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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 OleMarthin

if there was an ad on the games hub i feel like that should be enough. if i want a game on any other platform i have to go to the store. it's not like every new app i promoted on the home screen of my phone or tablet. IF there was no advertisement at all i would have a huge problem with this. Mark of a ninja is a great game. it's the first game i chose to s rank in a long time. it deserves to be played by as many people as possible. but if i want a game i go to the game tab, if i want a movie i go to the movie hub. an if it was the case that this game had a promotion on the game hub then people who wanted a game probably would have seen it. i agree with Patrick on one point. and that is that MS could do better. but the fact is it is that they still do a much better job than the rest.

Posted by CptBedlam

@tourgen said:

The dashboard situation on the current xbox has moved me from a "day 1 buy" to, at best, a "wait and see with extreme skepticism" for the next xbox.

It is not OK to show me ads on the first screen I see after turning it on.

It's not OK to force that situation on me with system updates.

If I had the option I would have opted not to update my dashboard, but it's required to patch games and play online. Dashboard updates are unrelated to playing online or applying game patches. Dashboard updates should be optional add-on downloads. It's just a dumb GUI (now with shitty ads).

If current trends continue Sony is the only real option next generation. So far they've been doing the right things.

Exactly the same for me.

This dashboard is horrible. It's confusing, it's ineffective, it's ad-riddled. I let my gold subscruption lapse a few weeks ago. I'm just not willing to pay for that clusterfuck anymore (and for online play).

Posted by MrBungle

First thing I do when I switch on my Xbox is head to the games tab and then the market places there. I check for new games in each of the three sections. There is no way I'd rely on all new games being advertised on the home section of the dashboard. Same way I wouldn't rely on that on the PS3.

Anyone hoping that every single new thing is on the home page is living in fantasy land.

Posted by Sweep

good on Microsoft should for attempting

Might want to rephrase that a bit, Tricky :D

Moderator
Posted by cikame

Unfortunately i'm playing about 5 different rpg's right now and keeping up with practice on tekken tag 2 so i can't play mark of the ninja.

Posted by Smithers

"The lack of advertising for Mark of the Ninja upon its released really bothered me"

Holy typos.

That aside, I think this article raises a really good point about the changing nature of games and multimedia, but it comes across as a little amateurish. It kinda just seems like you loved this game, you felt it was slighted by Microsoft and you've scrambled to write an article that backs up your feelings. Like others have said, there's plenty of assumptions here that might be credible with some sales data to back it up. Or it might undermine the entire article.

I'm not on any hating-bandwagon, I think gb benefits from articles like these from Patrick, but I'd love to see him research a follow-up article down the line with clearer thoughts on why stuff like this happens and what it means. The economics and the politics of Xbox Live must be batshit crazy.

Posted by Hitchenson

The fact you have to pay for a Gold membership is a joke, yet alone that they shove ads for bullshit down your throat too. Oh 360, you're so shi-- crazy.

Posted by MideonNViscera

Uh, I go to the games tab to check out new games. DLC comes on Tuesdays and games come on Wednesdays. I can't be the only one who knows of this pattern.

Edited by SpartanHoplite

Have not used my 360 in couple of years now, do they advertise politics on EU too, or is it only USA?

I hope that kind of heavy advertising wont come to ps3/4.

Posted by afrofools

The advertisements are, as we all know, to make money. Either directly from impressions by selling ad-space, or by informing people of content that they will buy. The advertisement's can be useful shortcuts when the next COD or whatever DLC people want comes out. They don't have to navigate the store, they just have to click the advertisement.

Microsoft will benefit when it begins to target advertisements to each individual user of the Xbox. At the moment the advertisements on the dashboard are basically a form of mass marketing. They should be identifying behaviours, grouping users, and targeting relevant advertisements. For example; I like to play Forza and Need for Speed, so they show me advertisements for car games. You play Battlefield and Halo, so they show you advertisements for Medal of Honour. Your cousin, she loves watching romantic comedies, so they advertise 'this means war' etcetera to her.

Google performs targeted advertising when you search the web. They know so much about you that they can tune the search results to what you are really looking for, and the advertisements that appear above the search are so-relevant they may as well be considered the top results.

