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Interview: There's A New Xbox 360 UI, But Some Things Just Don't Change
Interview: There's A New Xbox 360 UI, But Some Things Just Don't Change
September 9, 2011 | By Christian Nutt

September 9, 2011 | By Christian Nutt
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing

In an update designed to "lay the groundwork for our entertainment future," this fall Microsoft will launch an entirely new look and feel for the Xbox 360 interface, bringing it in line with the "Metro" UI found in Windows 8 and Windows Phone 7.

The update, which enters open beta next month and doesn't yet have a firm launch date, will also unify the controller and Kinect interfaces for the console, says Microsoft's director of platform marketing, Albert Penello, who met with Gamasutra in San Francisco for a demonstration and discussion.

He said that the update is "probably as big, if not bigger, in terms of what we did around NXE in terms of a significant change to the UI," referring to the late 2008 "New Xbox Experience" update, the last major overhaul of the console's UI.

The upcoming update concentrates on "three big areas" according to Penello: "performance, consistent and easy navigation [and] ubiquitous search and voice." The update brings Microsoft's Bing search service to the console, and aims to index content by name so it can easily be found by Xbox users.

"The definition of a game console is changing over time. What people expect and want is changing," he said. "This update gets us into a place where we can expand more rapidly without breaking the experience for people who are primarily there to play games."

He noted that "innovation has outpaced the dash[board] updates" since the company launched its last overhaul, and this one is designed to put the platform in a position to grow more intelligently.

Penello told Gamasutra that this update has been in the works "probably as far back as two years," with some of its seeds planted in the "pre-Kinect days."

"No more dead ends... If you can see it you can say it," said Penello, as he demoed the voice recognition features of the new "unified dash," which no longer has separate interfaces for Kinect and controller users.

"Our big philosophy is, 'the entertainment you want with the people you care about made easy,'" said Penello."

When it comes to the "entertainment" part of the equation, the company -- which is already working with ESPN -- is bringing UFC fights to the platform as well as adding YouTube support. Microsoft isn't ready to discuss other entertainment plans for the North American market, Penello said., but he did confirm that "we're going to be bringing live TV and on-demand to Xbox."

There's "a lot of change and volatility around linear content," he said, and to address that, "we're taking a very partner-centric approach." Penello also hinted that further announcements along these lines may come "as the fall hits."

The company has also added a top level slot for "apps" to the interface. "If it wasn't a game, music, or a video option" in the old interface, it got lost, he said. "There was really no place for us to put apps that were non-game apps." Penello did not divulge any plans for new additions, and stressed that the app section will be even more closed to developers than Xbox Live Arcade is.

"It's unlikely that our strategy is going to let anybody build apps... It's going to be more partnership-driven," he told Gamasutra.

The company, however, has launched an app SDK so that developers can "use voice, search, gesture, and Kinect as well." The company's attitude towards apps is for "security, safety, things don't break, the experience is consistent," he said.

He also spoke strongly of the need for control over the Xbox Live Arcade space, describing it as "a curated marketplace" with "curated content."

Currently, independent developers cannot publish games directly to Xbox Live Arcade, as the company requires a publisher also sell packaged games to earn XBLA slots. Indie developers must therefore sign with Microsoft or another publisher to see their games on the service.

"We do have the indie games model," Penello said, before quickly admitting that there "needs to be more discovery around that" for Xbox 360 users. Developers have complained that it is almost impossible to succeed on XBLIG.

But as for locking down XBLA? "Having more premium gaming experiences that have a higher barrier of entry is not necessarily a bad thing," he said, despite any "unintended consequences" -- such as locking out quality games from talented developers that might otherwise appear were the market more open.

Microsoft is very concerned about the "quality of the games" on the platform in general, he said -- be they on XBLA or packaged -- and Penello seemed satisfied with the company's decision to maintain a publisher barrier for Xbox Live Arcade, even if it might make things difficult for indies.

"Having a certain barrier of entry that makes sure the quality of content is high is a good thing," he said.

Back to discoverability -- an issue that affects both Xbox Live Arcade and Xbox Live Indie Games. There are "thousands and thousands of pieces of content" on the Xbox Marketplace, said Penello, and there is a "ton of collision" between different types of content.

"The goal is to solve a lot of those types of problems, through search, through just general UI improvements -- making that stuff easier to find."

"Developers are frustrated that their content disappears and can't be found," he admitted. "Discoverability is a lot about UI," he said, adding that he "absolutely hopes" the new UI will help users discover games.

