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Ads, Games, and the Growing Complexity of Xbox Live

The lack of advertising for Mark of the Ninja upon its release really bothered me, and here's a few reasons why.

A look at Xbox Live’s front page over the past few weeks included a big, fat advertisement for Mark of the Ninja, quite possibly this year’s best release for the platform. When Mark of the Ninja was released on Friday, September 7, however, there wasn’t one. Okay, that’s not completely true--it was on the games tab.

This is what Xbox Live looked like the day after Mark of the Ninja launched on the service.

But who actually navigates to the games tab to learn about new content on Xbox Live? I don’t. Do you? We head to the games tab to purchase something we’ve already been convinced on.

Microsoft should be applauded for crafting an interface that, while rightfully scrutinized in recent revisions, can prove useful to the user and creator, and help expose them to one another. That’s not as easy to do on Wii or PlayStation 3, and having to open a store will always mean some never see it. It's an important distinction.

It’s frustrating, then, to turn on Xbox Live and see nothing but advertisements for movies and politics. (Though, good on Microsoft should for attempting to inform a demographic of the electorate that is historically finicky when it comes to voting.)

Ads promoting Mark of the Ninja, a Microsoft-published release, were nowhere to be found on Friday, September 7. It was Microsoft’s decision to publish Mark of the Ninja on that day. It was, then, up to Microsoft to give up one of its likely lucrative advertisements slots for it. And that’s where I'm guessing the rub is. Promoting Mark of the Ninja might end up with more sales for Mark of the Ninja, and thus more profit for Microsoft, but it’s not a guarantee. If no one clicks on the advertisement to download Snow White and the Huntsmen, Microsoft still pockets the ad money.

Yeah, Microsoft eventually gave Mark of the Ninja prominent placement on the dashboard, but like other media, games typically do their best business on the first day of release. It’s where you build momentum forward. Mark of the Ninja was released on a Friday, and that’s when reviews and social networks were buzzing about the game.

“Better late than never,” said Supergiant Games creative director Greg Kasavin to me Twitter.

Kasavin was responding to a photo (pictured above) where I showed relief that Mark of the Ninja was now promoted. Another user asked whether or not days later was a big deal, which Kasavin was quick to discuss.

“Late isn't a stretch,” he said. “Many games do their best business on the first day of release and then it's all downhill.”

If someone had seen an advertisement for Mark of the Ninja when booting up their Xbox 360 that night, maybe it would have helped pushed them over the edge. When a title's within the games tab (or, worse, buried in the games library), the chances of just finding something become more and more remote. These games deserve better.

Friday has become a new, unexpected slot for XBLA releases. Mark of the Ninja joins Fez, Joe Danger: The Movie, and others. In the TV world, having a show on Friday night is a death sentence, as many consumers are out enjoying the weekend. Discoverability is huge problem on XBL, and prominent ads are one way, albeit not a great one, to combat that. If a user boots their Xbox 360 once that weekend, possibly for a round of Call of Duty, that ad is vital.

Microsoft is under no obligation to make the front of Xbox Live wholly dedicated to video games, and I’m not expecting or asking them to. That said, video games are the reason Microsoft’s box is in a position to compete as an all-in-one media solution, the holy grail when it comes to today’s television, and the games aren't getting their due.

I asked Microsoft to provide some clarification on how its advertisements for self-published games are determined, and got this statement in response:

“We do not share the editorial details of how we determine promotional merchandising placement on the Xbox LIVE dashboard, which is separate from the paid advertising that appears on the service.”

...which is exactly the answer I expected, and I don't blame Microsoft for not saying anymore. Ads are determined on a game-by-game basis, and are often part part of contrats between Microsoft, both as a platform holder and a publisher. Getting ad placement can, for example, change the royalty share on a game. That's not true of every game, but it happens, and shows the kind of power Microsoft wields when it comes to discoverability on its service.

This isn’t the first time it's happened, and it probably won’t be the last (see: Joe Danger). I’m not sure why this particular situation incensed me so much. Maybe it's because I’ve heard similar stories of developers upset at the disconnect between the internal teams at Microsoft who handle game development and game promotion. Maybe it’s because Mark of the Ninja is just a damn good game, and it’d be an awful shame if more people didn’t play it.

More than anything, though, XBL has the power to expose great games to more people. It's a tool of money and power, and it has the ability to do more than I ever could. Can you fault me for wanting Microsoft to use it well?

Patrick Klepek on Google+
224 Comments
Posted by Tesla

This article alludes to the bigger issue at hand: just how shitty the 360 dashboard has become. It utterly fails now from both a design aesthetic and as an advertising tool. The first point of that statement requires no elaboration. Everyone with eyes knows its a clusterfuck. It's buckshot advertising...just load a bunch of shit into the barrel and fire it at our audience. They're sure to buy one of those things.

In my case this has caused a thousand yard stare of sorts. I've built up a resistance to the constant bombardment of bullshit, and so now I don't pay attention to any of it.

