2009-08-01 15.14.02
Will User Ratings Help Xbox Live Marketplace?

When Microsoft rolled out the New Xbox Experience (NXE) dashboard update last year, one of the selling points was the prospect of more frequent incremental updates as opposed to the bi-annual blow outs they’ve opted for in previous years. Certainly it appears to have been easier for them to drop in more content and additional “apps” like 1 vs 100, but with Fall on the horizon a significant preview of the dashboard update was released this week to more or less anyone who wanted to sign up for it.

As usual improvements vary in terms of size and significance. Headline grabbing features announced at E3 like Twitter/Facebook integration, Games on Demand, Last.Fm & Zune Video Marketplace are not included at present but everything else from this nicely formatted list is.

Although I initially didn’t think so, the guide is a little bit zippier and browsing the marketplace is a huge improvement when it needs to load content from the Xbox Live servers. Ashamed as I am to admit it, the radio-controlled warthog prop for my avatar was too impossibly cute not to have, even at 320 space bucks. The avatar marketplace has certainly garnered a mixed reaction but the scope is certainly there for games to award avatar items like this much like achievements and I would expect plenty of titles to exploit the opportunity.

Speaking of achievements, I’m definitely a fan of the new achievement browser and accompanying summary tile showing your percentage gamerscore completion. The ability to compare this with friends would be a logical expansion hopefully coming in a subsequent update. For the time being though, you’ll have to console yourselves with the stamp showing how long you’ve been a gold member.

Living outside the US, I haven’t seen one of the controversial SilverLight video ads and couldn’t test the new Netflix features but feedback from friends appears to be largely positive and allaying any fears that the dashboard would soon resemble a bad day on MySpace. Another friend was also made up with the new video display options over-ride which helped fix a long suffering HDMI problem. Even long term critics of the procedure for canceling a gold membership should be pleased now that you can be notified in the dash when your subscription renews or even turn off auto renewal altogether.

So in short, something for everyone. For me however, the stand out addition is the ability to rate content on Marketplace.

Oft requested since the amount of content began to expand rapidly, it is, in theory at least, exactly what the service has been crying out for. Whilst the NXE went some way towards making marketplace easier to navigate, content can still be buried several layers deep with no indication as to its quality. Now, rating a piece of content can be done quickly and easy taking only a few presses of the A button. Initial indications appear to suggest this design has encouraged a lot of people to make use of it.

One area where this should make an immediate impact is the Xbox Live Indie Games channel. Rebranded and with a new pricing structure to differentiate it from Xbox Live Arcade, it now comprises over 360 games on the service. Like all user-generated content, the 95% of poor, “my first game” type experiences used to drown out the decent and hidden gems that are there. This was so much of a problem, A Microsoft MVP even set up Xbox Indies to help highlight the better content. A quick glance now at the top rated section in the new dash shows a good selection of the better games on the service. Job done.

Xbox Live Arcade however, might be a different story. With Microsoft enforcing a consistent quality bar for XBLA submissions, the variation in game quality is much narrower. Certainly the present top 20 rated games are all solid efforts, I’ve bought 9 of them for starters but with the rating scores comprising of 4.5 and a bit to 4 and a bit, we’re getting into splitting hairs. Much like the gamertag feedback system, if everything is rated “good” does it become useless?

How much of a problem this might be remains to be seen. I don’t imagine many users log on to iTunes and opt to browse the entire set of music rated about 5 stars in the hope of finding something new. Former XBLA Portfolio manager David Edery recently shed some light on the subject in a keynote at Develop;-

Consoles are currently missing a lot of the long tail enablers, he continued. Without an Amazon-like recommendation engine, user ratings, ease of search and more dynamic pricing functionality allowing selective discounts and bundling, the long tail on digital download services will struggle to grow.

It can be said that with the introduction of ratings and marketplace soon to be offering games at price points varying from $1 to full retail prices, Microsoft have addressed two of these already with better search at least, surely in the pipeline.

A better picture then, is likely to become clearer over time – well after the new update has been in the hands of everyone and bedded in for a few months but with full digital distribution of bigger and more expensive games lurking just round the corner, the evolution of Microsoft’s virtual store front will be watched with interest.