Dashboard Light

Microsoft's latest Xbox Dash update reaffirms the console's OS as the best in the business - but it's not good enough

One of the strongest and most predictable reactions among the Internet's chattering classes is resistance to change. No matter who's responsible for the change - whether it's Google, Facebook, Apple, the BBC, Twitter - the reaction is always the same. Change is bad. The comfort of the familiar, even if it's only a familiar website and a few familiar buttons, is good. The few seconds that could be spent learning a new layout and new functionality is more cathartic when spent complaining instead.

The problem with this knee-jerk reaction is that in its loudness, its vehemence and its ultimate meaninglessness, it obscures genuine feedback and dulls the impact of genuinely considered criticism. When everyone in the world is shouting "I hate it!" for little reason other than an ingrained dislike of change, it's hard for the guy saying "no seriously chaps, this aspect of the functionality needs a rethink" to make his voice heard. As with most feedback systems on the internet, the challenge of sorting signal from noise is almost insurmountable.

In this specific instance, of course, I'm thinking of Microsoft's most recent visual and functional overhaul of the Xbox Dashboard. This major update brought with it a new interface based broadly on the conventions of the "Metro" interface which will debut in Windows 8 in about a year's time, along with support for dashboard "apps" such as video service Lovefilm and a reorganisation of the system's content marketplace.

Compared to the complex and intelligent product discovery and promotion systems used by the likes of Amazon, Xbox Marketplace is nothing short of primitive

You could, of course, guess the reaction from fifty paces away. Change is bad. Most of the accusations levelled loudly and often at the new Dash are rather unfair, as you'd expect. It's accused, for instance, of burying videogames in favour of video, music and social network content, for example. While the "games" page is a few clicks away from the home location of the Dash, this rather ignores the fact that the two most-used options, namely to play the game presently in the drive and to access your games library, are the first two buttons you can access on the interface. Contrary to the tone of the backlash, Microsoft does still know it's still selling games consoles.

More pertinent but also arguably over-egged is the criticism regarding the reorganisation of the marketplace. This criticism has been most pointed, and most warranted, by developers involved in the Xbox Live Arcade market, who feel that the reorganisation has militated against the prominence of their listings on the system and will have a negative impact on their business.

I'm not sure I agree, although it'll be impossible to tell what the reality is until the figures start to filter through over the coming months. What's happened in this update is a gradual blurring of the lines between full-price Xbox titles and Arcade titles on Marketplace. On the surface, it seems like Arcade has been buried - personally, I think it's more significant that Arcade titles are now listed shoulder to shoulder with full price titles rather than being ghettoised. Time will tell, although one aspect is almost certain, which is that the gap between successful, heavily promoted games and less successful niche titles is going to grow as a consequence of these changes.

One definite loser in the whole affair is Xbox Live Indie Games, but it's not entirely surprising that Microsoft isn't keen to put that front and centre on its console. XBLIG has never been anything more than a half-measure, a case of Microsoft nodding in the direction of the power and flexibility of the App Store business model while simultaneously winking at its partners who are bound up in the more traditional console business model.

A low price ceiling on XBLIG, combined with an unwillingness on Microsoft's part to expend the effort required to either sustain a minimum quality bar or create tools that allow the best content to effectively self-promote through the system, means that the service is a bit of a mess - its content generally low-rent and uninteresting enough to be a bit embarrassing, frankly. It's unlikely Microsoft wants new Xbox owners to find themselves browsing through the reams of dreadful Avatar games and their ilk which populate XBLIG, and should surprise nobody that the new Dash update buries the service further.

While I'm not particularly negative regarding the Dash update in general - I think it's a nice visual overhaul, if not exactly a thing of beauty, and the arrival of Lovefilm and promise of iPlayer is very welcome - I do agree with the Marketplace detractors to an extent. I think that there are serious criticisms to be levelled at what's been done in terms of Marketplace and content promotion, and questions to be asked over some of the decisions being made within Microsoft with regard to those aspects of the Dash.

Put bluntly, while I don't think that the new Marketplace is worse than the old Marketplace in any particular way, I also don't think it's much better - and that's a worrying thing, because the old Marketplace was absolutely flat-out dreadful. As the range of content available on Xbox Live has broadened and deepened, the interface has consistently struggled to keep up with it. Things have improved since the early days when you had to scroll past multiple pages of FIFA and Madden gamer icons and themes in order to see content for other games - but not much. The fundamental experience of trying to find new things you're interested in on Xbox Live remains one of scrolling through endless lists.

