The Xbox Live Fall Fail Update
Late last autumn there was the usual “Fall Update” to Xbox 360s connected to Xbox Live, this year with the moniker (as is the trend these days) of the “Metro” update. I hoped to write about this when it was more topical, but I wanted to wait until I’d had a chance to try out all of the new features myself, and also the typical holiday festivities got in the way . However this was well worthy of an Agoners report & update, even if I’m somewhat “late to the party”, as it’s an ongoing topic for this site, as long-time readers will know.
I recall a time when all I could conceive of was a bright future for Xbox Live. It certainly seemed to be well worth the subscription money for me, given what it meant for the potential of online competitive gaming: arbitration servers for those dastardly “plug pullers” who disconnect mid-game, much better online connections in general, global security systems in place to help reduce cheating & hacking etc. Also there were plenty of nice & sometimes essential features for a general online service, like a unified Friends List and good and critically, easy-to-use voice chat systems.
But when I look on the body of work Microsoft have done to update the service in the last 3-4 years, all I can really see now is a huge ugly…
By far the biggest issue I have with Xbox Live is the Friends List & it’s management, and the closely related related Notifications system. Ever since the release of Street Fighter 2 HD Remix my friends list did a huge jump in numbers and I very quickly found myself buttressed right up against the 100 friend limit. Remember – this was just through playing a single game competitively online – and it’s not even an especially popular title! (Whether it’s because I’m a popular guy or not, I will leave up to the reader’s discretion 😉 ). Of course I play a lot of other multiplayer games too, and I had many more people I would’ve liked to have added or kept on my friends list, however the only real solution available to me was to delete most of my actual real-life friends or anyone I wasn’t actively gaming with – as most of my “RL” friends I would still know their gamertags and be able to find out what they were up to anyway if I wanted to – and so I mainly kept my Friends List for the people who were relatively active in SF2 HDR, or friends I was actively gaming with in other titles. I figured that I could add everyone back onto my friends list later once the limit was raised, which surely couldn’t be that far away…
The reasoning being offered by Microsoft for the 100 friend limit at the time was to be able to keep backwards compatibility with old Xbox1 titles – some of which were still played and were even still very popular online; in particular Halo 2, but I myself used to play NFL2k5 and Street Fighter Anniversary Collection from time to time. So, as much as it was a pain for me, I could at least understand and appreciate this explanation. Once the original Xbox Live compatibility was retired back on April 15th 2010 I assumed it would just be a matter of a short time until the 100 friend limit would be raised. Well, we’re still waiting now! And my anger and annoyance at this situation grows with every patch that fails to deliver this incredibly fundamental functionality. The fact that there’s no communication about it at all anywhere, that I can find, just fans the flames of my nerdrage even further! For a while there was a steady stream of reports that the limit would be lifted “soon” but actually, nothing’s been done. Every time there’s the slightest patch to Xbox Live I inevitably rush to my console (or xbox.com) and it’s the first thing I try to do, in a forlorn hope it’s been released in stealth mode and someone forgot to mention it in the patch notes. It’s pretty sad really.
Exacerbating all of this is all the changes that MS have made in the last few years – in particular adding facebook functionality in 2009 (and then enhancing that functionality further with Metro) just made it even worse! I am even more connected now than ever to even more potential Xbox Live friends I cannot add, and worse, will periodically try to add me & get frustrated that they can’t, or complain why I had deleted them, or why I won’t add them, etc. It’s simply infuriating.
Achievement Unlocked = Notification Blocked!
Alongside all of this is the problem the Xbox Live dashboard has with dealing with notifications. You get MS Messenger style pop-ups every time you get an Achievement, you’re invited to a game or a party, or a friend comes online, you get sent a message, or various other things. If you’ve only got a handful of Friends this system work’s great, but once you know quite a few people and you’re online at peak time it becomes a disaster. The main problem is that you’ve got friends constantly going on and offline – something which often happens even more often than you’d expect as many games will kick the person offline while it loads, or kick them off while it patches itself – so a single “Friend X is online” notification so becomes at least two and often many more notifications if that friend is playing a lot of different games or using lots of applications. Get a few friends doing that and… well, I’m sure you get the idea. Your only control over these Notifications is to switch them on at all times, or off during (non-game) movie playback, or off always. Oh and these limited controls are, for some stupid reason, at the console level not the gamertag level.
