Monday, August 10, 2009

The State of XBox Live

I can barely remember what Live was like on the Original Xbox. I can remember all the marketing materials that MS released. You see, back then fellow IMS’er Adam and I both worked at a big box retailer and we had a MS rep who came by once a month distributing sales propaganda and free swag. There were claims of a community of gamers, DLC, online tournaments, and free blow jobs for all members (maybe not that last bit…). Unfortunately, back then the Live experience didn’t quite live up to its grand designs. Only a smattering of games actually supported online multiplayer options and most of the games that did were released near the end of its life cycle. I personally don’t remember playing anything other than Halo 2 over Live.

Fast forward a few years and we can see that XBox Live has become all it was originally conceived to be and more. But is it all fun times and cotton candy or has it become a stagnant mess of micro transactions and broken promises. Since MS is fixin’ to roll out an update to XBL, now’s as good a time as any to take a hard look at what XBL is doing right and what sucks.

Works Great

Multiplayer: Given that this is the backbone and raison d’ĂȘtre of XBL its safe to say it’s an overwhelming success. Finding multiplayer matches is usually quite seamless and rarely is connection speed an issue. Yes, I know there are occasionally issues, but I think most of those lie with the devs, not with XBL. In fact, I can’t remember any major connection issues since the infamous Christmas episode of 2007. Oh, and don’t forget about persistent friends lists and the party system.

Netflix: This is one of my favorite additions to XBL, and when the new patch hits it gets even better. The ability to browse content and watch movies/shows directly from the 360 is nice, but probably should have been in place when Netflix first came to XBL. You still can’t choose what resolution you want to watch your stuff at (that is all taken care of behind the scenes and is based on your current bandwidth) but it now adjusts on the fly to any lag and your video is only paused for a second or two while your video quality is adjusted to keep your stream flowing.

Marketplace: I’m torn about the Marketplace, so I’m gonna cheat and split it up where is see fit. The Marketplace does have some pretty sweet things going for it. I could write for lots longer than I want to about how awesome XBLA games are, how sweet it is to play demos of new games, and how (some) games have some damn good DLC, but I’m not going to. They just are.

1v100: I love me some 1v100! It’s a game based on a TV quiz show. Hit up the link to see what this game is all about. Anyone who knows me knows I’m all about trivia so it’s not much of a surprise that I’m gonna gush on this. There are two different versions of 1v100: the Live games (which have real world prizes but are usually only played on Friday and Saturday nights) and the extended play which gets played all through the week and multiple times a day. I’ve never been the One or in the Mob, but that doesn’t mean the game isn’t fun and the lure of being the One will keep drawing me back for more.

Time will tell

Avatars: I’m warming to Avatars. When they first came on the scene it was fun, but they didn’t really do anything. There are a few games that just stick your Avatar on the screen as an additional identifier, but I don’t think that counts. However, it’s looking like our Avatars are going to be doing plenty. 1v100 already features Avatars and Guitar Hero 5 is adding support for Avatars and there are more games coming that put your little dude in the games. Does it add anything to the game? Not really. But I still think it could be cool. There’s also the Avatar awards which will be stuff for your Avatar that is unlocked by playing certain games although there isn’t much info on what that stuff will be.

Avatar Marketplace: I’m not really opposed having clothes and props that you have to pay real money to let your virtual self wear, but so far in the preview there hasn’t been anything that has me opening up my wallet for. All that could change if they offer some Jedi robes…

Total Fail

Ass Hats: There isn’t much do about them, but they are certainly a loud and shitty part of any XBL experience. Don’t think they’re that bad? Ask’s Wombat. He was recently the featured gamer on XBL and his account (and some on his friends list as his list was originally set to public) were flooded by total assholes who left all kinds of bigoted messages. Why? Because they suck at life.

Marketplace: I’m giving a thumbs down to rest of the Marketplace which falls pretty squarely on the Video Marketplace. MS sells/rents TV shows, Movies, and other videos on XBL but prices are pretty steep. An HD movie rents for about $6 and standard def for $4 and an SD episode of Family Guy is $2 which means watching a full season is pretty much out of the question. MS has announced they are adding a new element to the Video Marketplace with streaming HD content. Lets hope they do something about the pricing too.

Last thoughts

In the end, one of the best things going for Live is that MS keeps working to improve the experience and add new features. Some of them may be a little wonky (Netflix parties I’m looking in your direction), but soon they’ll be adding support for Facebook, Twitter, and If those additions payoff, 360 and Live will be taking another step toward being an essential set-top device. But really as long as they keep providing a first rate multiplayer platform for games I’ll keep sending in my $50.