New Xbox Experience

Yesterday the ‘New Xbox Experience’ (NXE) upgrade was finally rolled out to all Xbox Live users. The old system (created by AKQA and known as the “blades”) was more dated than bad, but the market has shifted during its five-year lifespan. Online is now the default platform for many, casual gaming is the new black, and the previously masculine bias of the games industry has softened substantially in recent years. The NXE is an attempt to catch up, so the changes aren’t huge, but it’s interesting to see how they affect the overall console experience.

The avatar

Yes, that’s me. We can see the avatar as the natural extension of the Xbox gamertag, created back in 2003. Personification is the trend: game companies are keen to give players flexibility to define an identity for themselves online. Certainly a name alone no longer cuts it. It’s worth remembering that Xbox Live controversially remains a chargeable service, so there is a clear impetus to at least equalise with competitor online services, the Wii being the obvious parallel.

Rare, the avatar designers, say they were keen to find the balance between toylike and overly realistic (there’s that uncanny valley again), but I think the result is bland: approachable, but far too close to Nintendo’s territory and too limiting to create anything with real character.

However, the new avatars do have a couple of interesting features. A friend’s status is now reflected by their avatar’s pose (eg. asleep = offline) and apparently avatars will be embedded in small games in future. Microsoft have, in essence, created a hook around which gaming experiences can hang, which is a smart move.

Functionality

There are some minor functional changes, probably the most significant of which is that you can now install games to the hard drive and run them from that. Not only is this long overdue, given that it’s been standard practice on PCs for 20+ years, but it also tackles one of the 360’s major flaws: its extremely noisy DVD drive. It also allows for faster switching between games, which will suit those players who like to throw tantrums when they start losing.

There’s also the new ability to ask your Xbox to download items remotely, although this does of course rely on you leaving it on all the time.

Interface and IA

The interface itself isn’t much changed, except that the blades have become panels and adopted the increasingly-clichéd Cover Flow stance. More usefully, there’s a welcome tightening up of the IA, which means hours wasted fishing around in Settings should be a thing of the past.

Migration

The detail I’ve been most impressed by was the migration experience itself. Upgrades are one of the areas where just a little user focus can have a huge impact: compare firmware upgrades for the iPhone with most older handsets. The entire upgrade took just four minutes (excellent for what is essentially an entire OS upgrade), with seamless plug-and-play operation and an explanatory video upon relaunch.

Reaction

Somehow, we’ve reached the age where a firmware upgrade for a console can create a buzz—almost universally, people seem to love the NXE. The really interesting question is why, which I’ll write a followup post about shortly.

Personally, I’m not as glowing as others. I actually quite liked the old Xbox personality: hardcore over casual, masculine over feminine. This update softens that stance, and I think it’s a mistake to drift towards Wii territory. Minor gripes aside, it is an undeniably well-crafted piece of work, tackling known problems, creating extensibility and, most importantly, getting people talking about a rather old console in the lucrative run-up to Christmas.