I've hardly been a critic of the previous iterations of the Xbox Dashboard. Sure, there have been some small complaints here or there, but never have I felt genuine offended by the way things were laid out. That all changed with the release of the 2011 Xbox Dashboard. While on the surface it's generally pretty usable, there are a lot of things about it that feel like they were constructed by unfeeling logic robots who don't really understand how human beings comprehend interface.
To a certain degree, I get why they would want to do this. The best comparison would be Valve's Steam platform on the PC; if you go in to their marketplace, you're basically looking at a huge string of advertisements for everything on their site. It's how they get you to discover new content. If they can't advertise what they have, then you won't know it's available for purchase. There is, however, a pretty significant difference between the way Steam does business and the way Microsoft is trying to do business. When I open Steam to play a game, this is the first thing I see:
That's because Steam lets me customize my view. By default it's set up to take you to the store page first thing, but with a few simple clicks you can launch Steam directly in to your game library and skip the whole "Dude check it out, Orcs Must Die is only $3 today" advertisement screen. Microsoft still doesn't let you do this, even if you're a paying Xbox Live Gold customer. This was actually the primary feature request with the Spotlight channel - there needed to be some way to let people skip all the ads and get right to playing a game. Instead, Microsoft's solution is to give you the option to play whatever is in the disc drive and the ten most recently used/downloaded games and "apps". One step in the right direction, but two steps back, given that the ads are bigger and more pervasive than ever. (this is saying nothing of the fact that Steam only advertises games on Steam, but the Xbox Dashboard has no problem trying to sell me cars and pizza and movie tickets and World of Warcraft subscriptions)
But all of that would be fine if it was the only transgression. But no - the new Xbox Live Dashboard commits sins far more egregious than simply bloated advertising space. Namely, what a pain in the ass it is to get to anything actually related to videogames. Sure, you have the two launch options on the Home menu - but if what you want to play isn't located in either of those options, you have to scroll through two other sections just to get to the "games" part of your game console. Again, comparisons to Steam are apt: I start with a list of every game I own and every game I have installed staring me in the face in that piece of software. On the Xbox Dashboard, I have to go on some kind of safari to find the games I have installed, braving the wilderness of the "social" and "video" categories. And while I own over $400 worth of Xbox Live content, you'd never know it because the dashboard still does not have any way of showing you a complete list of content you've purchase - you're only shown what's currently on the console at that point in time. It's completely up to you to keep track of what you own ( Backloggery has been a lifesaver in this regard), and if you want to replay any of it, you're forced to manually hunt that content down through the hellish landscape known as the "Game Marketplace".
For years, Microsoft has struggled to find a way to organize content on the Xbox Marketplace to allow room for growth while also organizing everything in a way that everybody can easily find it. The problem it came down to in the past is that it required too many "clicks" in order to drill down and find what you wanted. Again, not to keep going back to it, but Steam can be made to either show you a list of games you might want to buy or a list of games you might want to play as the first thing you see when you launch the software. Previous iterations of Xbox Live required you to flip through multiple sections and sub-categories just to finally get to a page that showed the most recent Xbox Live Arcade releases.
This, unfortunately, has not changed. Infact, given the fact that you have to scroll through the "Social" and "Video" tabs just to get to "Games" where the marketplace button is located, everything is potentially buried even deeper now than it ever has been. To make matters even worse, the actual Game Marketplace itself has been transformed in to a nearly unusable disaster. Broken out in to its own six categories, the Game Marketplace as it stands right now on the 2011 Xbox Live dashboard update is bloated and obtuse in a way that is genuinely shocking to me. It's so bad that I'm kind of at a loss for where to start, so we'll start by simply running down each category and it's function:
- "Picks" - This is where games are recommended for purchase based on what the user has recently played and/or purchased.
- "Featured" - This is where games are recommended for purchase based on how much money Microsoft has been paid to advertise them.
- "Games" - This is theoretically where you are meant to discover new games for purchase.
- "Add-ons" - This is where downloadable content lives.