"We didn't even have a real, broad catalog search ability, and we went from that to broad catalog search and voice search," he said. And the improvements will continue as the company gets more metadata into its database, he added.

"Certainly the intent, over time, to sort by genre and subtype is going to become enhanced," he said. Bing will "do the best it can with the catalog," Penello said -- "there are no preset search terms."

"The gaming stuff is really front and center" to the Xbox 360 experience, he said, even if the system's linear entertainment options are increasing.

"We're trying to do it in a way that doesn't break the gaming experience."

Facebook integration will come with the update, and allow players to publish achievements to their Facebook wall. The Xbox XDK is adding "hooks into Facebook as well," said Penello, "so games can start doing more interesting things with Facebook."

Roaming profiles and cloud storage are also coming sometime this fall, as well as "beacons" -- which are like game invites which don't expire, so gamers can put their friends on notice for the games they most want to play.

One enhancement that will not be coming to Xbox Live, however, is an opening of the network to uses such as Valve's Steamworks, which was implemented on the PlayStation 3 version of Portal 2 but not the Xbox 360 version.

Valve founder Gabe Newell recently told Gamasutra that Sony has "made a really smart set of decisions about their approach, and that they'll continue to garner more and more benefits from that approach going forward."

"I feel like one of the philosophies of being the gaming console, and being safe and easy and secure, a lot of the decisions we make are derived around that," said Penello. "Sometimes you lose some opportunities, and sometimes you benefit from that."

So the company is not in the process of rethinking this position? "No," he said. As far as Valve is concerned, though, Penello said "I'm sure someone's talking to them.

And what of Braid creator Jonathan Blow's assertion to Gamasutra that "even the argument that XBLA is the biggest market is starting to come into question," and that he might stick to Steam and iOS for upcoming game The Witness?

"It's always a bummer when people make a choice like that, but we have to better understand what the root cause is," said Penello.

"I'd like to think that the more people we can get finding and consuming stuff" will make the platform more compelling to developers, he said. He considers any shift away from XBLA "more a question of consumption, than a business model situation."

"If that's the root cause, then this is the right direction to solve it," he said, of the new UI.

Steam and other PC-based digital services are also much more aggressive with sales and promotions than Xbox Live Arcade is. "The PC model is diferent than the model on console," argued Penello.

However, he said, "from a standpoint of getting better at merchandising and playing with price promotions, I know there's a lot of discussion going on around that."

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David Nottingham
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It's MS right to have a curated content strategy, but I would love to see quality decisions based on something other than a Publisher mandate. That is at best insensitive, at worst obstructionist to all the independent game makers who go their own way specifically for the creative autonomy that yields amazing unique pieces of work.

Gaming Droid
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I believe the idea is to let their publishing partners do the quality filtering of what games to release on Xbox Live Arcade. That actually allows the developer to have more options to get published than if it went strictly through MS.

Seems like a win-win for everyone or am I missing something?

Dave Long
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It's a huge loss for XBLA - Shatter is an excellent game, but it's published by the Devs - so it's on PSN and PC, but not on XBLA. The reason Sony can do it is they do the content filtering themselves (not always well, mind ;)), and allow indies on their service. Clearly, their selection pales in comparison to Steam, but the range of quality diverse material on PSN puts XBLA to shame, and largely because of XBLA's silly restrictive practices.

Wylie Garvin
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Yuck. I guess I'll never connect my 360 to the internet again...

Lyon Medina
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Umm, Why?

David Fuchs
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@David Nottingham:

What makes you think this will affect (or negatively affect) indie game developers (beyond what's already the standard)? Unifying the dash and making it simpler seems like a win-win for everyone. With Win8 and the Metro design, Microsoft seems to be taking a similar page from Apple in that losing some aspects to strengthen a simpler core is a boon. Likewise, curating content seems like a good idea... yes, sometimes the good gets cut out, but more often it prevents fistfuls of shovelware. I prefer the latter. If you want an independent way to put out your games, frankly console development is against you from the start.

Lyon Medina
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It is a hard choice, but Microsoft is choosing the choice less traveled. I think in a lot of way they are hard headed about their choices, but sometimes it is needed. Is this one of those situations? Only time will tell.

The new UI looks great, but unless Kinect is going to be apart o the Z-Box (My term for the new X-Box) Its seems rather wasteful upgrading.

Kinect support is great because I own one, but its in my living room. No space in my bedroom where my X-Box is. I might move it to my bed room, but I need a lot more for that then just Bing search.

I have not seen the programming yet for the TV and if it is good enough I would more than gladly move over to that service. They need to impress me though. I have DVR and that is the bare minimum I need.

