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New XBox 360 Dashboard is Going to be Stellar


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320w ago - The new Xbox 360 Dashboard OS update is coming soon and it is going to be one of the biggest changes to the Xbox 360 since the system hit the market.

It is going to include the first complete redesign of the Xbox interface called the NXE by all the cool kids. The New Xbox Experience (NXE) is going to be the best thing to hit the Xbox and it is going to completely redefine how we use it.

One of the niftiest things at Penny Arcade Expo 08 was seeing the new Xbox dashboard. Xbox Live's own Major Nelson showed it off. He made sure to stress that it is still a work in progress and that there was an army of programmers over in Redmond that were cranking out code and testing it as he gave the demo.

As a side note if you ever go to a game expo or press event and Major Nelson asks you not to film something in the presentation and you do it anyway and then go on and keep on filming after he notices you and calls you out and you don't stop it then you are a total schmuck.

I've always thought that Microsoft's biggest advantage in their fight with Sony and Nintendo was software innovation. Let me tell you why:

New Interface
So far the new user interface design looks well designed, clean and very efficient. It sort of resembles Windows Media Center and the Zune OS. They really are putting in a lot of effort into trying to reduce the amount of clicks required to perform a task. It is much faster and looks like a totally new product. . I am glad that they are taking their time with it and is about as major as the change as the jump from the original Xbox to the 360.

They moved all the current functions from the current dashboard and moved it to the guide. That means you can pull up all the existing blades by hitting the big green Guide button on the controller. Information on a game from Xbox.com on the game in your disc tray or an Xbox Live Arcade game is loaded when the game is selected. They showed this off at PAX

At PAX I could not get an answer about if the new OS will be able to fast forward audio files to the middle of a long song or podcast or if it will be able to play a video from a playlist (that would help me sort out my video in iTunes or on my media server) but Major Nelson said that it was filed as feature request.

Overall I really liked the look at it.

Community XNA Games
I think while the new interface is getting all the press attention the feature with the most potenial to change the video game market is Community XNA games.

Towards the back of the PAX show floor there was a booth manned by some of the folks at Microsoft that have been working on the XNA community games. They had a PC with an RPG game opened up in Game Studio and an Xbox 360 with several community games running on it. I had a whole slew of pretty technical questions about the Community games program and got a lot of direct answers.

The concept was to have a program to encourage amateur video game developers on the Xbox 360. It has the potential to be a new market in video games between professionally funded games and shareware. XNA Community games developer can join the XNA developers club for the cost two new games a year and get access to some of the same software development tool kits that professional developers use. Instead of requiring a developer kit system usually costing thousands a community XNA game can be made on a regular Windows PC. The same developer tools can be used to develop games for the Zune music player.

The Community XNA games are completely sandboxed with their own virtual memory space and execution thread. This means that they can crash and not directly affect the system. They can save to a virtual save file within the game program but they can't corrupt or affect your other save data. They have completely closed communication ports outside of the Xbox Live network, this means that they can't read external data off the Internet like using real weather reports, image feeds or news feeds but they can't make spyware using them since Community XNA game programs can't access the net directly. They have all the same access to the Xbox 360's processing power, graphics effects, sound effects, networking and 3d rendering power as all the grownup games.

They are actively encouraging open source community XNA games. The source code and art assets to your game project is wholly owned by you and you can do what you see fit with it. You can release it under any kind of open source or Creative Commons community license and let other developers build on or learn from your work. Think about that for a second. Open source games on the Xbox 360.

You just can't violate someone else's copyright by making a blatant clone or using someone else's copyrighted work without permission. But if you make a very cool game you can open it up and let other people make games off it. Another example is using the same FPS or RPG engine to make different games. I think this is going to be a big deal for open source homebrew game development and enable thousands of new XNA game projects in the next couple years.

They can use all different kinds of controllers including guitars, drums, racing wheels, joysticks, and dance pads. I forgot to ask about USB Mice and Keyboards. They can't use the Xbox Live Vision camera yet but any controller that is available in the Xbox SDK will work with Community games. They will work almost exactly like Xbox Live Arcade games but they can't have Achievements.

