. I haven’t gotten a chance to test it all out, but the patch notes are fairly impressive.

Apparently, parties have been fixed, which I certainly appreciate. You can now purchase wholly digital copies of 360 titles like BioShock and Mass Effect (I like that you can then download the manual if you care about stuff like that). If you think your Avatar looked underdressed (a la Tycho) on the latest episode of 1 vs 100, feel free to drop by the Avatar marketplace for new duds and knick-knacks. It’s now possible to rate content – from the lowliest indie massage title to the biggest AAA release. And then there’s the much-touted Netflix Party option, lusted after by MST3k fans everywhere.

These are the high-profile changes. A few improvements have been made under the hood, as well – easier menu navigation, launching games from the achievement list, etc. But with Facebook, Twitter, and still in the future, I can’t help but think what else Microsoft could bring to their premium service.

I mentioned the updated Achievement browser. Bring up the individual Achievement page for any game and you can launch the title with a simple press of the Y button. Whoever thought this up is extremely clever. Leafing through your game library, you might notice a few easily attainable Achievements in Castle Crashers, and voila! you’re hittng people with a hammer while cartoon deer poop in the background. But what about the spirit of competition? Sony recently unveiled new trophy functionality on The video will explain it better than I ever could, but they’ve essentially created a Friend Trophy Spreadsheet option. With a few clicks, you can compare five friends side-by-side (and even zoom in to game-by-game), perfect for one-upmanship and friendly taunting. Sure, this is easier to navigate in a web browser than on a console’s dashboard, but I don’t see why similar features couldn’t find their way to Microsoft’s service. It fits in well with Microsoft’s “Community” M.O. and might help encourage gamers to pick up titles their friends own (there always has to be a business angle).

They don’t have to steal just from Sony, though. Steam, despite primarily serving as PC gaming’s iTunes, possesses a few community elements worth bringing into the console realm. On my Community homepage, I get a Facebook-style newsfeed, detailing recent purchase and achievement unlocks by my friends. As the entire globe burrows further and further down the social-networking rabbit hole, I can’t see how this wouldn’t be a good idea on Xbox Live. Imagine signing in and seeing that your buddy just got an Achievement in Ace Combat multiplayer. Maybe now he’ll be up for some Maverick-and-Goose wingman action. Sure, it might get a little overwhelming when your roommate starts tearing through Live Arcade titles by the handful, but you can fix that easily with filters.

While the stability of Xbox Live gives gamers easy access to stuff like patches and downloadable content, Microsoft’s presence as the middleman prevents discourse between the developer and the player. Let’s face it, not everyone has the know-how, time, or ego to go to a game’s website and register on the forums. Nor does everyone want newsletters flooding their Gmail with info on stupid contests and promotions. I think people do, however, want information on patches and special events that a company might be running via Xbox Live. Take, for instance, Volition’s recent Red Faction: Guerrilla patch. Not only did they drop some Wrecking Crew maps, fix bugs, and tweak multiplayer, they celebrated by doubling all multiplayer experience through last weekend. I, however, had to find all this out on their website (and then through the customary blogosphere trickle). Why can’t I read patch notes on my Xbox? Why can’t a developer disclose information to me without paying for a special box on the Featured Events page? Connections between the studio and the players can foster long-lasting relationships, similar to the old-time stereotype of a town General Store whose personable owner earns the trust (and repeat business) of his customers. Microsoft, this will only make more people want to pay for Xbox Live.

And isn’t that the point of all of this? Yes, quicker menus will make already-loyal customers happy. Sure, Avatar accessories can be useful for making one’s friends laugh. But these do not a must-have product make. Even if Microsoft has to copy its competitors to get ahead (which it’s been doing successfully for years), the consumer wins in the end. And if I have to pay for an online game service, I better feel like I’m winning every second I’m using it.