Aside: I’ve seen multiple cases where games seem to “lose” their patches on Xbox Live over and over and they need to be re-installed sometimes seemingly every time you play them, which increases the amount of notifications you get even more! – It seems to be in cases where there are many similarly titled games and the system doesn’t seem to be able to tell if it has the latest patch or not, and so it seems like it does the patch again ‘just to make sure’ – this especially seems to happen if you play lots of videogames that begin with the same words like “Street Fighter…” as I do. I’ve periodically seen confusion on forums and such where someone thinks there’s been a new patch to a title, whereas no-one else has got one, and I am pretty sure this is the underlying cause – another bug for XBL, albeit a minor one… anyway, I’ll put my software testers brain away again now.
When Metro was added it put in some nice “Beacon” functionality whereby you could flag three games you wanted to play with friends online and put a customised message against it. A very nice idea! The trouble is that it also uses the already-failing Notification system and increased the amount of Notifications you get, which was already unmanageable for anyone with a lot of friends, by as much as three or four fold. So now I get multiple notifications every time a friend starts playing a game on my beacons, or when I start playing a game one of my friend’s is etc. Most of these seem completely unnecessary anyway because if I wanted to see what my friends are playing – as I typically do when I boot up my console – I will already have hit my Guide button and glanced the list to see who’s online and what they are playing. Or just as likely I will have already checked from my PC via the ever-useful Raptr client before I even switched on my Xbox.
I have to admit I’m not even 100% sure what causes all of the ‘Friend Activity’ Beacon-related notifications to occur anymore, because the only solution I’ve been able to come up with for most of the last few years or so now is to turn off all notifications unless I know I’m specifically waiting for a message from a friend or an Achievement to pop, or it’s a really quiet time when hardly any of my friends are online. Anything else simply makes all reaction & dexterity based games unplayable, as the notifications often obscure a critical part of the screen, making it impossible to see what you are doing, or worse, what your opponent is doing, and they are otherwise annoying even at the best of times. I probably suffer far more from this because two of the games that are the worst affected by it are two of my favourites – SF2 HDR and Splosion Man (& Miss Splosion Man), but for anyone playing on any videogame where they need to respond quickly to anything on-screen (is that a wide enough category?), this is simply a horrible UI flaw and usually a bad gaming experience. It even annoyed me when I left notifications on once whilst playing Stacking – yes Stacking, a game with zero dexterity or timing tests at all, because so many notifications would pop-up during un-pauseable in-game movie sequences and I’d miss a load of the text I was trying to read on screen, forcing me to dig through the menus to re-watch the whole movie again… only for yet another Notification to pop up! >_<!!
Another Aside – I’ve also broken the message notification system (& indeed the whole XBL messaging system) a number of times! This happens when I’m sending a lot of messages to a lot of people, which I absolutely need to do run SF2 HDR tournaments effectively over XBL. Two things frequently go wrong – firstly Xbox.com starts to report “you’ve sent too many messages to people not on your friends list so you must wait before sending any more” – which is completely bogus when I’ve not messaged anyone off my friends list at all usually, and I am only trying to send more messages to people on my FL. This means I have to send messages from a console, which is ok if I plug a keyboard in, but still means I cannot cut&paste and easily send to multiple recipients and various things I need to do and I can do much more easily from xbox.com on a PC. Secondly the notifications system goes berserk on the actual console, delivering every message notification I’d had for the last few weeks, which can sometimes take about 20 minutes to sort itself out. Experiencing these problems so much is one reason I’ve really struggled to find the energy & time to run any HDR tournaments lately.
