Whether you're one of the legions of hard-core Xbox players or someone who's only played with the game console casually, get ready for an all-new Xbox Live.
Since the first announcement of the new approach to the massively popular service at E3 in July, some longtime fans have fretted that Microsoft is morphing it into a place for purely casual players at the expense of those for whom Xbox Live is nearly as much a home as where they actually live.
Well, based on a demo I got recently of the (not quite finished) new version of Xbox Live, I'd have to say, fret no more.
Dubbed the new "Xbox Live Experience," this re-launched service--which is rumored to be launching in November, but which Microsoft will only say is due "before Christmas"--really does seem to have something for everyone: an easy-to-use graphical interface complete with deeply customizable avatars that casual players will enjoy, and all kinds of new functionality that will actually reward the dedication of the hard-core Xbox player.
Microsoft readily admits that there may be a bit of a transition period for those core players--a time during which a lot of griping might be heard--but the company fully expects a gradual realization on the part of those players that the new service takes the existing Xbox Live and adds all kinds of new community and interactive functions to it.
And, again, I would have to agree.
To date, the Xbox Live interface has been based on what are called blades, essentially pages of information stacked on top of each other in such as way as to maximize the number of choices Xbox Live players have and the directions in which they can go. They can see lists of games to play, choose to watch a movie, go into a section to buy add-ons for games, and so on. The new interface largely does away with the blades era and moves into a more advanced motif of full windows that spread out on the screen and stretch off into the distance, allowing users to shuttle through them, left to right or right to left.
But that's getting a little too far ahead.
All about avatars
Clearly, with this new interface, Microsoft is going for both Sony's and Nintendo's jugulars, hoping to create a community experience that lures gamers of every level of experience, every age group, both genders, and even those for whom watching movies through the Netflix option that Microsoft will make available at some point is as close as they come to playing games.
Any discussion of the new Xbox Live, though, has to start with the service's new avatars function.
To begin with, players can choose an avatar from a large selection that run onto the screen looking like a group of school kids, each dressed differently and sporting diverse hair styles and skin color. Don't like that group? Move on to the next one. And on and on, until you find one you like. Each group is presented randomly, and within the group, individual avatars seem to try to get your attention by jumping up and down and raising their hand. Don't worry, they won't be too disappointed if you choose someone else.
Once you pick your avatar, you go into a low-end character editor where you can outfit your new persona with new clothing, hair, accessories and the like. To those familiar with Nintendo's Mii avatars or those from the countless virtual worlds out there, this will feel like old hat.
But Microsoft doesn't think it is copying Nintendo or anyone else. Rather, it takes the view that it is just adjusting to what the marketplace wants.
And customizable avatars creates an opening for an extension to the traditional Xbox achievements system, in that games can now give out things like clothes, tattoos and other add-ons that will help users distinguish their avatars from the millions of others on the system.
Either way, once you've picked your avatar, you are ready to jump into the new Xbox Live.
It's not clear yet, according to Albert Penello, director of marketing for Microsoft's platform and Xbox Live group, whether the avatars will find their way into games. Even if they do, it would likely be something that would happen at the more casual end of the spectrum.
"I doubt Halo would incorporate avatars," Penello said.
Still, one obvious question is whether games like Halo will reward players with things like Master Chief's armor as new avatar accessories, and Penello acknowledged that that is a frequent query from users.
With the existing Xbox Live, a big fan favorite was what are called themes, essentially imagery from games like Halo 3 or Gears of War that are used to customize the Live experience.
Now, these themes will be incorporated in a new way, said Rob Gruhl, a senior strategist with Microsoft's game platform strategy team, who showed me how players can essentially have large game-themed wallpaper that sits in the background of their Xbox Live screen.
Another big element of the new iteration of Xbox Live is what are called "parties." This, it turns out, is a crucial piece of the whole puzzle, because it's what will allow players to maximize the way they play games together with their friends.
One feature will be that parties will make it easy for players to communicate with a group of friends, using a voice or text messaging system. And even if a group isn't actively playing together, friends can see others' profiles, showing what they're playing and whether it's possible to join games in progress.
"It's an example of a feature that doesn't feel core," said Penello, addressing more concerns from longtime Xbox users that the parties feature is an attempt to turn the service over to casual users, "but I think it's something that core gamers are really going" to like.
That's in part, Gruhl added, because of what is known as party channels, which actually enable the communications between members of a party, regardless of whether they're playing the same game or not.
One benefit of this is that friends can set up a party channel that will allow them to, say, jointly go into a multiplayer game and communicate amongst themselves, even as they play against other players.
The party channel is just one example of a larger channels system that is now an important piece of the larger system, and which makes up what is known as Spotlight. This is basically a view into the very wide range of things that are going on within Xbox Live at any time as viewed through a series of channels.
These channels, then, will show things like events that are coming up in the system, as well as the marketplace, where players can buy all kinds of new things--including a new community games channel that appears in the marketplace. These are games made by the community using Microsoft's XNA Studio development software.
There's also a way, using Spotlight, to search for games, and to sort by genre, so that players can easily see, for example, all the racing games currently in their system or currently available through the marketplace.
And the system is optimized so that all information surrounding a single game will appear on a single game page, where players will be able to see who's playing, what live features are offered, any videos that are available, and any new downloads that have come out.
All told, these game pages will show everything related to the individual games, including material that players don't yet have, allowing them to easily buy those new things--and making it easier for Microsoft to generate revenue through additional transactions.
Yet another new feature is that Xbox Live users will be able to instigate changes to their system through Xbox.com. That means that if players see some new accessory or game update they want while they are away from their Xbox console, but are using the Internet on a computer, they can order what they want and it will queue up. When they return to their Xboxes, they don't have to try to remember what it was they wanted.
This will also allow content developers to create a long tail, said Gruhl, because it will allow them to promote their content on Web sites and drive people to Xbox.com, where they can order it.
And lastly, the new Xbox Live features a simple guide mechanism that gives very quick access to almost everything the system has to offer, and which mimics the blade motif of the existing Xbox Live.
This is basically a quick start dashboard that allows players to jump instantly to what they want, obviating the need, if they're in a hurry, to go through the larger Xbox Live experience. Choices are more limited in what they can do, but most of what they need to navigate is available here.
For Microsoft, then, the new Xbox Live is an attempt to bridge the entire gaming audience, from the most casual, fortysomething woman, to the most hard-core, teen male Halo addict.
Whether that will work is, of course, still to be determined, but Microsoft thinks it got off to a good start by recently lowering the price of the most basic Xbox to $199, a move it says has boosted sales significantly.
Microsoft clearly has to work on how it messages the changes in the new Xbox Live, due to the worries of its core audience. But from what I've seen, I think anyone who uses the system for a while will grow to like what they see.