The state of Xbox Live is terrible, and there’s nothing we can do about it

I have been disconnected from Microsoft’s online service for some time now, as I have had a significant backlog of single-player games that I have been playing through. I connect my Xbox through my laptop, as my router is far away from my TV, so my Xbox is only connected to the Internet as required, and spends most of its time not connected. I used to use Xbox Live all the time, but with my single-player backlog only slowly dwindling, a 12-month Gold Membership card I purchased some time ago still sits unused. This past weekend, though, Microsoft offered a free weekend of Gold for Silver subscribers, so I decided to take the opportunity to maybe play some Halo: Reach multiplayer, and check out some of the highly-touted services Microsoft has been offering their Gold subscribers. What I encountered ensured that I would be in no hurry to activate that card and plug in my Xbox to the Internet any time soon.

Xbox Live has always had the unfortunate feature of requiring payment for a service that other consoles have always offered for free, i.e. multiplayer gaming. Xbox Live’s party system and other multiplayer features have always been a step above the competition’s, so, considering that at worst Microsoft charged roughly $50 per year for the service, I and many others never had a problem shelling out the cash. But then, coupled with the redesign of the dashboard and partnerships with myriad content providers, things got bad.

Microsoft embarked on a mission to make the Xbox the only set-top box you’d need in your living room, taking on the likes of Roku and Apple TV by partnering with a whole slew of content providers, like Netflix, Hulu+, ESPN, etc. On the one hand, on top of all these content offerings, you can play games on the device, so the Xbox sure looks like a better choice than those other set-top boxes. On the other hand, not only do you have to pay for subscriptions to Netflix, Hulu+, and cable, you have to pony up for an Xbox Live Gold subscription to use these services. And yet, Microsoft is still seeing huge growth in console sales due to these new content offerings, and I just don’t get it. If you love playing multiplayer games, and already have an Xbox and a Gold subscription and subscriptions to all these services, then enjoy another way to use a bunch of services you already subscribe to. But to expressly purchase an Xbox for the privilege of paying twice to use these services, well, that’s inane.

So back to my Xbox Live Gold experience. I boot up the Xbox and sign in. Instead of immediately getting a “Not Connected” error like I usually do, a few more seconds elapse, and I am brought to the tiled Metro home screen. Only now there are a few more tiles than before, and they are loaded with ads. I suppose these would show up even if I was working with a free Silver account, but shouldn’t Gold members be able to forgo the onslaught of ads? I decided to try out the new video offerings. I use Kinect to swipe over to the Video tab, where there are a bunch of ads for the current video offerings for purchase, and another video ad for a soon-to-be-released movie. I select “My Video Apps”, but there is no option to download the YouTube app there. Taking the “apps” in “My Video Apps” as a hint, I navigate back and over to the “Apps” tab, and select “Apps Marketplace”. There, YouTube was front and center, and I am finally able to download the 83 MB (!) app. Why YouTube requires an 83 MB piece of software to stream videos, I don’t understand. After the app downloads, I go back to my initial choice, the “My Video Apps” option under “Video”, to select the YouTube app. I still maintain apps relating to a specific type of content should be downloadable from its respective tab. The YouTube app takes quite a while to launch. Finally, I choose one of the Featured Videos in which “Kyrie Irving Challenges Kobe Bryant”, and which ended up being literally just that — Kyrie Irving challenging Kobe to a one-on-one, and Kobe talking smack, with no actual basketball play taking place — only to be prompted to download an “Optional Media Update”. After the update downloaded, I still had to wait a few more seconds until the anticlimactic video played. I then tried to search for a video, only to be told that only the Kinect and controller can be used to type, and that there was no voice functionality. It took a long time futzing around with Kinect to search for a two-word video, and using the controller wasn’t super fast either. All in all, it took quite a while to watch two YouTube videos, an experience which is much faster, more seamless, and free on a PC or tablet.