- "Extras" - This is where frivolous, overpriced garbage like avatar clothes and premium themes/gamerpics live, in addition to stuff like Halo Waypoint/Call of Duty Elite.
- "Demos" - Provided its own entire category, because, uh... well, er....
You may immediately notice that the first three categories are actually the exact same thing presented in three different ways: They are categories designed to get you to find and buy new games. Imagine logging in to Netflix and having three separate categories for recommendations instead of just one (one based on a computer algorithm, another based on how much Netflix was paid to recommend them to you, and a third category called "recommend a movie to yourself"). These three categories could be pretty easily be wrapped up in to one singular place with "Recommendations" and "Featured Games" being sub-sections in the "Games" category.
Instead, we get the worst jumble of icons in the history of interface. This page right here is bad enough on its own that it deserves to be broken down point by point. To start: The icons they use for these features. We have a strange mish-mash of stock photos and more common pictograph-like icon artwork. The most immediate effect this had was that at first glance I seriously thought the only way to view a list of games was either by genre or alphabetically. "New Releases" and "Most Popular" didn't even register as filtering options, and even when they did, it literally took repeated visits to this category before I discovered that "Game Type" was the way I chose between Xbox Live Arcade, Xbox Indies, Games on Demand, and Xbox Originals. There was a period of about 15 minutes where I was genuinely pissed off that they had taken away the ability to sort games "by platform" because there is no way an actual human brain makes the connection between an image of a stupid asshole in a hoodie doing parkour with choosing whether or not I want to look at Xbox Indies or Xbox Live Arcade games. They all need to be green background with white text icons because that's how you let the user know they are system functions and not advertisements or temporary promotions. And you especially do not mix and match one style with another style. Either go whole-hog with your stupid unrelated stock photos or don't because this is bad enough that it almost seems like you're deliberately sabotaging yourselves, Microsoft.
Similarly, there's not enough immediate distinction between "Add-Ons" and "Extras". Both terms basically mean the same thing, but Microsoft has to have their gross little corner where they charge people $7 for an intangible, completely worthless Master Chief costume for their fake computer person (or $3 for what essentially equates to a few JPEG thumbnails). Another problem with this section? The "Most Popular" sorting filter makes a return appearance, but in a completely different spot than it is in other Game Marketplace categories.
Are you deliberately trying to make users get lost? It only reinforces the idea that "Most Popular" isn't a specific system menu function, but is instead some kind of temporary promotional deal. I realize you just had to make room for the new "Subscriptions" sub-section (fits with the massive amount of Gears of War 3 branding in this category) but I'm pretty sure it would have made more sense to keep "Most Popular" in the same location and move "Subscriptions" up above "A to Z", given that's the space that was removed to make room for "Subscriptions" in the first place!
Which of course brings us to "Demos", another category that could've probably been rolled in to simply "Games" somehow (if only Microsoft wasn't so keen on me buying a new Volkswagen). There's simply not enough content here to justify having it's own entire category, as evident by the fact that Kinect demos get broken out in to their own unique sub-section.
And the worst part is? If they simply scaled back the advertising space and really stopped to think about how to effectively use the space they've been given, there's plenty of ways to shortcut a lot of these things to make product exposure easier and more streamlined. It took me 20 minutes to come up with this idea:
The most important information all on one screen. Launch the game, go straight to your game library, and most importantly, a direct link to the game marketplace without having to thumb through multiple menus to get there. Not only that, but advertising links to video content, avatar content, and the deal of the week. On one screen. It's really not very difficult. It just means you don't give the advertisements top billing - something Microsoft probably isn't willing to do.
But until they they, we're always going to have dashboard revisions where you constantly have some Microsoft mouthpiece telling us how they're "redesigning the dashboard to make it easier to find content" when all they really mean is "we're making the ads bigger and shuffling some buttons around".
And this isn't even touching any of the other problems with the new dashboard I've heard from other folks, either! (See: Netflix) It's kind of gross!