Sure people will moan about their loss of privacy, but do you really want to be the skinny guy getting ads that explain how to lose weight? If you don't want advertisements you will need to play on the PC, but that won't last very long. If you are aware of recent device trends, everything is moving toward closed ecosystems with a single store. Eventually you will either have to buy all your games from a)Microsoft b)Apple, and C)Google(look up native client). Steam's coming to Linux, that's awesome... but not that many people use Linux, so it isn't viable for any non-indie company to make games for. So from either of the three vendors you pick, the will expose advertisements to you. Good luck finding your previous purchases on Microsoft's platform, you have a purchase history hidden somewhere with free content that makes your purchases hard to find. They can do what they want, there's nothing wrong with business.

Just be aware that you will be investing into an ecosystem if you haven't already, and you will have to wade through advertisements daily to get to any of your content. There's an ever-shrinking space that you can enjoy your freedoms. Subscriber agreements are already standard.

Posted by dcgc

This is not news. New X360 Dashboards post-Blades were and are awful. At least the interface, that is. As a service itself (although being paid) it's still the best one. Wii has an almost nonexistent online service and PS3 online service has flaws compared to the competition (X360).

Posted by DedBeet

@MideonNViscera said:

Uh, I go to the games tab to check out new games. DLC comes on Tuesdays and games come on Wednesdays. I can't be the only one who knows of this pattern.

But you're not the consumer, then, that Patrick is concerned about. The article is about how bad Microsoft is at promoting games for people who aren't as tuned into the game releases. Personally, I doubt the PS3 is any better at this, but I really don't have any idea since I check their new releases on their blog every Tuesday.

Posted by dropabombonit

Good story. My older brother loves stealth games and I had to tell him about the game and it then took him 5 mins to find it on the store, that is unacceptable

Edited by SomeJerk
@SpartanHoplite said:

Have not used my 360 in couple of years now, do they advertise politics on EU too, or is it only USA?

I hope that kind of heavy advertising wont come to ps3/4.

We get nothing, even if we're Gold customers in Europe paying far more than the equivalent of $60 US.
 
And Sony won't take that route, they're Japanese, but that hasn't stopped people from calling that tiny news-ticker of "Game X, Sale Y now on PSN!" advertising.
Posted by DrStrangepork

Good story. This is one of the issues that has soured me from playing on my 360. As many have said their direction is changing and gaming almost seems like an afterthought.

Posted by starfurydysan

@Shingro: I meant we will have to agree to disagree, and was trying to end the conversation there.

Now XBL Gold does pay for server maintenance, which you are fooling your self if you think matchmaking servers or in some cases the game servers themselves are not maintained by MS at some point. As for the tennis analogy, the city that I live has the athletic centres that you pay a fee to use the courts which are maintained by the city, nothing towards road or some gang (knew if I used that analogy it would be taken by some to mean country club...). As for the free games $300 is the MSRP, you know they have such a markup to maintain a profit, it costs them next to nothing if the game was extremely old to make it "free". My main point is you don't OWN them when you stop the service, it just gives the illusion that you own the free games when in fact you are continuously renting them. And quite mature for ending your arguments with =P, clearly a game changer right there. No confirmation bias as I would pay for a good PS+ service and would love to see competition which lead to cheaper and better services in the market, but I put the blame on Sony for not responding to the preexisting XBL paid service with a feature set worth my money.

Again we will have to agree to disagree.

Posted by Curufinwe

On the last Major Nelson podcast he claimed that he told the Summer of Arcade people they were crazy for not having Mark of the Ninja in that promotion.

Posted by Nugget

I dont see the issue, Me like millions of others, go on to Game marketplace every wednesday to check out what new Xbox live arcade release is out.

And fridays aswell since they started with that. And no i didnt buy the game...

Posted by Ramone

@Nugget said:

I dont see the issue, Me like millions of others, go on to Game marketplace every wednesday to check out what new Xbox live arcade release is out.

And fridays aswell since they started with that. And no i didnt buy the game...

Nope, that just does not happen.

Posted by Nugget

@Ramone: Says who?

