Xbox One and the inconvenience of gamers

Xbox One Controller

This is surely just me, I think. I'm looking at the Friends page of the Xbox One interface, trying to work out who is online. But the mass of square icons indicating all of my Xbox-owning pals doesn't immediately provide that information – it's just a mass of profile pics and data.

I have to concentrate to work out that only the first three are online right now. I remember the old Social option on Xbox 360 which shows the avatars of your fellow gamers: if they're awake it means their owners are online. It was simple, human, endearing. It worked. And although a lot of Xbox 360 owners were indifferent to the whole concept of Xbox Live avatars, it was a nice game-like way of bringing your presence to the gaming universe. Avatars are almost invisible on the Xbox One interface.

The truth of any system is in the use not the hype. The Xbox One interface, gamers are now discovering, has some issues. Although the new look, heavily influenced by Windows 8, seems clean and uncluttered, it is also proving to be frustrating. Things like Achievements, Friends and Chat, which used to be easy to get to through the Xbox 360 Guide function are now dislocated into apps and scattered around the system. There's no indication on the battery power levels in the controller. And in multiplayer games, the Kinect microphone is set to automatically transmit voice to other players – something a lot of people don't realise as they happily chat in their living rooms, sharing their conversation with 30 strangers. Edge Magazine is so upset it has posted a lengthy feature about the failures and frustrations implicit in the set-up.

Interface evolution

Microsoft, of course, has said that the UI is an evolving platform and as players use it, the company will tweak functionality. But sensibly, some players aren't waiting. Software developer Ryan McCaffery has set up his own site, Xbox Feedback, to collect and log the various suggestions and observations of Xbox gamers on Reddit. "I've put together a list of ways to improve Xbox One," he wrote on the forum. "Not to complain about problems but rather a way to present a list of issues that the Xbox Developers can work on to improve the experience for everyone." According to Polygon, Xbox mouthpiece Larry Hryb has seen the site and passed its recommendations on to the relevant engineers.

There is possible a clash of philosophies here. Microsoft, in its drive to dominate the living room, is adopting the smartphone concept of the platform interface, which is more about immediate useability than raw functionality and access. Gamers expect a system that is highly adaptable to their needs, and that clearly offers all the inventories and menu systems necessary to make minor tweaks to default display, microphone and chat settings. But adding those layers to the front-end makes it intimidating to newcomers who just want to slip a game in the drive or watch Netflix. The thing is, Xbox One isn't a Windows phone; it's a console and you can't undo years of evolving functionality in one swipe. There need to be more graceful methods of meeting the demands of both legacy users and newcomers.

Scrambled vision

These are not the only issues, of course. We have read about the 'judder' some European users are experiencing when playing TV from their cable, satellite or set-top box provider through the Xbox One via the HDMI IN port. The Xbox One outputs in 60Hz, while European television broadcasts are in 50Hz meaning that every sixth frame is duplicated. Tech site HDTVTest has apparently discovered a workaround, which involves tricking your Xbox One into outputting at 50Hz, but this is not exactly mainstream-friendly, and works against the ethos of useability that has already straight-jacketed some of the Xbox 360 functionality.

Elsewhere, ITCProPortal has looked into claims emerging on NeoGaf that the way in which Xbox One 'upscales' 720p HD games into 1080p is causing noticeable artifacts on the screen image. The article uses launch title Killer Instinct as an example, but also points out that developers are developing their own custom upscaling solutions, and a firmware patch is likely. Again though, it's an old school wrinkle in a system that Microsoft wanted to fully iron out for those all-in-one family entertainment fans.

But, really, the technical glitches, such as they are, do not rankle as much as the UI changes, which have been forced upon those of us who have grown accustomed to the super-evolved Xbox 360 interface. It is somewhat ironic that the human feel of that system, with its avatars, notifications and manageable communications options, has been disrupted in the quest for mainstream acceptance and brand synergy. Microsoft will no doubt fix all of this, it will take the three strides forward that are necessary to undo the two strides the Xbox One UI seems to have made in the opposite direction.

Importantly, Microsoft must listen to the Xbox fanbase – the same group is tried to step over with its ludicrously hubristic announcement event back in May. Shortly after that, I wrote the following in a piece entitled, Microsoft's Xbox One misadventure: is there a reverse gear?

The strange thing is, a fundamental truth of the gaming and wider consumer electronics sectors seems to have been lost: the power and influence of the early adopter. Conventionally, you need the "geeks" who buy in early to new technologies and share them with family members – it is difficult to bypass these self-appointed brand advocates to reach the mass market.

I think that remains true. Microsoft is lucky that its fans on Reddit are taking pro-active steps to collate and share the experiences and suggestions of users. Because clearly it's not just me who finds the Xbox One UI coolly attractive but also pernickety and elusive. And it's not just me who misses the generally smooth functionality of XBLA, and the dorkish welcome of those avatars.

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Powered by article was written by Keith Stuart, for on Wednesday 4th December 2013 13.30 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


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