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."