Posted by vhold

Well, the only thing I take away from this story is that Patrick -really- likes Mark of the NInja and wants it to sell more copies.

Online
Posted by SethPhotopoulos

@starfurydysan said:

@umbaglo: Well we have to disagree, paying for ONLINE multiplayer is core to a ONLINE service and XBL is worth my money and PS+ is not even worth talking about until Sony cleans it up to been even worth a cent.

It's hard for me to think of it that way. I own both consoles and I've really seen no difference between matchmaking on either system. PC games do it for free, Sony does it for free, hell the Wii even does it for free, Your money either goes to the timed exclusive CoD DLC or the Dashboard revisions mostly. And they sure fucked up the dashboard. Even though you pay you still see political ads, film ads. tv ads, etc. You are also paying to use services you already have a subscription to like Netflix. I've used both versions and I think the PS3's Netflix interface while not great is better and you can access that without PS+. Really the only thing I see someone paying for is the Party chat which admittedly is a great feature that Sony fucked up with. Text chat rooms aren't the same and slow the games down on PS3.

Posted by fargofallout

I got into the beta for the new dashboard, and without getting into specifics, I will say that, since installing it, I have only turned on my 360 a few times. I'm sick of looking at ads for things I will never purchase, I'm sick of load times, and I'm sick of how slow the 360 is in general. I upgraded my PC around the same time I installed the next dashboard, and the combination of SSD and other hardware blows the 360 away. If the next Xbox doesn't at least have an SSD as an option. there is no way I will purchase it. I can't go back.

Edited by kmg90

I'll just leave this here

Let me pull a specific releavent section

This laser-like focus on advertising means that the space that used to be used to promote and share new games is gone. “Since the last big 360 Dashboard update, the presence of games, specifically unique XBLA has been severely demoted,” a developer who spoke on the condition of anonymity said. “This ain’t really cool, because promoting XBLA games is really difficult. Your audience is people who own an Xbox AND have it connected to the internet AND realize there are unique downloadable games on there (i.e. it isn’t just a Netflix and Madden machine) AND jump through the hurdles of adding MS moonbucks to their account AND can find actually your game on the console.”

Trying to get someone to jump through all those hoops is proving difficult, and it’s directly impacting the money developers can make on the system. “Unless there’s a link to your game on the front page, which is both tremendously expensive and will rarely last even a week, actually finding the games is a nightmare,” the developer explained. “Currently, you have to navigate past Home ... Social ... TV ... Video ... and finally to Games. Under Games, you need to select Games Marketplace. From there, you have to completely ignore everything under ‘Spotlight’ (which quizzically includes Games Showcase, Express Yourself, Most Wanted and New In Fun Labs, plus a giant ad right in the middle, and good luck figuring out what any of those things mean) and select a completely different submenu called simply ‘Games’ and then either select New or A-Z.”

With the way Microsoft has their dashboard mapped out, blame Klei Entertainment Inc. for not putting more money toward advertising their Microsoft published game on the dashboard...

Posted by Druxk

Yeah, this was a tough one to read.

Posted by Lurkero

Xbox Live does have a games tab. I get what the article is saying but people looking for a game to play are more than welcome to visit that tab. Most of the time the latest games are there.

I more worried about Microsoft continuing to charge $60 for the service, offering minimal value (in comparison to similar services) and STILL being heavy on advertisements for XBL Gold.

Posted by bkfountain

MS's shift away from gaming is pushing me away from them. I don't care about another Halo or Gears. I would care about interesting XBLA titles, but they bury them menus deep in the fucked up games marketplace. The dashboard is bad enough, but MS doesn't do shit to promote most of the great games on XBLA, as you pretty much have to already know on your own what's coming out.

There's a dashboard app called Sales & Specials+ to highlight sales on content, since the dashboard is too cluttered and shitty to convey that information another way. MS even shut down the Inside Xbox video stuff that could have been used to promote upcoming games to the userbase, those videos were also buried in the dashboard revision. I feel that MS will only continue to shove indie devs to other platforms like Steam.

