When the last big Xbox LIVE update arrived, eschewing the 'Blades' format for a decidedly Apple iTunes-esque design, I couldn't help but think Microsoft had abandoned functionality for form. Sure, it was stylish and simple, each distinct section split into columns whose contents were ordered into a lineup visible from beginning to end. But, damn; did it waste a lot of empty space.
Well, the iTunes-esque design has now been replaced, with Microsoft bringing Xbox LIVE in line with their 'Metro' interface available across their popular Windows Phone lineup. It also enables better Kinect integration, ditching finicky icons for big, bold panels and clearly defined sections. But by ditching Apple in favor of Windows, has Microsoft ensured we, their users, have a better experience to enjoy? Or is it simply a case of 'out with the old, in with the new'?
That's A BING-GO!
Xbox LIVE's Metro update largely allows Microsoft to do two things; it removes the need for a separate Kinect dashboard, with Metro's mobile-inclinations favoring the stroke and swipe nature of Kinect; and champion Bing, their ailing search-engine rival to Google. As for the former, the Metro update is no doubt a better option for Kinect owners. It's dense layout - the individual icons and panels clumped together in a Lego brick-style fashion - makes for swifter navigation instead of laboriously dragging the cursor across empty swathes of screen to reach your destination.
As for Bing, it's inclusion is actually quite useful. Instead of surfing the net, you're sifting through all the data stored on your console, from games to films and music, as well as LIVE's voluminous library of content and partners. So, if you were to type in 'Batman', for example, your progress on Arkham Asylum and City might pop up, alongside options to rent 'Batman Begins' from LOVEFILM and the like.
All in all, it's obvious that Microsoft is attempting to bridge their mobile and desktop interfaces together, along with LIVE, resulting in a uniform aesthetic you'll instantly recognize. LIVE's Metro update, however, is a little different, as its tailored towards empowering Kinect users so the peripheral is less of a chore to navigate with. But what of Metro's integration with games?
Games Come First... Right?
Wrong. In order to find the 'Games' tab on the Metro update, you must flick past your friends list, social media options and TV and film channels in order to find it. Of course, whatever game is loaded in your tray can be accessed on the first tab's top left-hand panel, and a 'Quick Launch' panel below afford quick access to whatever else.
But it's unsettling to find the 'Games' tab so far down. Certainly, the Xbox 360 has transitioned from a games console to a multimedia hub. You can download and watch films and music, access Facebook, Twitter and the like, host chat sessions and communicate with friends across the globe. But often when a company abandons their first principle you notice a decline in interest, and Microsoft would be wise to remember the 360's roots. Games first, everything else a very close second.
And yet, it's startling obvious why Microsoft opted for this strategy: advertizing space. Fire up the new dashboard, notice how Metro's panels - their size a measure of importance - prioritize the likes of Sky and LOVEFILM, who no doubt have lucrative partnerships with Microsoft, both parties benefiting from the new layout, have equal or greater size to the icon for playing a game.
Where Microsoft has obviously made their biggest mistake with the Metro update is in regards to to their independent gaming section. While Arcade or Games on Demand divisions require eight button presses from the home-screen to reach, the indie section's top downloads list is a whopping seventeen presses away. The indie scene is, understandably, up in arms, with Microsoft once again displaying a clear disregard for this particular niche industry.
Speaking on the MSDN forums, an indie developer posted that "everyone knows the top downloads list is where the good money was made". However, with the top downloads list hidden beneath a mound of advertizing space and redundant button-prompts, it's now a lot harder for their hard work to be recognized, even if you are selected on the list. Pouncing Kitten, whose Poker Nights and Air Hockey games can be found - with some difficulty, I admit - on LIVE, took to the frothing forums to vent their own concerns. "This is just a giant F-U to all of us," one of their developers said. "There is simply no other way to put it."
Not all of the independent teams share their justified vitriol, however, with Awesome Games applauding the new ratings system for indie games and claiming it means there are "much more ways to reach Indie games than before the update". However, such opinions can barely be heard above the cacophonous din of the remaining indie developer's anger at the update, an issue Microsoft will no doubt have to address in the near future.
Overall, Xbox LIVE's Metro update feels like a step in the right direction in regards to Kinect functionality and making Bing feel relevant. But on the other hand, it's yet another blow to the indie scene, a thriving community of genuinely talented developers breaking every boundary except that of Microsoft's recognition. We'll no doubt have more to say on this matter in the coming months when - or 'if' - Microsoft look to address their laundry list of problems.