Because of all this, for a while now, I’d believed that upping the Friends Limit to over 100 would make this Notification problem so much worse that it would need to be coupled with a change to the Notification functionality as well. However with the release of Metro, I no longer care, because my Notifications will have to stay switched off forever if I want to play virtually any game without being constantly disturbed by them! Even if this means really annoying things like missing a chat request from one of my best friends.
So what should Microsoft do to fix the Notification problem? Well there’s a huge range of options available, and I personally would go for a combination of some or all of these ideas:
- Put the Notification control at the gamertag level and allow me to configure it on a friend by friend basis and on a notification type basis. I should be able to specify against each friend what notifications I want to appear from them. There are some of my friends where I really want to know every time they message me, invite me, or cause an activity beacon to flare, but there are others where I don’t generally want to know this immediately (or at all).
- Also have some “general” notification controls still that override the individual friend settings so I can still choose to switch off all notifications totally, or during games, or during movies. Importantly again, Notification types are the key level of control. I’d normally always want to see Achievement pops, and almost always messages or invites, but I’m less likely to always want beacons on.
- Once we’ve established the different notification types, why not add even more control such as determine the location each type appears on my screen (the PC raptr in-game client allows some of this, which is great) or perhaps even set some different icons, colours or sound effects to help me distinguish them. It would be fantastic if I could set beacon pops to always only play a sound effect for example, so, if I was bothered, I could easily hit my Guide button and see what it was.
- Have some kind of temporary log or history of notifications so you can quickly check any you might of missed – the current Guide menu already does some of this by showing active invite and previous 100 read/unread messages etc, but this should be extended.
- Potentially add even further notification control, for example at the game level, or even better game mode level – so when you’re playing a critical game of Halo or Street Fighter that you really care about, you know you won’t be disturbed.
But instead of adding any of these features (or, notably, virtually any of the things talked about here on Agoners since 2008!) Microsoft have instead focused on making the dashboard easier to navigate by waving your arms about or by talking at it, making advertisements more and more prominent & frequent, making your owned games list non-existent, dropping many leaderboard features, making new & existing downloadable titles increasingly hard to find and sort – oh and adding lots of video playback, and TV streaming and other online applications. Whereas some of these things are complete crap, some are definitely ‘nice to have’ stuff, and some of it I can begrudgingly understand why they are doing even if I don’t like or especially appreciate it… it’s when you add all of this to the picture of what they are not doing for their so-called “Core Gamers” – and certainly what they are not doing for people that I actually consider real Gamers (ie: competitive players), it all gets into a stark focus and becomes much like a huge slap in the face with a wet Xbox Live branded smelly kipper. The day after Metro launched my nerdrage actually hit such a peak that I told a few people that I was going to go and buy a PS3 immediately. In the cold light of day I reconsidered that it would be a poor investment for me really at this point, so I didn’t. But still, it’s something I’m very much aware of now as I start to eye the future and the potential of the ‘NextBox’ and Playstation 4. The piss-poor way that Xbox Live has been handled over the past few years is really making me doubt I will necessarily stick with Microsoft next ‘generation’ around. The sad thing is that PSN has hardly gained much ground on them though, given the problems they’ve had! And as always it seems sadly, the less said about Nintendo’s online “offerings” the better.
Ain’t okay, I’ve got no way to switchback!
Overall what I see from XBL these days is a service in regression, whilst PC services like Steam and Battlenet are doing far more of the right moves (although both have some UI issues with Notifications too). It certainly all makes me wonder exactly why I am paying MS for the use of XBL “Gold”; something I’d previously had no qualms about for years, nor did I expect it to become an issue. In terms of digital sales and online tracking and general marketing features, Steam’s been literally steaming ahead of Xbox Live. Probably the only thing Steam really lags behind on is the overall Achievement system and general controller & voice chat support, but that’s always going to be an issue with an open format PC & Mac system. In the end there’s only so much Valve can do with it without becoming too ‘controlling’ and closing the system up; it’s up to the game developers to support the systems they put in place – but it would be nice to have clearer and more reliable information on games on their Steam store pages. I frequently have to google to find out really what, if any, types of Achievements are included on a PC title, and whether it properly supports a gamepad controller or not, because I cannot trust what the Steam store says usually – it’s been wrong far too many times.