As for ads, if MS is going to continue going heavy, I wish they would at least cater them to you. I've never once bought any movies on Live, and I never will. As it is now, the dashboard is a cluttered mess with the broadest spectrum of ads they could sign. It's like going to the mailbox.

Posted by Shingro

@starfurydysan: I'll respect that, you're certainly polite enough there's absolutely no reason for me to lay into you or some other internet trope, I kinda wish we weren't disagreeing about simple factual items (EA pulling down servers and/or charging for servers wouldn't happen if they weren't footing the bill for them, and similarly things like Virtua Fighter 5 were free games on PS+ on the date of their release.)

Early adopters have paid $750 for the system that had the highest failure rate of any system in gaming history (as far as I know.) It really makes me feel like people are getting taken advantage of... bums me out.

Posted by meteora3255
@Fox318 They may get more exposure on PC (which is debatable) but most of them get huge chunks of funding by signing on with Microsoft.
Posted by wsninja

I use the games tab to find new games...cause thats what its there for.

Edited by ZenGaijin

I still can't find the RE6 demo on XBL. I click the link to take me to the demo and nothing is there, i then try and search new releases and the demo isn't there either. I finally just bing searched (skin crawls) RE6 and still couldn't find it.

Edit: figured it out, my account slipped to silver and i have to wait a week before being allowed access to the demo........*boots up PS3* waiting is for suckaz

Posted by ErgoProxy77

Great article Patrick!

Posted by lumberingjackal

Of course I use the games tab to find games.

Posted by RedRavN

I wonder what the difference is between how microsoft does it and how Valve operates the store page on steam.

Posted by Jamesesdad

@starfurydyson

You sound like such an Xbox fanboy, it's kind of sad how vigorously you defend a company who has so thoroughly fleeced you. The fact of the matter is something like 90% of modern multiplayer games are in fact peer based (players connect directly to each other with one player acting as the host), and if servers are used it's solely for stat tracking, and matchmaking. Furthermore these servers are provided by the devs/pubs NOT microsoft. Microsoft servers are used for xblm, friends list/chat, achievement stats, and the occasional patch or update. The bandwidth on these features is minimal at best, and would absolutely be covered by the 40,000$ ms charges per add on the dashboard. In essence m$ is charging you 60$ a year to open some ports on your Xbox to allow you to connect to other users. The ONLY feature Xbox live has that Sony doesn't offer 100% free of charge would be cross game voice chat, which isn't worth an extra 60$ a year. The core of your argument that ps isn't competing is laughable considering they offer almost identical functionality for free, plus services Xbox doesn't provide if you chose to subscribe.

You see, from a non fanboy/pro consumer point of view (I own Xbox, ps3, wii, and a gaming pc) playstation plus is a service that actually offers value to the consumer. Free games (sure they are rentals but you get them for over a month which is plenty of time to play through completion), cloud saves, and fairly substantial discounts across most titles. Those features, stacked with free online multiplayer, access to Netflix without paying for plus, and a user interface not plastered with adds makes the psn wholly more appealing. I can enjoy my ps3 to the fullest without being roped in to their subscription service, and bombarded with adds regardless of being a premium member. But if I want to subscribe, it offers way more value for my 50$ than what I get for 60$ on xbl.

As for your tennis court analogy, is it really worth paying a premium to use a private court where you are forced into playing with screaming 12 year olds, and the worst bigots and morons the world over???

I should note, i don't subscribe to either xbl or ps+, because honestly steam makes both services look like absolute shit in direct comparison. Although I have used xbl on and off since its inception, I'll likely never subscribe again.

Posted by Scarabus

An equally important tool for money and power: Notch's twitter account.

Posted by GrandHarrier

When I turn my PS3 on I don't see jack shit for anything. Where is the rage about that?

Posted by sonicrift
In the TV world, having a show on Friday night is a death sentence, as many consumers are out enjoying the weekend.

No Patrick. In the TV world, not saving someone after it rains a couple of days and the fog rolls in is a death sentence. Get with it!

Edited by Stache

Mark of the Ninja has been getting PLENTYof advertising on the Dashboard the past week. Not sure what your complaint is here.

Good on Microsoft should for attempting though.