On Xbox Live, you've got relevant data about individual audience members up to your armpits - and Microsoft isn't using a damn bit of it

Compared with something like the App Store, it's archaic. Compared to the complex and intelligent product discovery and promotion systems used by the likes of Amazon, it's nothing short of primitive. For a Dash update that's meant to be a taste of the future, a delve into the marketplace aspects - arguably the most important part of the Dash after the button which allows you to actually play games - feels disappointingly like the past.

I've been an Xbox Live Gold subscriber for most of the past decade. Microsoft knows more about my gaming habits and preferences than any other company out there - more than Sony or Nintendo, more than Apple, even more than Google. It knows every game I've played, and how long I've played them for. It knows that I'm more likely to complete the story of a game on a normal difficulty mode once and then move on, than I am to stick around on one game for ages unlocking all the challenges. It knows I like shooters and RPGs, and never play sports games. It knows what DLC I've paid for, which games I've played online, which items I've dressed my avatars in, how many friends I've got online and what they play.

Microsoft, in other words, is in the absolutely ideal position to create the best Marketplace experience imaginable for both its consumers and its development partners. The kind of recommendations it could offer would leave Apple's "Genius" system blinking in the dust. Yet instead, when I go to Marketplace, I see the same massive, mind-numbing list of content that everyone else sees - and when I turn on my console, I see the same huge ad for FIFA, a game which I will never, ever buy, that everyone else sees.

This isn't some kind of crazy blue-sky science fiction that we're talking about here. If you deal with the advertising industry much, you know that Google and Amazon's innovations in terms of data mining consumers and targeting promotions and recommendations accordingly are rapidly becoming standard practice. In some environments this is hard; it's tough to figure out how much bang you're getting for your buck on TV, for example. On Xbox Live, you've got relevant data about individual audience members up to your armpits - and Microsoft isn't using a damn bit of it.

None of this detracts from what an essentially brilliant piece of work the evolution of the Dash has been over the past half-decade. Microsoft has understood what its rivals have completely failed to grasp - that software OS updates can turn a five year old console into a new machine, over and over again. Turn on your PS3 today and it's still the same PS3 it was when it launched, with the Cross-Media Bar looking more dated and unfit for purpose than ever. The Xbox, however, is indistinguishable from its former self. It's slick, powerful, clever, all-singing, all-dancing - a triumph resulting from the vital recognition of software and services, not hardware, as the real driver of the console market.

But it could be much better - and if it's to face down the challenges to come, then it must be much better. Gamers may dream of it, but the worst thing that could happen to Xbox is that it becomes relegated to a machine you stick discs into once again. If it's to be a vital platform that gives Microsoft the foothold it needs in the living room, it must be a content platform that's superb at selling - and it's going to face big rivals in that regard. Apple, Amazon and Google all have thinly disguised ambitions in that regard. Even Sony may clamber back onto the wagon, given the right leadership. The Xbox Dash isn't just a few shiny new pixels - it's Microsoft's most powerful weapon in the war for the living room, and even if it's the best in its class right now, it still needs to do much better.

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Latest comments (12)

Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing 6 years ago
Rob, your comments could be interpreted as not booting into a targeted advertisement as being outdated.

To be fair, the PSN store also had its fair share of dreadful iterations. The PS3 simply does not rub it in your face upon booting as much.
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Andrew Goodchild Studying development, Train2Game6 years ago
As you say, there is plenty they could do with organising the store, like you I never will be a sports game (except SSX or an XBLA version of one of the first four Tony Hawks games) and I have never bought a rockband/guitar hero track pack which used to fill up the new release section.
What you didn't mention, and perhaps with good reason as it may need time to assess, is the Kinect voice powered Bing. I've not tried this for games yet, but after one initial try where I must have not been clear enough, it seemed pretty good for zune content, at least on the 3 items I tried.
I'm guessing this may only be good for specific games where you have the title to hand, but if this allows a search by genre, it could at least alleviate some of the mentioned issues, at least for those with Kinect.
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Tommy Thompson Studying Artificial Intelligence (PhD), University of Strathclyde6 years ago
@Klaus Yes I guess you could interpret some of this article as condemning the lack of targeted advertisement, but I would argue that is a good idea in this instance. The game marketplace on Live is a bit of a mess. It's poorly organised and is often difficult to find content I want that isn't plastered on one of the adverts on the dashboard. My profile tells you a lot about games I like, my genres of interest, how much time I have played games X,Y,Z. They may well have data on how much time I spent online or offline on these games. There is a wealth of data that could be exploited and is just left untouched.