They also don't care if you make a retro game with Atari 2600 level graphics and they had some retro inspired games on display at PAX. If someone invests their time and effort they can make what ever game they want. Microsoft is not going to dictate what they consider to be a "Game" thus it opens the door to some pretty weird games. You could make a virtual pet, flying simulator, RPG, Magic 8 ball or weird ambient game and publish, distribute and sell it.

I don't think that there is going to be a ton of super impressive community games when the new Dashboard ships this fall but after a year or so there is going to be some very innovative indie games made for it. It is weird to see the largest software company in the world create a system to empower some kids sitting in their dorm room to make, distribute and sell their own video games. It is going to take some time to show it's full potential but Community XNA games has the potential to be the single biggest feature of the new Xbox 360 OS.
I wrote Microsoft XNA Community Games with some questions I had about the program:

8bitjoystick: Is there going to be a hard defined list about what is and is not appropriate subject matter for a community XNA game? A TOS that states what you can and can't have in your game?
Microsoft: Each game submission must be played and validated by several members of the community and assessed against the service's Terms of Use (TOS). When reviewers identify in a game unauthorized or inappropriate content that doesn't comply with the policies, the game will not be listed on Xbox LIVE Marketplace until the submitter removes such content. Post publication on Xbox LIVE Marketplace, Microsoft will actively remove infringing content when properly notified by the copyright owner(s) and will remove inappropriate content when notified by the community.

8bitjoystick: Can you have: Sexual content, drug use, violence against women or minorities, satanic or demonic themes, gay romance, controversial historical events (like a Civil War game where you have to shoot Lincoln) or offensive language?
Microsoft: We do allow sexual references and innuendos However, we don't allow explicit sexual acts that would be pornographic, regardless of sexual orientation. Games with religious themes are not prohibited as long as they don't directly threaten any groups of people directly in the real world or depict any real world crimes against humanity. Controversial historical events like games with religious themes would also depend on the context, for example we absolutely do not allow German Nazi related content on the system.

8bitjoystick: Is there going to be a hard defined list of what you can't have in a community XNA game or is it going to be subjective on a game by game basis.
Microsoft: The ability to distribute Xbox LIVE Community Games is designed with a robust proactive and reactive screening process in mind. The core design is based on the community peer review process where a peer group of XNA Creators Club members are empowered to be self policing. Each game submission must be played and validated by several members of the community and assessed against the service's Terms of Use (TOS). When reviewers identify in a game unauthorized or inappropriate content that doesn't comply with the policies, the game will not be listed on Xbox LIVE Marketplace until the submitter removes such content. Post-publication on Xbox LIVE Marketplace, Microsoft will actively remove infringing content when properly notified by the copyright owner(s) and will remove inappropriate content when notified by the community.

8bitjoystick: Can you have objectionable content if it is a parody or allegory?
Microsoft: Again it depends on the context. As long as the objectionable content doesn't fall under the same prohibited themes described above, parody and allegory are permitted.

8bitjoystick: Is Microsoft concerned with someone making a game with objectionable content, publishing it on XNA games and then Microsoft will make some money off the transaction of them selling the game?
Microsoft: No. There are checks and balances throughout the peer review system which enables community created games to be submitted, approved and ultimately distributed over Xbox LIVE. Each peer reviewer is rewarded with a better reviewer reputation by the system for accuracy. Conversely, reviewers can get penalized or even banned from the ability to review games should the need arise. If inappropriate content makes it through the peer review process, the process has mechanisms to support reactive takedown measures as needed.

Avatars
Avatars are going to be a customizable slightly abstracted figure used to represent a Xbox 360 player to be used in games and online. If you are thinking about claiming that they ripped off Nintendo I say hold on. No, they did not steal the concept of shared online Avatars. They have been around a long time before the Wii and I have copies of the books Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash and William Gibson's Burning Chrome if you don't believe me. There are some hard core haters out there on the net that are dreading Xbox Avatars but I have a feeling that they are going to be pretty nifty. Actually I think Avatars are better than Miis for two fundamental things, they are going to be constantly expanded and they actually look like high resolution game graphics. Miis have an extremely limited wardrobe and they all look like playschool figures.