I then decided to try out another app providing video content only to paying Gold subscribers, the Syfy app. This app was also fairly large for a video-streaming app, weighing in at 73 MB, and I could almost hear my tiny 20 GB hard drive scoffing at the space these useless apps were wasting. After loading up the Syfy app, which was again not super fast, I promptly notice that almost all the content was relegated to clips of the hit shows lasting just a few minutes, with the only fully viewable episodes coming from some “Syfy Originals” series. I quickly exited out of the app and launched Halo: Reach, but not before being assaulted by a new bevy of ads. At least the game loaded into the disc drive can still be launched fairly painlessly from the home screen.

Are these apps really the crap that are bringing consumers to the Xbox 360 in droves? Is shelling out $60 a year (Microsoft raised the price of a subscription upon partnering with the content-providers) to use cumbersome apps really the draw that Microsoft makes it out to be? Is filling up more and more space on the dashboard with ads a reason to connect to Xbox Live on a daily basis? I struggle to understand how that is the case, but it sure seems to be for many.

Those ads are the more infuriating aspect of my short time spent connected to Xbox Live. Penny Arcade has a report on what it costs advertisers to put those ads in the front of the millions of eyes logging into Xbox Live on a daily basis. As Microsoft is less than forthcoming with those figures, PA reached out anonymous sources to get an idea of how successful the business of taking advantage of paying customers is:

“The bigger your spend, the better placements your ad will appear in,” they said. “And they are pretty expensive; for every view I get on Xbox Live, for the same money I get twice that almost everywhere else.” The minimum spend to put your ad in the kind of rotation that might get someone’s attention, according to the source, is $40,000.

Many companies spend much more when they buy an ad for their product. “$250,000 will get you a good run for about three weeks,” my source stated. “If you do multiple campaigns like one for a trailer, one for a demo, etc., that’s where you start crossing the $500,000 mark.” Keep in mind this money simply puts your ad in rotation, as Microsoft sells multiple campaigns at a time and, if you aim your campaign at your target market, you’ll be increasing the amount you spend on your advertising.”

With ad campaigns on Xbox Live often bringing in upwards of half a million dollars, why wouldn’t Microsoft be loading up the dashboard with more and more ads every day? If you want to play multiplayer games on your console, or use the crappy aforementioned video apps as part of your Gold subscription, you are part of a captive audience filling Microsoft’s coffers with ad revenue.

After playing a few matches of Halo: Reach, I decided to check out what games were popular on Xbox Live. This too was quite the laborious process, one that a PA source says is negatively affected by the terribly designed, confusing dashboard:

“Since the last big 360 Dashboard update, the presence of games, specifically unique XBLA has been severely demoted,” a developer who spoke on the condition of anonymity said. “This ain’t really cool, because promoting XBLA games is really difficult. Your audience is people who own an Xbox AND have it connected to the internet AND realize there are unique downloadable games on there (i.e. it isn’t just a Netflix and Madden machine) AND jump through the hurdles of adding MS moonbucks to their account AND can find actually your game on the console.”

Trying to get someone to jump through all those hoops is proving difficult, and it’s directly impacting the money developers can make on the system. “Unless there’s a link to your game on the front page, which is both tremendously expensive and will rarely last even a week, actually finding the games is a nightmare,” the developer explained. “Currently, you have to navigate past Home … Social … TV … Video … and finally to Games. Under Games, you need to select Games Marketplace. From there, you have to completely ignore everything under ‘Spotlight’ (which quizzically includes Games Showcase, Express Yourself, Most Wanted and New In Fun Labs, plus a giant ad right in the middle, and good luck figuring out what any of those things mean) and select a completely different submenu called simply ‘Games’ and then either select New or A-Z.”

With the current make-up of Xbox Live, it appears the gamers and the developers are both screwed. The only one seeming to come out on top is Microsoft. And yet, consumers are still flocking to the Xbox, which is driving the huge moneymaker for Microsoft, ad sales. In that sense, I suppose that for Microsoft, the state of Xbox Live is just fine.

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