While I do have an issue with the adverts interfering with my using the dash - adverts always in the large tiles and I have to navigate around them to do what I want - the one feature that continues to allude me is customisation. Why can't I build a home tab that has all my apps and most used features on the first screen? Considering the dash is clearly following the Facebook and iOS patterns of building pages of apps and features with advertising to boot, why not give me the option to customise it as I see fit. Sure you can still surround those options with adverts, but it would ease a lot of the issues people have everytime they update the dash.
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Show all comments (12)
Fran Mulhern , Recruit3D6 years ago
Love the headline. Meatloaf, the Great Philosopher!
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Jon Burton Director/Head Designer, Travellers Tales6 years ago
"The Xbox, however, is indistinguishable from its former self." - really? Really?? Is that what you really mean, Rob? Indistinguishable...

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Liam Farrell6 years ago
I love the new update. Because now there's loads of adverts and I can't find that arcade thingy, I think I used to like. Did I like the arcade? What is the arcade? ...oh well, doesn't matter. I think what microsoft has done is excellent, only outdone by the recent youtube update. it's great. All this time, websites, apps and social media were encouraging us to link all these account to each other. But now the future is to have them all merge into one mess, where they try to do everything, but not as good. Brilliant! Don't like it? Shut up and look at Kelly Brook selling this rubbish deoderant, this is video games now!
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Julian Cram Producer 6 years ago
See, this is where I disagree with you on targeted advertising.

I know what I want to play, and I don't need an algorithmic worm telling me to buy X game based on what I've played previously.

In fact, I'd prefer it to offer something different - after all, choosing an example of my gaming habits, I've played all the major, top rated shooters to come out on Xbox 360 - Honestly, why the hell would I want to play more of the also-rans which are much poorer in scores and quality?
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Brian Smith Artist 6 years ago
I like the update but also like the article being critical of it. MS is the monster making the money in this and we should push and push them to make it better. Hopefully it won't be the last major update we see.

It's fair to be critical of their marketplace approach and lack of effort in placing good content in Arcade and indie games where it can have the exposure it needs. I personally think the article is a little harsh on the indie title quality as there are gems in there but they can be easily lost for all eternity after they emerge and get lost in the list. There's also a lot of crap but that's part of the bag with indie stuff.

IMO the indie section needs some sort of weekly video summary that's front and centre just to draw attention to indie titles. There are too many titles appearing to expect the interface to provide a solution for by itself. Oh and MS should reduce the cut they take too... take one on the chin for the future of games development and be seen to be supporting it more.
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Andrew Clayton QA Weapons Tester, Electronic Arts6 years ago
Aside from the fact that themes are now completely pointless, I'm loving the fact that every tab on the new dashboard has a huge advertisement in the middle. Forget playing your games, forget watching your movies, forget listening to your music, take a look at what we're selling now!

I liked the old blade-based system better. Sure, it was archaic, but at least I could quickly and easily find exactly what I wanted without having to wade through an endless sea of "NEW ACHIEVEMENT TIPS VIDEO NOW WITH MORE BOOBS LOL".

That being said, I'm going to return to playing Gears 3.
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Andy Cahalan Being unwelcome here / want to close account 6 years ago
Shouldn't 'Games' be next to home?! I agree with most of the points here. You know it's bad when within hours people start blocking ads on their routers. The Xbox is my console of choice, sure, but I couldn't invest time and effort into a platform that really doesn't know how to sell for indies. Actually, it's much like they don't care. When I think of XBLA as a whole, Microsoft have probably screwed themselves out of untold millions over the years. For one, the amount of content they could 'invite' to the platform is ridiculous, as Sony are doing.
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Terence Gage Freelance writer 6 years ago
I don't have regular access to a 360 so I haven't seen this latest update, but having been using a HTC/Android phone for just over a year now I would like the ability to be able to customise my console's desktop. In this day and age it seems kind of archaic to have content and its priorities forced upon you.
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Curt Sampson Sofware Developer 6 years ago
The interface seems a bit nicer and cleaner than the old one; it's a shame that it's been turned into an advertisement delivery mechanism.

I'm curious as to what your issue is with the Cross-media Bar. It's not a new thing any more, true, but it still works pretty well barring the two obvious flaws it's always had that could be fixed within that system (the inability to create a custom column for one's own frequently used stuff and its inability to organzize large numbers of items). Sony certainly is and always has been doing a lot better in terms of mixing in advertising without compromising the ability to easily get to what you want.

Unfortunately, I think that the advertising on the Xbox is here to stay. Microsoft can afford to have most of its users mildly disliking that interface since the cost of switching is so high. That's too bad, because I think that a Starbucks approach (a branded area full of advertising, but subtle enough that you're happy to go there to hang out) could work very well.
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