Xbox LIVE Update: Social gaming revolution or shameless franchise spamming?

The modern world is all about sharing. Whether it’s your best friend uploading those potentially career-damaging drunken photos of you to Facebook or your brother ranting about the state of the economy on Twitter, everything has something they want to say.

Microsoft’s latest addition to the already jam-packed NXE (New Xbox Experience) will bring these household names direct to your Xbox, along with the likes of Zune, a video downloading service, and Last.fm, the sophisticated Spotify, which lets you stream music direct from the internet.

The icing on the cake for sports fans is the Sky player, which will allow you to subscribe to Sky packages through your Xbox and enjoy the latest football match with all your friends’ avatars from around the world.

While it may all sound exciting in theory – in fact the round of applause from E3 has only just died down – it only goes further to hammer home the stereotype of the near-institutionalised computer games fan, hiding away from the world in a dark room out of touch with the real world.

Of course this is nonsense in this day and age. Gaming is more diverse than ever before, with the average UK gamer aged around 28 years old and over 59% (26.5m) of all 6-65 year-olds playing computer games, in no small part due to the user-friendly nature of the Wii.

Microsoft’s vision is to fight back by turning the Xbox 360 into a multimedia super entertainment centre. The vision falls short in reality though as the update itself (after a lengthy download) doesn’t ‘wow’ right away, just causes Facebook and the like to feature in the dashboard menus, prompting another download each time one of the applications is selected.

Sadly the lack of integration doesn’t end there, with each application being treated almost as a separate game rather than part of the dashboard, meaning you can’t have any part of Facebook or Twitter running in the background, so if you wanted to share with the world that you’d just nailed the ‘Seriously 2.0’ achievement on Gears of War 2 you’d have to exit out of the game.

Teaming up your happy-go-lucky avatar with your real self is a little unnerving at first as well, but once the update is released worldwide you’ll be able to add friends to Facebook from Xbox LIVE and vice versa, as well as all the usual Facebook features such as viewing photos and spying on your enemies from your primary school days.

Being keyboard-less on the 360 is one major drawback for the text-heavy knitting circle Twitter and though you can splash out on a ‘Messenger Kit’, you might find it easier to dig out the laptop to tweet away than navigate through the swarm of menus to share your thoughts through Xbox LIVE.

For music fans Last.fm offers a colossal range of music from almost any artist imaginable, though you need to pay to sign up to the premium version of the service to unlock the most useful content, such as the ability to play just your ‘loved’ tracks, making endless CD burning for summer BBQs a thing of the past.

Zune, the least well known of the new additions, jazzes up the already popular Video Marketplace to offer a wider choice of films, though the choice is currently fairly limited. As well as feature films, Zune also highlights the best bits and bobs from the web to keep you entertained when you fancy a break from failing to beat ‘Scatterbrain’ on Expert for the 18th time.

Sky Player is the most illusive inclusion to date, with Xbox LIVE’s message stating it will be rolled out on October 27 and that users won’t need a Sky dish to access content. What it does reveal is that there will be plenty of on-demand movies available, possibly creating a bit of competition between Sky and Zune to control the download rental market.

The features are determined to show of their usefulness to gamers but for those without a lightning-fast internet connection even updating Twitter can be a strain, making the prospect of downloading a feature length full 1080p HD film a daunting prospect, though luckily you don’t need to wait for the download to finish before you start watching.

There’s masses of potential here, and now Microsoft has these big companies on board things will only become more refined and sleek but at the moment all the new features seem very tacked-on, giving more of a sense of bewilderment than appreciation of a revolutionised multimedia interface.

James Michael Parry

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