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Xbox Live and User Interface Thoughts

My brother-in-law came over last night and we played Mario Strikers (for Wii) for most of the evening, then jumped into a little Wii Sports. I had previously imported Brandon's Mii character onto my Wii, so he played as his Mii in bowling, tennis, and so on.

Unfortunately, though Brandon is a "pro" bowler at home, he isn't on my system, where he has 0 points. One of the most glaring differences between Microsoft's Xbox Live strategy and Nintendo's online strategy became immediately apparent.

In about a week or so, I've become rather impressed with Microsoft's Xbox Live capabilities. You can message - voice or text - friends while playing other games. Invite them to join your games. Your profile - your gamerscore, settings, etc. - is stored both on your system and on MS servers, so you can log in from another console and play there with "your" account and track "your" accomplishments.

Nintendo certainly has the capabilities to do this kind of thing, but instead would rather track your voting patterns in incredibly simple "channels" like "Check Mii Out" and "Everybody Votes."

In fact, I've come away fairly impressed overall with Microsoft's Xbox 360. The user interface is fairly easy to understand, with different panels in a sort of tab view. They can be themed (skinned), but the themes don't affect the usability - everything stays where it was, but just changes colors. You can manage options to be available at all times

I do have a few usability issues re: the Xbox as a whole. The first issue is with the Xbox Live marketplace, a mishmash of themes, gamer pictures, demos, "Arcade" games, and more. The entire marketplace is divided into categories, but even within each category gamers are forced to navigate through fairly long lists. I'm not sure if type-to-search ((i.e. Type the "m" key to go to the first item that starts with the letter "m.")) works, but scrolling can sometimes be incredibly slow. I've seen lists several hundred items long.

Second, a search feature would be nice. Imagine someone tells me I should really try out a game called "X-Out." I have no idea what category this game is in, so I'm forced to bring up the "all games" list and scroll down to "X" to find it.

Or imagine that I'm a fan of Pac-Man and I'd like to do a search across categories - gamer pics, themes, demos, songs, videos, arcade games - for Pac-Man so that I could see what's available. Oops. Not possible.

Third - and no doubt this is intentional - there appears to be no way to filter items into "free" and "costs points" ((I won't even get into the whole concept of Microsoft Points…)). I was looking for some new Gamer Pics yesterday ((Currently I'm using Ari Gold from Entourage, as you can see.)) and I had to click into each and every item that interested me to see if it was free. No way I was going to spend $1-$2 on an avatar. I also downloaded some themes, which leads me to the fourth item in my list…

The previews for items like themes and gamer pics suck or simply don't exist. Without previews, I have no idea if the "Ocean's 13" theme (free) was going to suck or not. So I downloaded it, then had to navigate to console settings, apply it, and back out of console settings to navigate around the dashboard to have a look. Turns out I didn't like it, so I went back to the console settings, changed my theme, backed out again, went to the hard drive, drilled into the Themes category, scrolled down, and deleted it. I could have saved myself all that trouble if a reasonable preview had simply been available or even if "delete" options existed in the "Themes" settings area.

The dance wasn't any simpler when I went to remove some Gamer Pics, either. Some come packaged with multiple pictures - like the Entourage pack I downloaded - but some are single pics. When you go into the "Gamer Pics" section of your hard drive, no indication is given as to whether you're deleting a single picture or a "pack" of pictures and there's no way to "choose" several for deletion. You have to go one by one, clicking once to choose the item, down twice and click delete, and up once to click yes. That's six button presses per item. ((On a whim I tried hitting the "delete" key on an attached USB keyboard - it didn't work.))

These are subtle things that Microsoft could fix, but subtle things don't appear to be Microsoft's strong suit. One (the non-separation of free content) is likely a financial decision, but there are no real good excuses for not fixing the other problems.

I'd classify all of the above as minor annoyances. I'm not likely to download a hundred gamerpics in one day very often, just as I'm not likely to try 20 new themes in a day. The UI "niceties" far outweigh the negatives.

Contrast this with Nintendo's usability: despite being "connected" at all times, you're really not. You still have to click twice just to launch the store or the Internet. Despite showing far less information, the Wii displays it much more slowly. And despite not being skinnable, the Wii UI is less consistent: sometimes the "OK" button is on the right, sometimes it's on the left. When the Wii asks you "Delete this?" your options are "Quit" and "OK" ((I'm not kidding. BTW, "Quit" just acts like "No" and "OK" acts like "Yes.")) instead of "No" and "Yes" or "Don't Delete" and "Delete." Though one can become incredibly fast at operating the Wii, it usually involves memorizing on which side (left or right) the button you want is going to appear so you can move the pointer there as it slides into view on screen. And I've not even touched on the many different appearances and locations of common UI elements like "back" and "wii menu" and so on.

P.S. Gamer Profile is to the right. Add me as a friend if I know you.