On a related note, this will be my last time renewing Gold. And I don't even pay 60 for it...I'm one of those smart monkeys that figured out you can get it cheaper on Amazon. Even $35 a year is too much for this bloatware.

Posted by fisk0

@patrickklepek sai

Microsoft should be applauded for crafting an interface that, while rightfully scrutinized in recent revisions, can prove useful to the user and creator, and help expose them to one another. That’s not as easy to do on Wii or PlayStation 3, and having to open a store will always mean some never see it. It's an important distinction.

I know there are some differences between the XMB layouts in the US and EU (when you've shown the XMB in Quicklooks there's always an ad scroller below the system clock, which I've rarely seen here), but my EU PS3 automatically opens an "What's New" window when I boot it up, which is an 18 tile grid, where the first row (3 tiles) generally is a big SCEE announcement or recent release, the second row is your three most recently played games, and the next 12 tiles are ad spaces with a selection of PlayStation store releases, both games and media, as well as some PlayStation Plus content.

Isn't that what you're talking about? It doesn't require you to open the store to see some of the new releases, though the What's New thing can be disabled in system preferences (which of course about the same number of people who would never have opened the PlayStation Store would probably never look for in the settings either).

The current contents of the What's New page is a row about the new PS3 slim, ads for Little Big Planet Vita, Machinarium, Sound Shapes, Jet Set Radio, some Pink music video at Vidzone and some stuff about the PlayStation Plus Instant Game Collection.

Posted by MattSchwabby

@Tesla said:

This article alludes to the bigger issue at hand: just how shitty the 360 dashboard has become. It utterly fails now from both a design aesthetic and as an advertising tool. The first point of that statement requires no elaboration. Everyone with eyes knows its a clusterfuck. It's buckshot advertising...just load a bunch of shit into the barrel and fire it at our audience. They're sure to buy one of those things.

In my case this has caused a thousand yard stare of sorts. I've built up a resistance to the constant bombardment of bullshit, and so now I don't pay attention to any of it.

On a related note, this will be my last time renewing Gold. And I don't even pay 60 for it...I'm one of those smart monkeys that figured out you can get it cheaper on Amazon. Even $35 a year is too much for this bloatware.

Explain how it is a bad design aesthetic. What are some examples of better design in your opinion?

Posted by EXTomar

Many feel it is a failure of aesthetics because they are seeing things that are undesirable to them. It would be like jumping into Giantbomb.com and seeing articles about "10 delicious cake recipes" and "How to unjam your garbage disposal" all over it. It isn't that you don't want that information but in that context it is annoying. You'd wonder what they were doing right?

Edited by Tesla

@MattSchwabby: It is the jack of all trades, master of none. There is a little bit of everything on that dashboard. The problem with trying to please everyone, however, is that you end up pleasing no one.

The game you have in the tray is given no more prominence than the 5 or 6 other ads that are on the Home tab. There are ads on every. single. tab. For Silver members I can understand a bit more of an advertising presence. But when my experience is this inundated with ads I have to ask "what am I paying for?"

None of this would be a problem if so much of what is on there wasn't useless trash. I want to play video games and watch Netflix. They would do well to *gasp* take a page from Sony's XMB and limit the ads to the store front for Gold members. That would be a nice start.

Bottom line, it does not look cool. It looks like an interactive billboard. Marketing department loves the design, consumer does not.

Posted by Aleryn

Good article. Thanks for bringing this up as a full feature, Patrick.

Edited by warrenEBB

huh. I haven't seen any mention that: maybe it was intentional?

Marketing can be a sort of black magic (or a giant war with many battles). Maybe some marketing guy was curious how an indie game would sell based on reviews and word of mouth, separate from front page promotion to the masses. the best way to gauge this would be to give word of mouth a few days before you drop the ad.

When Zero Punctuation videos pop up on twitter and facebook at different times, hours after the video debuted on the site, I assume it's an experiment in gauging visitor traffic. Seeing which push delivered the most eyeballs, each time. (I know it could be incompetence, or a way to stagger traffic so the site doesn't crash. but in this modern world of massive marketing power, I tend towards thinking Marketing was experimenting with something).

Posted by blurienh

The 360 dash if far from perfect these days but I really disagree with you on this Patrick, I think the vote thing is much more important to be on the home blade because otherwise you wouldn't know or expect it to be on there. I check the games tab every few days to see whats new and if I need something to play I have a dig around, download a couple of trials to see if I like any of them. This game got the main slot in the games section and I don't think anyone not willing or bothered enough to click across 3 or so tabs to the games is going to download anything so putting it on the home blade wouldn't have helped it much more. I think the home blade is the best place for ads if we have to have them, I like that I have a place (the games blade) where all the stuff I'm interested on for Xbox is together, I don't do movies or music on my Xbox so I can ignore them parts.

Posted by MattSchwabby

@Tesla said:

@MattSchwabby: It is the jack of all trades, master of none. There is a little bit of everything on that dashboard. The problem with trying to please everyone, however, is that you end up pleasing no one.