Blizzard’s Battlenet is very much behind in many of the general online ‘service’ features, and it still seems odd, well, backwards really, that they are determined to ‘go their own way’ and compete rather than co-operating more with others like Valve or at least allowing services like Raptr to take an information feed from them. Blozzard might be big, but they aren’t nearly as big as everyone else put together! Voice chat is still a bit poorly supported (again, similar problems for the devs as Steam has here), and their regionalisation of their servers makes that part a laughing stock, but they are the exemplar by a hundred country miles when it comes to the competitive experience of matchmaking and ranking (leaderboards) for StarCraft II. (More on this in many of my forthcoming reviews, including one for StarCraft II Wings of Liberty). Can you imagine how good & how much it would be worth paying for Xbox Live could be if it put a battle.net kind of matchmaking engine and ranking system (not to mention anti-smurfing via DRM) system in place across all competitive games on the Xbox system. This is the kind of thing a competitive gamer like me dreams about, and it seems that Microsoft once had this kind of idea by attempting to enforcing trueskill matchmaking and the like, but those days are obviously a distant memory now.
I also try to stay aware of competing download sites (& use some of them) like Good Old Games, Direct2Drive and Impulse, and even Microsoft’s own Games for Windows Live (!) so it’s great that in the PC world, there’s a lot of decent competition. Perhaps Microsoft are playing a dangerous game of “getting away with the mimimum necessary” in the console arena due to the aforementioned lack of competition from PSN or Nintendo. But you never know, things change, and online cloud gaming services such as OnLive and Gaikai also clearly cut into this market as well.
I think over the last few years the only good things to happen to Xbox Live really have been Avatars (which are fun – although paid-for Avatar gear and clothes certainly is not acceptable to me!) and the stealth reduction in subscription prices through the Gold Family account and the Xbox Live Rewards scheme. The weekly and sometimes seasonal special offers or price reductions on videogames is nice too – but they are generally really lacking compared to something like Steam on the offers front. There needs to be a far greater drop in price for older digitial titles or a lot more (Steam level) offers to make up for it. Xbox Live ‘Games on Demand’ is still a complete joke in the price department. The only real improvement offered by the last Metro update was online server-storage “Cloud” (ugh! Working in the IT industry has really made me hate these kinds of buzzwords!) save games. The so-called “roaming profile” gamertag option doesn’t seem to work for me at all – I still need to have a USB stick or memory card with my gamertag files on it to avoid having to do a sign-in, and your gamertag can not be stored in “the cloud” so I am not sure what that feature was supposed to do.
Of course all of this is one agoner’s, one gamer’s, lament – but I just can’t believe I’m the only one out bothered by all of this. At least from what I’ve seen anecdotally most feedback on Metro has been consistently negative, so one can hope Microsoft (finally) takes notice.
Perhaps the best thing I’ve gained by researching all of this further for this article was that I did come across this excellent facebook page of people with the same complaint regarding the 100 friend limit – so if you are annoyed by any of this yourself, feel free to comment here, and if you’re frustrated by the 100 friend limit I also suggest you “Like” this facebook page at the very least.
The essence of an agoner is to enjoy the struggle & the contest – but no-one enjoys fighting the very system that’s supposed to enable your gaming make it easy, or at the very least not be a pain in the ass! As all of this just causes pure frustration these days for me, there will be no fiero in this victory, but I will probably leap for joy the moment I can control notifications and add as many friends as I like on any system I like. But it’s still depressing that these days I set my sights so low compared to how bright the future for actual gamers once seemed. Instead we seem to be getting systems designed to cater for those more interested in watching TV, movies or the web on their games console, or ‘pwning noobs’ to grind away to get their latest lazer-sight bling scope in Battlefield or COD to help them pwn more noobs to do yet more mindless grinding, (or perhaps soon grinding for their latest GEM in SF X Tekken?) or solo-polo players with only about 10 friends on their friends list, each Skyrim jobbing themselves to ecstasy… *sigh*