More Ads, Less Services and Poor Functionality - The Continuing Decline of Xbox Live

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Remember the “blades” operating system? That was nice, wasn’t it? In retrospect the original Xbox 360 dashboard may not have been the most attractive, but you could get everything you wanted from it quickly and easily. It was built with gamers in mind, designed from the ground up to make our online lives a little easier. 

But then everything started to go wrong.

Unfortunately, Microsoft seems to have been on a mission to undo all of its good work ever since. It has introduced a couple of major redesigns that have brought more adverts and more non-game-related apps, while major gaming services have been buried or removed entirely. It’s a sorry state of affairs.

In an effort to evolve the Xbox 360 from a console into an entertainment hub, Microsoft has forgotten the people that helped establish the brand in the first place: Us.

It’s pretty easy to identify where it all went wrong. In December last year, Microsoft introduced a new dashboard designed to reflect the look of the Metro operating system used on Windows Phones and in Windows 8. Undoubtedly attractive, the tile-based redesign has been an absolute nightmare for users.

The first complaints focused on the amount of advertising. The new layout provides space on every single page that is dedicated to advertisements. Indeed, in many cases more space is given to ads than actual features. It means that users have to wade through all of the extraneous fluff before they can get to what they really want. It’s intrusive and usability suffers as a result. 

This is accentuated by the design of the thing. If you want to launch a game from your library then you have to scroll past the Home, Social and Video tabs, before then clicking on My Games to get to what you actually want. Rather than making playing games - on your games console - the most immediate function, the redesign instead prioritises entirely non-game-related features.

Microsoft’s treatment of Xbox Live Indie Games is a further example. The service launched to much fanfare in November 2008, but was subsequently undermined and ignored, a situation that reached a nadir in 2011 when the redesign buried it almost entirely. Microsoft eventually adjusted the placement of XBLIG to bring it slightly more to the fore, but that was only in response to outrage by both consumers and developers alike.

Ultimately, this is all indicative of Microsoft’s focus. The company has made no secret of its desire to turn the Xbox 360 into an entertainment hub for the whole family, rather than just a dedicated console. This has been the aim since long before the redesign. That’s why the service has seen an influx of social and media apps. Ultimately Microsoft wants its machine to be the only box beneath your living room television. It’s a worthy goal. But it shouldn’t come at the expense of what the majority of gamers actually want.

Most worryingly, we’ve seen indications in recent weeks that the situation may get even worse.

On Wednesday it was announced that Inside Xbox, XBL’s game-based video content, is to be canned. Across the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, shows like Major's Minute, Featured Videos and Insider Moves will come to an end. Other territories may well follow suit. The intention, says Microsoft, is not to eradicate game-based video content entirely, but instead to farm it out elsewhere.

What this means is that the company will no longer have a community-facing video game show in those regions, despite the overwhelming influx of video content tailored to every other entertainment need. Put bluntly, Microsoft doesn't want to talk to you about games any more, it would rather get someone else to do it for them.

It’s a shame, but then as some commenters pointed out - it’s not like you could find Inside Xbox on the dash anyway, because it was hidden under so much crap.

There’s more troubling news too, in the form of yet more advertisements. Last week it was revealed that Microsoft has struck a deal to introduce 15-30 second commercials to the service, to run within TV and video apps on Xbox Live. More and more of your time on the console will now be spent watching adverts, rather than experiencing the content you choose to enjoy.

Xbox Live has seen a 142 per cent increase in advertising revenue since 2010, the same year that Bloomberg estimated that the service had generated more than $1 billion. Users pay a subscription fee for Gold membership - which has also seen a recent increase - so Microsoft’s decision to introduce more ads while cutting services is massively disappointing.

With Xbox 360 and Xbox Live, Microsoft does many things right. XBL continues to provide functionality that users on other platforms have been requesting for years. It does a decent job of bringing gamers together online, allowing them to chat and play and share their experiences. But much of this was established years ago. Recent developments have only eroded the good work.

So what can we do? Well, beyond canceling our Xbox Live subscriptions, not a lot. Far more advisable would be to make your voice heard. You can start by helping to save Inside Xbox across Europe, the Middle East and Africa, by signing the petition here. It’s a worthy cause, with a carefully thought out message.

After the price increase to Xbox Live subscribers last year,” reads the petition, “it was expected that more money would be put into these services, not a complete cancellation. Please don't let a poor dashboard design, which caused the Inside Xbox videos to be buried behind a user-unfriendly menu system, end the life of the shows so many of us love.”

And that just about sums it up. The redesign is poor, the price has increased, the services are being eradicated and gamers’ needs are not being addressed. It’s time we asked for more.

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