Microsoft Giving the Xbox 360 a Social Overhaul

Since Microsoft began its Live service on 15 September 2002, the company has defined how consoles should approach online services. Now six years later, and onto their second console, Microsoft has over 12 million Xbox Live subscribers playing games, watching movies, and chatting with each other over the service. Xbox Live is now the biggest gaming network in the world and, unlike Myspace or Facebook, it is piped directly to the TV in the living room.

Live is at the very core of what the Xbox 360 does, and despite its 12 million users worldwide, Microsoft is still looking to widen its appeal. So far the Xbox has limited uptake outside the 16-35 year-old male market, for whom first-person shooter and driving games are popular.

The key to bringing the 360 to a wider audience is to make the Xbox Live more social and easy for anyone to pick up and use. Marc Whitten, Head of Xbox Live, elaborates, “Today the dashboard is a single-player experience whilst most of the games we talk about are multiplayer experiences. Why isn’t the box powered with the same idea of me being able to connect with my friends, and stay with them and move through experiences with them?”

The new Dashboard will look similar to the Windows Media Centre interface and will allow much more intuitive access to the thousands of features available on Live. Most importantly it will allow you and your friends to more seamlessly chat, play games, and even move as a group between games such as Halo 3 and Uno at the touch of a button.

The new system allows players to recruit up to eight friends and move from game to game without the current hassle of one person having to leave and set up a new game, and then invite their friends in. Now players can simply drop straight into a multiplayer session with their friends without having to navigate in-game menus. The leader of the group just needs to select the new game, and away the group goes without any of the loss of communication that gamers currently experience.

Two other new social features in the 360 are player Avatars and the Community channel. The Avatars are like slightly more grown-up versions of Nintendo’s Miis. They have plenty of charm all their own and will be fully customizable with clothes and even accessories, like guitars and skateboards — certainly enough character to make the uninitiated take a second look at the Xbox 360.

With the Community channel, you can now see who’s online and who’s playing what within seconds of turning on the box. It also introduces the new party system in a simple and effective way and Microsoft is hoping that it will unify the 360’s front end with its social multiplayer ethos. With the new Community channel, gamers will now be one click away from playing with their friends.

Despite the current size of the Xbox Live userbase, Microsoft is feeling the weight of strong competition that the Nintendo Wii is bringing with gamers over the age of 35 and under the age of 16. The newly refined Xbox Dashboard is Microsoft’s answer.

The new features will definitely improve the social aspects of the Xbox. Only time will tell if it helps to win over those that have already been charmed by Nintendo’s little white box.

The new update is due to come online this fall.