Indie games still buried, but not quite so deep.

With the eminent arrival of the forced XBOX Live update to the Dashboard, speculation arose that the Indie Game Channel would be featured a lot more. There was even the hope that Indie games would be shelved alongside their Arcade and Major Publisher counterparts, at least in the alphabetical catalogue. After going through the update(s) and spending several hours on the system checking things out and getting a general feel for things, I am now expressing my disappointment in Microsoft in general and the Live team specifically in their effort to create a “better” experience, at least visually.

When our XBOX (we’ve the 250S) restarted, I was actually hopeful that the rumblings of discontent I’d heard on podcasts were exaggerated or that things had been changed because of the closed beta. The old boot-start animation and sound has been modified and probably was the only thing the Live team was given complete control over as it looked and sounded cool.

And then the “Welcome to XBOX Live” tutorial began.

Microsoft and Apple will, every few iterations, change it’s opinion on which look is better: sharp pointy boxes or smooth rounded rectangles. I personally have always leaned toward the latter look and dislike the change back into the former. This seems to be the major factor of the reviews that say they dislike the new Dashboard’s look or say that it’s “ugly”. Every menu in the tutorial hammered home their regression to the pointy box with backgrounds not associated with a Theme connected to your Gamertag ranging from “meh” to ghastly.

Having now expressed to my heart’s content my vitriol about the graphical abomination that is the Dashboard, I will go into other more pleasant aspects of it’s nature.

The sounds associated with actions have all been modified and I like them for the most part. They don’t interfere with my experience and some are actually more pleasant. The font is legible, though the contrast could have been better, but nothing to write home about.

The items contained within windows are mostly logical and the content itself doesn’t seem to have been changed. I miss the modernized, streamlined look that being able to see the Avatars and menus almost behind the one you were looking at in a sort of diorama. Now most menus look like they came from Zune or MSN and are side by side in an unimaginative layout.

Every application you run on your XBOX (Zune, ESPN3, Marketplace, Avatars) will ask you separately [cancel or allow?] for both an update to that application and a new end user agreement acceptance. So to completely update your XBOX to the new Dashboard is somewhere between 3 to 10 minutes per application plus the 5 to 10 minutes for the main update. All of this is depending on your internet connection, of course. I suppose there’s no way around this, and at least it doesn’t take nearly as long as any update to our PS3, but it is still irksome.

The Game Marketplace now keeps Arcade and Major Publisher games together. There are menus that separate the two, but just browsing alphabetically or by category groups them together. Indie games are still separated and are now located in the Specialty Stores channel right behind the Avatar Marketplace (one of about six methods of getting to said store) and before Gameroom or stores from Major Publishers like Guitar Hero. All of the stupid lists for the Indie Channel that everyone was told would be going away arrived intact for the “reboot”.

Menus in the Marketplaces are intuitive, for the most part, but I wish there was a way to know if a game simply hasn’t been released for download yet or if it’s an expansion to a retail game. Try, for instance, downloading A World of Keflings. There is no point value and therefore no means of getting it (it may just be the add-ons I saw in the Extras portion but the Description read like a full game). Or Blue Dragon, where you have to dig to figure out that it’s just a couple of add-ons to the retail game. ESRB ratings are more prominently displayed with the detailed descriptions and it feels like they are trying their best to give negligent parents no excuse to say that “they weren’t told that that game was too…” whatever. It may just take a bit of minor tweaking for that to be a more agreeable experience.

For me, this Dashboard update could have been simply an addition of the Kinect Channel, a rearranging of the other menus, and the promised highlighting of Indie games. I liked the look and feel of the old Dashboard better and wish they’d let me go back to it. Barring that, I’m wishing for enough of an outcry against this new look that they patch the update with a skin for the old graphics. Not that I’m holding my breath for such a logical move from Microsoft to quiet the dissenters.

UPDATE 11/12/2010:

In response to the public outcry, Microsoft has re-updated the dashboard in it’s usual PR ninja fashion. Indie Games are now back in the Games section of the Marketplace. It still has the same silly icon but when you go to Game Marketplace then Games and Demos, Indie Games is highlighted for a second before scrolling to the left to highlight Arcade Games.

It feels very “See! We can pretend to care if you’re going to gripe so much. Geez…” to me but I’m glad it’s been done. This may help offset the loss of revenue from the initial burying eventually. Don’t expect it to stay that way forever though. I expect Indie Games to be tossed aside again at the first opportunity.

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