New Xbox Experience: discovery and social go Live

22 11 2008

NXE avatar

NXE adds the ability to create personal avatars


This is an edited version of a comment I wrote at the beginning of November (originally published in Straight Talk Daily). I’ve decided to come back to it here, now that I’ve had more opportunities to explore the NXE dashboard (Microsoft was generous enough to supply me with an Xbox 360 for research purposes) and form stronger impressions.

I think my original impressions of NXE were accurate enough (thankfully), but my efforts to explore Microsoft’s content store have been stymied by a strange technicality afflicting my Xbox Live account. When I created my Xbox Live account I used an existing Windows Live passport that I had been using for MSN, which I had created in Australia before I moved to the UK. Because of this, my Xbox Live account now thinks that I’m in Australia and, incredibly, there is no way to change this! I can change the console location or change my displayed location on my Xbox Live profile, but my account is still tied to Australia.

This is a problem because it means that none of the UK-based content is available to browse or download – which means no paid-for movie downloads! I think this also creates problems for purchasing points and so on, but I haven’t experimented with that aspect yet – to be honest I’m not inclined to risk wasting money on points if I’m not sure they’ll work. I believe I have to create a new Xbox Live account to get around this, which I think is a pointless and inexcusable error on Microsoft’s behalf. If I had spent years accumulating gaming achievements and an online identity, I would be absolutely LIVID if I was forced to discard my account for a reason as trivial as this.

Other than this issue, I think the NXE does what it says on the tin, and I’m a big fan of the Xbox 360’s ability to stream video and music from my home network. The final paragraph of my comment criticises Microsoft for lacking a true content ecosystem, I should emphasise that I mean an ecosystem for paid-for download content. The Xbox 360 is a great addition to a DRM-free content ecosystem! Just another demonstration that consumers are still much better off ripping their own purchased DVDs and music (despite the legal grey areas). By trying to preserve the value of their content using DRM, content owners are engaged in a self-defeating exercise. Content is far more valuable to consumers when it comes without crippling restrictions.

(November 3, 2008) Microsoft recently showed me what it calls its New Xbox Experience (NXE), a dashboard upgrade to the Xbox 360 games console. NXE gives the console a completely new user interface, improving the navigation on the console and adding some interesting personalisation, social and content discovery features. But I think Microsoft could have pushed further and cemented the Xbox 360’s place as a true entertainment hub.

Xbox Live is central to the Xbox user experience

My first impressions of the NXE upgrade were positive: the look and feel of the new software has greatly improved, and the changes will be popular with serious and more casual gamers alike. Microsoft has integrated its Xbox Live online service right into the heart of the console interface, with online content displaying alongside local content throughout the dashboard.

Jerry Johnson, General Manager, Xbox Live EMEA, explained that the new dashboard had been designed for a discovery (rather than a task-based) experience. The intention was to make users feel more comfortable exploring on their console, rather than simply switching it on for a single purpose. Exposing users to a wider array of paid-for content is a significant upshot to the redesign, and there is plenty of this available in the form of video downloads, the Xbox Live Arcade (downloadable games), game fan content and in-game add-ons (such as map packs, songs or character costumes). This premium downloadable content is clearly generating significant revenues, with the most popular content including map packs for some of its ‘triple-A’ game titles (Halo 3 and Call of Duty 4), and song packs for music game Rock Band.

Xbox Live has always been a real competitive advantage for Microsoft, as neither Nintendo nor Sony has managed to integrate online gaming, community and content features to the extent that Microsoft has done. This NXE update, combined with recent aggressive price drops, leaves Microsoft feeling confident leading into the ‘holiday’ season, when console sales are traditionally strongest.

Social features and improved accessibility broaden the appeal of Live

Microsoft has also added to the personalisation and social aspects of Xbox Live by giving players the ability to create a personal avatar (a cartoon character with customisable features and costume) linked to the player’s in-game achievements and online identity. Xbox Live players have always had a ‘gamer tag’ for rankings, achievements and friends, but with NXE this capability is expanded with extra social features (voice chat, friend groups) and easier ways of interacting with friends.

Part of this approach is broadening the appeal of Xbox Live, taking online gaming beyond the ‘foul-mouthed adolescent boy’ demographic and presenting a fun, accessible online environment for women and casual gamers. Women play games in huge numbers (Ovum’s recent report on our consumer survey showed that more than 15% of women aged 18-35 intend to buy a games console in the next 12 months) and Microsoft recognises this.

Where’s the device ecosystem?

NXE is definitely an improvement to the Xbox experience, but we think it should have gone further. Microsoft has spent years positioning the Xbox as a true entertainment ‘hub’ that goes beyond gaming. Xbox 360 can stream content from a PC and play it on a TV, but this is no longer a strong differentiator, and we would like to see Microsoft push further. Despite having all the pieces in place, Microsoft doesn’t seem to have a strategy for building a true content ecosystem around its various devices.

We believe that a true connected media hub would allow customers to buy content on any device, and then transfer it between multiple devices of different form factors to view it as and when they wish. This is possible (but fiddly) where DRM is absent, but until content owners allow legal DRM-free video download stores (if ever) an ecosystem approach will rely on multi-device DRM. The only company that seems willing and capable of building a content ecosystem is Apple (as long as you are willing to stick with Apple products). But with its Xbox, Zune, Windows, Windows Mobile and Windows CE platforms, Microsoft has the potential to create a powerful content ecosystem, across a huge array of devices from a huge array of manufacturers. Unfortunately, the company seems to struggle to break down its internal silos and deliver a true ecosystem experience.

Launching Zune into those markets where Microsoft already has an Xbox Live Marketplace and integrating Zune content into Xbox Live would be a good first start. This would bulk up the relatively weak video and music offerings currently on Xbox Live, while adding value for owners of both devices. This can only be good for content owners – consumers won’t buy content where they don’t see value.

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