Avatars have the potential to be a medium for sharing mildly customized user created content in a seamless common online data format. I mean it is not as full as a making a skin or a mod on a PC but they are going to be quickly shared and they are saying that there are going to be thousands of pieces to chose from and they will be constantly adding to the Avatar pieces.

I wonder if there is going to be any gender restrictions on Avatars. In some current in-game custom character creation tools like in Soul Calibur IV and Smackdown there are restriction on what pieces you can select based on gender or character class. Can we make cross-dressing in drag or trans-gendered Avatars? What about text? I bet you can't make an offensive T-shirt for your Avatar directly but people will find a way to make something outlandish. They always do.

Currently they are not going to be in M-Rated game. If they made them available to M-Rated games it would be awesome. I want to see a Mortal Kombat or Soul Calibur using Avatars as fighters and then slice of the limbs of your friends. How cool would it be if you could take the severed heads of your vanquished online enemies and store them on a trophy spike as a warning to all those who would be foolish to take you on.

Avatars are not going to be available to community XNA games at the launch of the new dashboard but that is something that they want to ad to the Community XNA tool kit as soon as possible. I think that Avatars when combined with community XNA are going to be sweet since Microsoft is not going to be restricting game content games in Community XNA games.

Just imagine a pimping resource management game using Avatars and XNA Community games. You would play a pimp and had to walk around your turf and keep your girls happy and in line as well as investing to expand your pimping empire by hiring new girls, expanding to new properties, fight off rival pimps and increase your wardrobe by buying bling and suits. It would be like The Sims but with pimp slapping. Heck I want to see an online zombie horror game like Dead Rising and Stubs the Zombie but using your friend's avatars as zombies once they get infected. How cool would it be to blow the zombified arms of your friend's Avatar off or to tear into their virtual skull and eat the tasty brains inside their Avatar's head.

If they had games like that I don't think people would be complaining about them on Internet so often.

Installed Games on the Hard Drive
Another big feature is playing regular disc based Xbox 360 games off the hard drive or the option to install games to hard drive. It is an optional install but it can decrease load time and make the system quieter by not using the optical drive. However you do have to put the disc in the tray every time to verify that you still own the game. It would have been killer if you didn't have to get up to swap out the discs but I don't see how they could stop you from installing rented games or installing your friend's games without some key code. I deleted some HDTV shows and old videos from my hard drive to make space. I am going to install a number of my favorite games and have a feeling that a lot of the free space on my 120-Gig hard drive is not going to be empty for much longer.

Party System on Xbox Live
They are adding a party system for up to eight players and it is going to work with all Xbox Live enabled Xbox 360 games. You can invite freinds into a party and stick with them when switching games. It is pretty impressive that they can roll this out to all existing games. You can chat and trade photos with people in the party. You know what kind of photos people are going to be trading with this feature, LOL Cats.

Xbox Live Primetime
There is going to be online scheduled multiplayer games, basically big game shows. They have yet to show off more examples of it but it is a cool concept. I would be down with super nerd trivia games.

Netflix Streaming
They will be supporting watching Netflix View It Now streaming movies on the Xbox. They already had a streaming windows media player client in the Xbox. Currently this will only work in the US and you have to have a Netflix subscription. I've tried out streaming Netflix movies on my windows PC and it looks just about as good as a VHS tape.

Xbox Live Marketplace over the Web
There is going to be support for accessing and buying Xbox Live Marketplace on the web. It little bit weird but I see why they did it. Hopefully there will be easier to sort through all the Xbox Live content.

Conclusions
My guess is that it will be out before the end on October so that when the November holiday winter shopping rush hits it will be on all the Xbox systems sold this fall. This is a big gamble for Microsoft but I think it is going to pay off and keep the Xbox platform going for the rest of this hardware generation. I can't wait to upgrade my Xbox 360.



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