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Neutering the Xbox 360

Microsoft’s Xbox underlings have been scurrying around the internet lately, drumming up support for the forthcoming Dashboard overhaul and the new low price point for the Arcade unit. It’s all a part of their huge fall push. They’ve also now launched a massive ad campaign; MS is going to spend more money over the next few months promoting the 360 than they did at launch.

I cannot help but see all this as an attempt to re-brand the 360 and… how can I put this delicately? Remove it’s balls with a pair of pliers. Render them as like unto angelic eunuchs with moonbeams and ponytails.

MS is doing this because they feel that they have come close to saturating their base with the “hardcore” players that have traditionally been the biggest 360 proponents, and that the best way to compete with both Sony and Nintendo is to move the 360 downstream to the “casuals”.

Ergo, we have the New Xbox Experience – NXE. Yeah, they call it that. (Please note that this term is vile; if you have been using it in any non-ironic way lately, I would suggest that you need to have your Corporate Cynicism Module re-aligned.)

When the Wii was launched, a lot of the existing hardcore audience decried this new casual-friendly direction for vidogames as they thought the rabid success of it would somehow hurt development of the sort of games they liked. Which I thought was sort of absurd, at the time. I don’t talk much about the Wii on this blog because it’s simply not for me: I’m one of those goons who likes Gears of War. I like my complicated, multi-goal, skill-based, high-budget games. But I never really begrudged the Wii’s existence. To me, it is akin to when Disney cracked open the home video market. There are gobs of cash to be made, and it was an area (casual, broadly-targeted videogames) that was underserved. These people, if they played games at all originally, were probably doing it for free on Pogo or Kongregate.

This is also why I never delve too deeply into the question of NPD sales and the like. It’s fine for academic discussion, but that is business dorkery. I’m much more interested in game dorkery. So when someone reminds me of the way the Wii is selling, I say great, but I’m utterly unphased by it. To use the Disney analogy again: it’s like someone telling me that Pooh is huge. Pooh is huge. Do you have any idea how much money Disney makes on Winnie the Pooh? No. I suppose it’s lots. So?

Well, don’t you think you should buy some Pooh for your DVD collection? Don’t you think Pooh is winning?

Um, no.

Which brings us back around to the Great Rebranding.

This is the kind of thing that your 360 is going to be showing you in the near future (although not so near as some of us thought, it looks like a November launch now). This is the face of the new Xbox 360. A shiny, plastic, superdeformed smirking RARE-ified face. It’s about as saccharine as you can get.

The problem I have with this implementation is that it applies a very specific aesthetic to what should technically be a much more nebulous, non-specific framework. What I mean by that is, no matter what you do with your all-singing, all-dancing 360 machine, you are going to start with shiny and cute. Even if you try to add some testosterone to the new look, it still seems totally disjointed:

This is a goofy, plastic, McDonalds’-toy frame on an interactive painting of limitless possibilities.

It really does seem like Microsoft took a look at the avatars that Nintendo has already launched, and Sony is working on, and made an unholy blend of the two. (If you don’t believe me: here is a Mii, and here is a Home avatar, for reference.) These things are exactly the sort of watered-down design that a focus group tends to shit out.

They will greet you when you turn on the machine. They will become the faces of all your XBL friends. And then you will go and play a game that looks like this. Do you see a disconnect here? It’s too specific. You gotta walk through the Happy Meal entrance to get to all the rides in the park, including Dismemberment Jam 4 and Zombie Marathon. That just doesn’t seem right. And even if you do opt for using your “old” gamerpic, I think you’ll be fenced in on all sides by these casting rejects from Vesperia, no matter where you go in the new “experience”.*

Even the Wii didn’t fall into this trap; The Cute is certainly there to be had in the interface if you dig for it, but a stark white grid that you are presented with when you power the machine on is fairly neutral.

MS wants those casual players to find this charming, but they might be forgetting (or forgetting to care) about the players that put them where they are in the first place.