The game you have in the tray is given no more prominence than the 5 or 6 other ads that are on the Home tab. There are ads on every. single. tab. For Silver members I can understand a bit more of an advertising presence. But when my experience is this inundated with ads I have to ask "what am I paying for?"

None of this would be a problem if so much of what is on there wasn't useless trash. I want to play video games and watch Netflix. They would do well to *gasp* take a page from Sony's XMB and limit the ads to the store front for Gold members. That would be a nice start.

Bottom line, it does not look cool. It looks like an interactive billboard. Marketing department loves the design, consumer does not.

Ahh ok. I misunderstood. I thought you were actually talking about the aesthetic qualities of the dashboard, not the content. Yeah if ads bug you then I can see why you wouldn't like the dashboard. Aesthetically speaking, it is very well designed.

Posted by MattSchwabby

@EXTomar said:

Many feel it is a failure of aesthetics because they are seeing things that are undesirable to them. It would be like jumping into Giantbomb.com and seeing articles about "10 delicious cake recipes" and "How to unjam your garbage disposal" all over it. It isn't that you don't want that information but in that context it is annoying. You'd wonder what they were doing right?

Funny you mention that. Lately, I have noticed some ads below giantbomb articles that aren't video game related when I'm not logged in.

Posted by Sammo21

All of this could be fixed if you could customise your dashboard completely, but Microsoft won't do that because then you wouldn't have ads in your face on every portion of the bar. I think the only two spaced that don't, in my beta version, is the friends tab and the settings tab.

Posted by ralphredimix

@MattSchwabby: Yes, there was just an ad for dove soap in front of a video. We know gamers don't bathe so wtf is that doing here?

Posted by Eli

Man, I really like Patrick as a person and agree with his opinions more times than not, but this article has numerous, dumb mistake typos that I feel should've been caught in editing. I know these types of comments are nit-picky and shouldn't bother me, however, it honestly takes away from the legitimacy of an otherwise very thoughtful observational editorial.

Posted by Village_Guy

Wow, looking at the pictures, the difference between those pictures and how the dashboard looks where I live is huge.

First of all I have two ads on the right side instead of four, and I have never had an ad this isn't for either a game for the 360 or a movie on the 360 service. And I think the only movie ad I have seen was for Halo: Reach...

Posted by runnah555

For a pay service it does have an obscene amount of ads.

Posted by MattSchwabby

@runnah555 said:

For a pay service it does have an obscene amount of ads.

Yeah for real. I pay almost ten times as much for my television service and there are NO ads on that. Wait...

Posted by AssInAss

@Terramagi said:

Oh boo-fucking-hoo, your pet game didn't sell very well and isn't going to get ported to other platforms because of it (and the fact that Microsoft owns the property). Normal people just deal with it, as opposed to trying to guilt people into maneuvering through 5 menus to buy a game that clearly nobody cares about.

It's coming to Steam. Eat some crow.

Posted by runnah555

@MattSchwabby said:

@runnah555 said:

For a pay service it does have an obscene amount of ads.

Yeah for real. I pay almost ten times as much for my television service and there are NO ads on that. Wait...

Touche`

Posted by StriderNo9

Well said Patrick. With that being said I need to actually go buy Mark of the Ninja.

Posted by PimblyCharles

@runnah555: Wait until you see Windows 8! The store is almost front page and is nothing but ads. fun stuff..... not really

Posted by Ultragonk

The more I read about XBOX live the more I'm happy that I packed my XBOX 360 away in favour of my PS3. I know I'm missing out on games and what have you but with Steam and the like I already have too many games *eyes Backloggery list with guilt*

Posted by Diachron

But who actually navigates to the games tab to learn about new content on Xbox Live? I don’t. Do you?

Yes, I do. And I do it every week to see what's new. I do the same on PSN.

It's a habit I picked up when the services launched and it continues to this day.

Posted by Trusty_Spoon

I used to love xbox live. I used to think the service I was paying for meant I had better server connection in online games, a higher support rate for DLC , digital games and anything that had some connected to live element. Now I feel like I am paying my subscription fees to find out how amazing JCVD thinks Coors light beer is, or why BT broadband is far more superior to play my online games with (even though my orange broadband runs from the same exchange in my town and is a fraction of the price). Like I said I used to love xbox live. Now I just feel like its whore who got tricked into a false sense of security. I am still waiting for the "it will never happen again" statement, but I know its coming!

Posted by Slither_Maggot

@EXTomar said:

Many feel it is a failure of aesthetics because they are seeing things that are undesirable to them. It would be like jumping into Giantbomb.com and seeing articles about "10 delicious cake recipes" and "How to unjam your garbage disposal" all over it. It isn't that you don't want that information but in that context it is annoying. You'd wonder what they were doing right?

hahahahaha. That is gloriously epic. Lost it at the garbage disposal bit.