Thursday, November 20, 2008

NXE: Not Xactly awEsome

Updated 11/24

I have officially had The New Xbox Experience.

I'd like the old one back, please.

First, what I *did* like. The new blade system is quite nice - a little easier to sort out than the old, mostly because it takes out some of the fluff and just keeps it simple with text and small icons. The fact that you can access any blade (Marketplace, Game Library, Media, and Settings) from anywhere is handy, too. Unfortunately, I like it mostly because of its similarity to the old Dashboard. It's as if the entire Dashboard was compressed into the Blade system, while Microsoft designed the NXE to take its place.

So, let's talk about the NXE Dashboard. When you boot up the console, it takes you to the Welcome Channel. Yeah, they even had the gall to call them "Channels" like the Wii. Take a look for yourself... how would you start playing the game you've got in the disc drive?

It took me a few seconds to notice "My Xbox" dimly visible above. In fact, that's where you'll find the currently inserted disc. So I loaded it up, then quit out of the game... and was back at the Welcome Channel, forced to navigate back up to "My Xbox" to re-enter the game. While I realize there are still less actions involved than on the old Dashboard, it's not about the number of steps. It's about their clarity. Strike 1.

Since I don't need a tutorial on using my Xbox every time I log in, I set about looking for a way to turn off the Welcome Channel. I found it in My Xbox>Settings, switched it off lickity-split, and pressed (B) to return to the Dashboard proper.

Pop Quiz: How do you get back to play your game?
Answer: It's "simple." Just hold [LEFT] to scroll back to the top of the My Xbox Channel.
Real answer: There's nothing simple about it, because there is absolutely no indication that there exists content to the left of your current "position." Again not an issue of functionality, but one of clarity. Strike 2.

I went back into the game, and then backed out to the Dashboard. The Welcome Channel was safely disabled, so I was helpfully returned to the My Xbox Spotlight Channel... which is more or less a series of advertisements for upcoming games, demos, and other things Microsoft would love for you to spend money on. As far as I can tell, there's no way to change that functionality; you will forever have to scroll up to reach your game. Despite my annoyance, I'll leave that as (an aggravated) Strike 1.

Update: Apparently, my original Strike 3 is not an issue on the public version of Xbox Live, only on the developer side ("PartnerNet"). Luckily, I found a brand new Strike 3!

I decided to redeem a code for some free goodies -- the same codes you'd use for an XBLive time card, a Points card, or any game's exclusive DLC. In this case, it's the Rock Band Track Pack Volume 2 (a collection of DLC). On the old Dashboard, you simply went to the Marketplace and selected "Redeem Code"... on the New Xbox Experience, no such luck.

I looked for a good 10 minutes or more for SOMEWHERE to input a redemption code. I looked in Marketplace, My Xbox, System Settings, everywhere. It was nowhere to be found. Eventually I decided to take advantage of one of Microsoft's much-touted new features, the ability to purchase DLC on the web and have your console automatically begin downloading it (provided it's turned on, which wastes quite a bit of power). Even then it took some digging to find the code entry page.

Thankfully, a coworker showed me where to find the Code Entry dialogue in the NXE, and the answer is one that I'm increasingly finding solves *all* the issues I have with the new interface: hit the Guide Button and pull up the Blades. They're like a text-only version of the old Dashboard, and offer massive amounts of improved functionality over the NXE's flashy-but-useless approach. In this case, just pop up the Blades and scroll Left to the Marketplace tab... voila. "Redeem Code" right there, as if it had been waiting for you this whole time.


It's summary time! I know NXE offers a host of new features. I'm very curious to check out streaming HD Netflix. The potential of "gaming parties" (a group of friends migrating from game to game without losing each other) sounds pretty cool. Technically, none of the functionality of the original Dashboard has been lost.

BUT the whole experience is wrapped up in the most cumbersome, unintuitive, and (seemingly deliberately) information-obscuring interface I've seen in a LONG time. Even simple decisions like the default channel have been buggered up. There's nothing crippling by itself, but the number of poor design decisions (magnified by the extremely consistent design) add up to a drastically diminished user experience.

I am not a wrathful blogger... merely an opinionated one (Hm, why is the Department of Redundancy Department calling my cell now?). And so, here's my opinion:

1) "My Xbox" should be the default channel, and there should be an option in Settings to change that. If you HAVE to have an ad on the default channel, put one in. I won't mind.

2) Ditch the "receding into the distance" thing. It's uninformative, and every piece of information that scrolls off the left side of the screen might as well no longer exist. Instead, why not use a spinner or loop? Let the user scroll in either direction, all the way around the circle, seeing other options in the distance behind. I'm thinking of the song select screen from the original DDR or Donkey Konga.

3) MORE INFORMATION. Tell me I can navigate right AND left. Give me some game art and a summary of XBLA titles without having to enter the game itself -- pop up a little window with information when you highlight a title. Let me see the title without having to physically select it -- at least the first four or five titles in a list.

Update: 4) Make it at least as functional as the old interface. If there was something easily done on the old Dashboard that cannot be as easily done on the new, You're Doing It Wrong.

I hope Microsoft isn't done with this new execution. I wish they'd let it bake a little longer before pulling it out of the oven and dropping it in our laps. Sadly, we don't have a choice in whether or not to use it... but hopefully they'll hear the voices of frustrated gamers and take action to repair their oversights.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Gamestop gave me a pile of money to write this blog.

Note: if you signed up for a subscription at your local GameStop, you'll see two additional paragraphs in this post.

Welcome to Exclusive Preorder! I'm an obsessive reader of gaming websites, but with the occasional exception of, most websites focus almost exclusively on the games themselves -- the latest screenshots, features, trailers, and other marketing materials publishers shower them with. Which is fine! There's obviously a huge audience for the latest news, as evidenced by my own Google Reader feed (Joystiq, Kotaku, 4cr, etc). But hey, like my profile claims, I'm really just a gamer at heart. I eat it all up.

That said, especially as I work in the industry I can't help but look at the "industry" side of the equation, and the gaming news sites frequently fail to address that for any number of reasons. Sometimes the news is big enough that even the news sites perk up; you may recall the massive row (Joystiq coverage) about Gamespot's firing of Jeff Gerstmann (grats on the new gig, sir). Publishers and review sites in a massive feedback loop of access and coverage? It's just the kind of scandal to drive page views.

I won't pretend that the games industry isn't healthy; clearly it's doing quite well for itself. But that can't keep me from wishing it would do well with a little more integrity, and perhaps a little more thought for the future. There's definitely some cognitive dissonance when your company is fueled by artists who love to create, but governed by the marketing potential of their creation.

Which brings me to this blog. I'm not an "insider" beyond the fact that I work for a company in the industry. I don't have the connections that get exclusives dropped into my lap (so yeah, the Gamestop preorder crowd is SOL on that one). But I'm here to talk about the news that gets me going and keeps me up. There are factions constantly pushing and pulling each other:
  1. The publishers, with the funding and the marketing power.
  2. The developers, with the talent to create a compelling product.
  3. The merchants, who have the final say in what actually reaches buyers... and who to some degree are the real "target audience," as far as publishers are concerned.
  4. The gamer! I hope you know who you are.
  5. The media, who simultaneously inform the consumer and advertise for the publisher... hopefully without too much conflict of interest.
  6. The ESRB, the government, concerned parents, crazy lawyers, and other external forces that act upon the industry.
Who are they? How do they interact? How does it affect what, when, or how you buy and play games?

Honestly, I don't know the answers except for a smattering of loose information on the surface. But maybe I'll learn something writing this blog. And maybe I'll even get a few people reading it in the process.