I have used the community games feature on X-Box as well as Valve's and personally it is a different market because Valve has good indie games. Most of the content on the X-Box indie games is pretty bad. You come across the gem content from time to time like "The Dish Washer" where the game is great, but this argument where people give that they cannot be discovered on the Indie games site I believe is grossly overestimated. I have bought many indie games off a friend(s) recommendations. I think with the new Bing Search it should make things easier, but its needs to be more of a community effort of players and creators to make good games and spread the word about them. Valve has that good community.

c anderson
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I just want to be able to disable/hide stuff I don't care about.

Adam Bishop
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Yes, this. Why do I have to turn off invitations if I turn off achievement notifications? Why can't I decide which notifications I want and which I don't?

Ujn Hunter
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Why can't we just have an option for a bare bones dashboard? I personally don't need any of that clutter. It's too bad that you can't keep the dashboard that suits you best (I'd have kept the original Blades dash pre-Avatar nonsense).

Marcus Miller
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I'm glad that Sony on the PS3's GUI right the first time. No needs for semi annual updates like M$.

Lyon Medina
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Is that why they changed it? A couple of times?

This is to good. We need something worse than this..

Benjamin Quintero
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sooo... nothing has changed then, right? right...

gotta love progress.

Dave Endresak
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This sounds like the efforts of Todd Howard at Bethesda and others who are strongly pushing to open consoles for modding is being shot down, at least for the Xbox 360. I agree that time will tell the tale, but based on market trends of the past several years or so, I think this is the wrong direction.

Dave Long
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"Todd Howard at Bethesda and others who are strongly pushing to open consoles for modding is being shot down"

Half of the HD console market _is_ open for modding - it's just MS aren't open to letting multiplat games having features on PS3 that can't be supported on 360. The last few months have shown it pretty clearly that MS is holding console multiplats back, and it's pretty hard to paint the story any other way. A stark contrast to the PS2 days, when Sony had much more market power but still 'let' multiplats perform better on Xbox. Sony has it's 'moments', don't get me wrong, but other than introducing competitive pressure to the HD console market, they're a drag on the industry.

Dave Long
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"Steam and other PC-based digital services are also much more aggressive with sales and promotions than Xbox Live Arcade is. "The PC model is diferent than the model on console," argued Penello. "

There are plenty of sales on PSN - it just sounds more and more like MS are losing initiative here. Not a huge surprise if you check out their PC 'marketplace' where (just like XBLA), it's overpriced, hard to navigate, hard to find content and limited in range of games available. MS are and have been for some time holding back gaming, just like they hold back office software and have stifled innovation in OS development. The MS model is get customers hooked, through a near-monopoly (Office, Windows) or social factors (XBL), then fleece 'em for all their worth. And they're very, _very_ good at it.

wes bogdan
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It's too bad i can't upgrade my own HDD on 360-s like i can on both ps3 fatty or slim simply because ms put a plastic box around a 2.5 inch sata drive. More storage is always better and my ps3 fatty has a 500GB while my slim has a 640GB HDD and when kinect r2 360 arrives it'll only have a 320GB HDD.

The facebook achievement posting is nice but i've had that on my ps3 for quite some time.

As for cloud storage here's where ms has an opportunity to out do sony as with ps + you have cloud saves but a pathetic amount so if they gave all xblg members 20GB THEN SONY WOULD NEED TO PLAY CATCH UP.

What i want to see and is long over due as i could do this on xbox 1 is put my xbl profile on as many 360's as i own while only 1 can be logged in @ any given time but again sony has this done already as when you buy a slim all you need do provided you have a fatty is log in and that's it 2 systems ,1 gamertag and both are always logged in to your 1 gamertag.

Kinect full integration sounds gimmicky but more useful in netflix or huluplus.

Dave Long
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lol - 20GB is a _lot_ of data for game saves! I've got saves from a stack of games on my cloud, and it wouldn't be half-full. I can see myself filling it in time, but I reckon you'd be fairly safe with a straight 1 GB, unless you're planning multiple Afrika saves ;).

Kevin Patterson
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What I want is the ability to have two xbox's in one house, one xbox playing games, one xbox playing netflix, at the same time, under 1 account. Its annoying that netflix is for gold members only for that reason.

Dave Long
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PS3's been good for that since year dot (well, since they started doing Netflix at least) - we run one PS3 for PlayTV/Movie Streaming/the occasional party game, and the other for core games. Given the strength of Kinect and their growing strength in multimedia, it's surprising MS hasn't caught up on this front.

David Holmin
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Add search by publisher and developer, please, like the Wii has.