Opinion: Has the Xbox 360 lost its way?

Has the Xbox 360 lost its way?

I have been an avid gamer of the Xbox 360 now since April of 2007. That’s a hefty amount of time spent plugging hours of gaming into one machine and it is safe to say I have seen the machine I love change considerably during its lifetime. This is down to a few essential things, each implemented for a few essential reasons. However, the multiple changes Microsoft make to the system’s interface have been met with mixed reactions. As a long standing fan of the console, what do I think about the changes? Well let’s see just how much the system has evolved over time…

It all started so well. The first interface the Xbox 360 had was the famous ‘blades’ as they are known. Easily allowing the gamer to shift through them as if rifling through paper, the blades were simple and colourful. You knew it was Xbox when you saw the blades and they integrated the gamertags wonderfully. Truly it was the beginning of a machine that would maximise its potential to be an online machine. The thing with the blades was…they were a straight up, no nonsense, ‘hardcore’ if you will, gaming interface. It was designed for gaming and the machine benefitted from it. From here, the changes begun in earnest, though not all were to the system’s detriment.

November 2008 saw the arrival of the NXE which stood for the New Xbox Experience. This was the first major change to the Xbox 360’s interface and it was slightly unnerving. However, this quickly became and remains to this day, my favourite version of the Xbox 360’s dashboard. The system was completely revamped, doing away with the blades except for if you pressed the large ‘X’ button in the centre of the controller in which case they appeared in the form of a small menu, and instead replacing them with slides that moved seamlessly diagonally backwards into the depths of the screen. Not only this, but Avatars were introduced. Yeah, all right, perhaps they were just rip-offs of the at-the-time hugely successful Nintendo Wii’s Mii avatars, but still, they were a fun distraction, a nice means of personalisation, though ultimately pointless.

What the NXE did bring with it however that certainly was not pointless and was indeed a new experience was the party system. Allowing friends to move further than just private chat or game chat, the fully implemented party system allowed a group of people to talk to one another freely outside of their respective games. It was revolutionary for online play and this, along with the fact that the NXE just…looked…nice, means that the first major update remains my all time favourite of the Xbox 360 changes. Unfortunately, in this writer’s opinion, the changes merely go downhill from here on out.

The next update was an eyesore. By which I mean, it wasn’t particularly easy on the eyes. By which I mean, IT REALLY HURT YOUR EYES. It was essentially NXE but placed on a blisteringly white backdrop. Everything was white and it hurt. Should you be playing somewhat late into the night and in a dark room, pressing the ‘X’ button on the controller was painful. The blinding white screen would pop up in its ruthlessness and you would be forced to squint. However, this is just a minor irk in an otherwise large bowl of annoyance. There was one issue with this dashboard that has spawned the rest of the issues to come. It was streamlined, entirely, for the usage of Microsoft’s amazing motion technology known as Kinect. The dashboard no longer flowed elegantly off into the horizon, but now marched rigidly from side to side, the blocks sharp edged and square.

The reason for this sudden design change was so that when navigating through the pages with your hand, using Kinect of course, things would be easier to reach, which they were. But herein we see the real change in Xbox. It began with Avatars and now, Kinect began to grasp even the dashboard, the original hub of what was once ‘hardcore’ gaming and turned it into a family-friendly multimedia zone. I’m not too irritated by the Xbox’s constant striving to become a multimedia piece of kit. Microsoft can throw as many applications at us as they like, whether they be Facebook or Youtube, I use my laptop for that. My Xbox 360 is a games machine and a games machine it will stay. Having said that, the apps don’t exactly get in the way either and in today’s competition, do make for a more fleshed out machine. And this update improved party voice chat…can’t forget that.

I think the worst part about the change was that it felt like Kinect was being thrown on us. It was intruding. For the most part, the machine was unwanted, though sales were certainly impressive. Following on the Wii bandwagon, Microsoft released the motion control device to a rapturous audience but, like Nintendo before it, began to alienate its core users. I almost think it not a coincidence that the number of Xbox 360 exclusives began to dwindle. Yet for me, the worst was yet to come and a Kinect encumbered monstrosity loomed on the family orientated horizon. The final update (so far) to the dashboard, drove it into the ground.

It looks a little bit like a Windows Phone. That is kind of the only way I can describe it. So in essence, it is as far removed from the original blades as could get. Simplified even more so for Kinect users, which I barely thought possible, the new dashboard is a horrendous mix and match of games, adverts and social media and networking. You know you’re in trouble when an advert for a film on the marketplace is larger than than the play disc box and the play disc box is TINY. I just really do not like it. It does not feel like Xbox anymore. I suppose that is the worst part of it. It has just become a machine that strives to be a social networking hub, a hub of families watching films together and prancing around idiotically in front of Wii Sports rip-offs. What happened to the gaming, Microsoft?

It is only natural I suppose. Nintendo were raking the money in and were beginning to widen gaming’s rather narrow audience. Microsoft caught on and began to widen their own audience but these companies do not seem capable of both appeasing the ‘hardcore’ gamers whilst keeping the ‘casual’ interested or vice versa. So as we can see in this pseudo timeline of sorts, I think that there was initially an improvement in the dashboards of the Xbox 360…but, to this humble writer and long time gamer, it feels like Microsoft has lost its way in a thriving sea of multimedia and kid friendly motion controls. Who knows, maybe someday it will return to its roots but as the idea of motion gaming continues to excite I can’t see that day being any time soon.