First off I want to say I am a huge Xbox 360 fan. I may be a bigger Sony fan, but I do love me some Microsoft console action. This article is the first of two parts; the second coming next week will look at the relevance issue in respect to the PlayStation 3, so before I get hate mail, I will be tagging each console with my thoughts on their service.
The point of this article is to look at the huge success that is Xbox Live and review it in the context that they are not alone anymore. Digital delivery and integration is everywhere these days and I am not just talking about their rival service, the PlayStation Network. I mean services like Steam on the PC, Apple’s iPhone and iPod touch – heck every cellphone has a GUI launcher for their services. Xbox Live is a phenomenal service, but in light of the changes in the industry and customer needs/wants they need to move with the times to stay relevant.
Number 5 – Better, More Consistent XBLA Content is Needed – More exclusive, QUALITY content is needed on the Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA) service. There may be a ton of content to download on this service, but for every Geometry Wars, Undertow and Ikaruga there are two ScrewJumper, Discs of Tron and Wing Commander Arena style games. Microsoft has not concentrated as heavily and as consistently in this arena as we have seen in the Sony camp. They need to go back to their proven XBLA developers and concentrate on those relationships, eat up more solid properties. It maybe a good idea to also scale back on releases to ensure more quality titles are released and appreciated (read: downloaded) than we see now. The nice thing about the large amount of content is the fact that there are many surefire hits, but you have to sift through a lot of chum to get there.
Number 4 – Clean up Xbox Live Experience – The Xbox Live service during online play is well known to be (mostly) stable, but due to the abundance of headset-equipped, yet socially challenged players, it is also a refuge for haters. Microsoft needs to step up their stance on making the online experience as healthy as possible and that means finding better ways to mute quicker, ban, or send negative feedback. I only needed to hear that someone was (and I paraphrase) ‘going to rip off my head and shit down my throat’ once before I tired of the Xbox online community. As a result I mute everyone immediately in Halo 3 the moment I start a match; oddly though even if I team with people every new match, mute is deactivated. I know Microsoft has some strong policies and a feedback procedure, and I don’t pretend to know how to fix things, but the experience is rarely a good one and needs to be fixed.
Number 3 – Make Buying Items Easier and Fairer – Purchasing items on XBLM is key to Microsoft’s bottom dollar in the gaming sphere and is obviously an important part of the experience. Microsoft has a Points-based system wherein a game costs MS points which you can buy with cards at a store or directly through the Marketplace. Microsoft sells points in stores at 1600 ($19.99 US) or 4000 points ($49.99 US) and online at 400 ($5 US), 1200 ($15 US) and 2000 points($25 US); the issue is nothing is ever sold at any of these amounts. If you want to buy a new game at 1000 points you have to buy 1200 points. It is worse if it is a 600 or 800 point game; you end up having to buy $15 in points for an $8 game. Being a Canadian makes life even worse; even though the dollar is at parity we are seeing a 20-24% difference in point cost to buy the same game, and since you have to buy more than you need this is especially frustrating.
Microsoft is facing a tough battle in this space since Sony does not use a point system and allows you to deposit the exact amount for a game to your wallet from a credit card and buy the game at its cost without any fat. They have also just normalized the US/Cdn prices so 5.99 is 5.99 north or south of the border. I also understand why Microsoft does the point system – if you have 200 points in your account why not buy that theme, or those gamer pics? See Number 1 on this list for why that drives me crazy. Microsoft needs to look at their statistics and their pricing and design a better, more direct way to buy items. I personally refuse to buy mediocre items because I will be left with a balance. I only buy triple A titles and am unwilling to deviate. A quick fix would be to allow you to buy any points denomination (need 800, buy 800), but that would lose money – or would it?
Number 2 – A Facelift Can Be a Good Thing – If anything, the best you can say about the XBLA and XBL interface is that it is functional. It is a little too many steps to change a theme, a little too many steps to go to your downloaded games, no separation of full games and demos, etc…. The Marketplace is another messy story – no easy way to find certain types of games, no easy way to see previously bought games, the glut of titles makes the view all field a mess, and fast scrolling takes you to the bottom too quick. Microsoft needs to stop resting on their laurels and again take a cue from Sony (who copied heavily from XBL) and redesign to improve functionality. I pay a monthly fee to have access to certain features and functionality and I expect the service to improve over time, not stay stagnant. The revamp should improve functionality, enable quick actions for common tasks and make the store easier to view/use.
Number 1 – Make Xbox Live Gold Mean Something Again – Copied from Microsoft’s site – “Xbox Live Gold Membership does have its privileges, and the biggest one of all is the ability to enjoy your Xbox 360 games online. Games like Perfect Dark Zero™, Call of Duty® 2, and Burnout Revenge™ let you play hectic matches against dozens of living, breathing opponents from all over the world.” In this new age every console (even handhelds) features free online play and the fact that you have to pay a yearly fee to enjoy the benefits of this standard service is now ridiculous. Now that cross-platform releases are a lot more common than they were, we are playing CoD4 and GTAIV the same way on each console, except in Microsoft’s case we have to pay for the privilege.
I understand that Microsoft tracks stats and tries to make a more stable experience, but if they want to keep their edge in this industry they need to re-evaluate the perks of being a Gold member. Some ideas are rewards for gamerpoints, discounts on games if you are a Gold members, and free gamerpics and themes (not just the MS ones, but there should be more available). Microsoft also needs to stop forcing companies to charge for DLC. If someone wants it to be free, let it be free, because you know the DLC on the PS3 will be no charge as they leave that to the developers’ judgment. Now that Sony has a mature online presence, can Microsoft continue to coast along and offer relatively little tangible features for a yearly or monthly fee? I really do hope that we see a re-work of the Xbox Live world as I am not sure if I will renew come next year. I will still play online, but the copy of a game I choose will be the one on the system with no annual fee.