Also, this new ad campaign. I don’t know who is doing their marketing these days but this one is not far from the infamous Seinfeld “WTF?” ads:

Live Your Moment

A nice bit of motion-tracking, for sure. But the imagery is a little bit… terrifying. You know, people with prominent bits missing from parts of their skull? That tends to set one’s teeth on edge. Spielberg used this effect to disturbing success in A.I. I don’t think the casual audience is going to be so enamoured with this idea. They like the charming Japanese guys who show up in the smartcar. Frankly this is much more of a Sony ad, which tend to have the same theme: “We’re fucking freaky, man. Really freaky, I’m talking David Lynch freaky. For realz. PlayStation 3.”

So in the end I just wonder what it’s going to do to the 360 player base; if it’ll end up bifurcating the audience. It’s practically a different console depending on whether or not you have the harddrive attachment; maybe that’s the idea. Casuals play Arcade units and download Hexic; hardcore players pay out the nose for Elites and Live and continue as they were. If things shake out that way then the fears of the hardcore will have turned out to be right, because I’m pretty damn sure that the original 360 fans could not give a flying fuck about being In The Movies, or multiplayer party trivia, or bobblehead avatars, and yet that is where most of Microsoft’s efforts are going these days (even as they close or “release” more internal studios every month). And in the meantime, we’re all stuck with the minifig invasion. And I do make a distinction between the Japanese implementations and Microsoft’s, as well: both Mii’s and Home are totally optional, existing within separate applications. The 360 avatars are front-and-centre, replacing the old gamercard construct, from everything I’ve seen so far.

The casual frames are fine on their own – I guess – but they should not foist them on their player base. Especially when that base has been pretty happy thus far keeping company with robots, monsters and the undead. The occasional Pinata notwithstanding.

* This isn’t even touching on the problems I have with the actual menu system, which looks like a bastardized Media Centre spinoff. Suffice it to say, I don’t like that you can’t see anything to the left of your focused “panel”, and the growing/shrinking main menu items are distracting and purposeless. That’s a whole other rant.

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6 responses to “Neutering the Xbox 360”

  1. Hahahaha, good ol’ dose of Ryan rant. I just play PC games, although I guess I’m still suckling on the mother-tit of Microsoft in that case… at least I can skin Windows to not look like Windows though. Oh, and I’m not forced to represent myself in any way at all; I HATE Miis, and anything that resembles them.

  2. I guess I’m technically one of the underlings, since I’m over here building it.

    While I understand there’s fear that if MS is looking at the casual audience that the core will get neglected and shafted to the wayside - but I really don’t think that’s going to happen.

    At the end of the day, the Xbox has a massive base of hardcore players, and any move to really screw those gamers is going to have very bad long-term consequences.

    Wait till you’ve given it a tour, see if you hate it so much then. At least you can rest assured that you’ve got people over here taking your views into consideration.

  3. I dislike what I’ve seen of the new interface so far, both in aesthetic and in functionality. The avatars are freakishly proportioned and look kind of creepy. I see how the avatar functionality is useful in assembling groups, but that’s the only instance I’ve seen in the demos presented thus far where functionality is clearly improved beyond what would be easily possible in the current interface.

    I’m willing to be convinced, but I’m definitely skeptical going in.

    On another note, Nerf, I’m collecting PSN friends for Ars Wipeout tomorrow night. I’m sure you’ve got other Ars folks on your friends list, but I’ll shoot you invites to races I’m in or hosting.

  4. I should be clear that I don’t think functionality will be reduced — I don’t think it’s fair to say that the 360 is being “neutered.” But the functionality will have to be much improved to make up for the new aesthetic, in my view.

  5. Angus – thanks for the comments, I look forward to trying the final version. What area specifically are you working in, if I might ask?

    Ajar – I didn’t necessarily mean “neutered” in terms of functionality. In fact I know I didn’t; XBL has always been the most functional online system (outside of maybe Steam)… so I don’t expect functional items to disappear at all versus the old “experience”. I was referring more to the kids-friendly wrapper for the whole new UI. The old one was a bit kludgy and not exactly streamlined but at least the hardcore audience liked it apart from a few quibbles (Game Library).

    And yeah I’ll be on PSN tomorrow night for Wipeout madness, you can be sure about that. :)

  6. Heh, the division breakdown is a little complex, but essentially I’m in an infrastructural team that allows content to be pushed to the consoles. Everything is so inter-related though that you get to know a lot of the people in the entire group.

    I’d like to hear your problems with the menus. =)

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