Posted by EXTomar

@GrandHarrier said:

When I turn my PS3 on I don't see jack shit for anything. Where is the rage about that?

I think you need to make sure you turn on your PS3 with your eyes open.

Posted by xfuturesx

With the advantage that the PC has growing leaps and bounds in the last few years, I've found the time between uses of my 360 to be increasing. That does also have to do with the cumulative experience as much as it does the growing graphical advantage of the PC. The dashboard has grown into a mess of targeted advertising that is an obstacle to navigate to get to the content that I already know I want rather than a place I go to be informed.

Edited by bkfountain

@Stache said:

Mark of the Ninja has been getting PLENTYof advertising on the Dashboard the past week. Not sure what your complaint is here.

Good on Microsoft should for attempting though.

I wonder if it's due to the backlash though. Even the game's dev posted on GAF about the lack of marketing the first few days after it released. Maybe MS is just slow as hell as a publisher, at least they didn't botch the release by neglecting to check the trademark status of the game's name. It's just another thing in the basket of bullshit that's been pushing devs to complain about moving to other platforms lately.

The 360 has a great selection of games on XBLA, they just need a way to highlight them better. That's why shutting down the Inside Xbox stuff was crazy. It shouldn't be too expensive to have a few people on staff contribute videos for the purpose of highlighting releases for the community.

Posted by Baltimore

Nice piece Patrick.

The one thing that bugs me to no end is that I'm paying for Xbox Live (at $9.99 a month) and I still see adds.

Posted by mabber36

I check the games tab every day for new content

stop making assumptions, because you know what they say about them

Posted by GoofyGoober

I don't see the issue here. They are just ads. Its not like you are forced to watch them before you buy or play a game.

Posted by Sammo21

I've been in the beta for the dashboard for a while. I think XBL sucks pretty hardcore now. I'm getting more ads, even on the starting page, and the stuff I already pay for is behind a pay wall.

Posted by CptBedlam

@bkfountain said:

The 360 has a great selection of games on XBLA, they just need a way to highlight them better. That's why shutting down the Inside Xbox stuff was crazy. It shouldn't be too expensive to have a few people on staff contribute videos for the purpose of highlighting releases for the community.

What's really crazy is that people have to rely on a website like MajorNelson's to know what's coming up on XBL. Why can't they just put exactly the same information in a similar format on XBL? Too easy I guess...

Edited by jozzy

Not sure if anyone mentioned it already, but I think the point this article tries to make is false. It basically says two things:

* Games sell best on the first day of release

* The game needs to be put to the forefront of the dashboard on release day to sell well

But think about it, why does the game sell best on the first day. It is because people already know a game is coming out on that day and want to buy it. To these people an ad on the homepage of the dash has no added value, they already know what they want and they go for it.

For people that don't know the game is out if makes no difference whatsoever. If they see it on the dash a week later they are still as likely to buy or not buy it as if they see it on the dash on release date. They don't even know or care about the release date.

So basically, I don't think it really matters if they put an ad on the home of the dash on release date or a week later.

EDIT: It might even be a positive, because the game gets another attention boost after release.

Posted by dinkys

Agree 100% but as long as those ads are making Microsoft money, they're not going away.

Scrounging after extra ad money from Lynx, Pepsi, Sky and so on instead of promoting key Microsoft titles is a bit ridiculous when you realise they're one of the richest and most powerful companies in the world today.

Posted by George_Hukas

@jozzy said:

Not sure if anyone mentioned it already, but I think the point this article tries to make is false. It basically says two things:

* Games sell best on the first day of release

* The game needs to be put to the forefront of the dashboard on release day to sell well

But think about it, why does the game sell best on the first day. It is because people already know a game is coming out on that day and want to buy it. To these people an ad on the homepage of the dash has no added value, they already know what they want and they go for it.

For people that don't know the game is out if makes no difference whatsoever. If they see it on the dash a week later they are still as likely to buy or not buy it as if they see it on the dash on release date. They don't even know or care about the release date.

So basically, I don't think it really matters if they put an ad on the home of the dash on release date or a week later.

EDIT: It might even be a positive, because the game gets another attention boost after release.

This article also assumes advertising games on the dashboard is actually effective.