Drowning by numbers
Depending on your tastes, each of this generation’s consoles has its strengths and weaknesses. But one flaw that they all share, even after a slew of firmware updates and user interface revisions, is the disease of more. As each system gets more content; as users download more media; as more gamers come together online and add more friends to their lists; as users themselves generate more of these various types of content and share it with the ever-expanding community, navigating the choices users have already made – and discovering new content that may be of interest – becomes increasingly difficult.
Think about it for a second. All of the demos and downloadable games you’ve acquired; music and photos you’ve ripped to your hard drive; the movies you’ve downloaded: the more of it there is, the harder it becomes for you to quickly and easily access it. And when you’re trying to find something new to enjoy, it’s relatively simple if you already know what you’re looking for… and a bit of a pain if you don’t.
This problem isn’t unique to consoles, mind you. Whether it’s a smartphone, a digital media player, a digital video recorder or a computer, the combination of increasing amounts of storage and an internet connection has led to a massive increase in the number of files on these devices. This has in turn caused the breakdown of the desktop/folder/file metaphor that we relied on for so many years. At a certain point – and that threshold varies from user to user – there are so many files on your device that it makes more sense to treat it like the internet and rely on the search metaphor instead.
What does this have to do with your console? Whether it’s the Wii’s channels, the 360’s dashboard or the PS3’s XMB, all three interfaces are essentially variations on the desktop/file/folder metaphor. So they suffer from the same content-overload problem as any other connected device. Search can help solve part of the problem, but the advantage that smartphones and computers have over consoles is the inclusion of keyboards, which makes entering search terms easier than it would be on a console. Predictive typing, as on the PS3, partially alleviates this issue. More interesting to me is the potential for speaker-independent voice command – using headsets and/or the built-in microphones in Kinect or the PlayStation Eye – along with robust global search to make locating content much easier.
While improved search is key to content navigation, it’s only part of the solution when it comes to content discovery. Consider how you find out about a new game that you want to play: you may read about it in Edge, see an ad on TV, download a demo, or discuss it with your friends. But what about a game that you don’t know that you want to play… but that you might enjoy anyway? Or new, user-created content? Or a song that was released a year ago?
Search is great when we have an idea of what we’re looking for – but we don’t only like the things that we’re looking for. The truth is that there’s no one solution to solve the serendipity problem: how do we ensure that we get exposed to a wider variety of content that we might enjoy in addition to the stuff that we’re pretty sure will scratch the itches we already know that we possess? It’s great that we can see what our friends are playing, but if your friends are anything like mine, they’re playing the stuff that’s popular and therefore a known quantity.
When I think about how I discover other types of media, from new songs to YouTube videos, I come across them in a variety of ways: email, Facebook, Twitter, blogs, text messages, recommendation engines and even purpose-built apps like Pandora and Aweditorium. Pandora is interesting because it’s based around the concept of ‘music genomes’, that by analysing a variety of attributes that a song has – from melody and rhythm to lyrics, vocals and more – the service can determine an array of songs that you may like based on an artist or a song that you already like. And the more you tell it whether you like the songs it’s playing for you, the better it gets at predicting others.
Aweditorium, on the other hand, is based around a curatorial model. You’re presented with a grid of photographs, a mini-map and a glowing rectangle with a single word: ‘Tap’. By tapping on any of the photos on the grid, a song by the artist in the photo starts playing. Lyrics appear at the bottom of the screen. Word bubbles appear, revealing more information. Aweditorium is equal parts record store, album cover, listening booth, karaoke machine and MTV pop-up video – and as a music discovery experience, it’s unlike anything I’ve seen before.
Games aren’t music, and music isn’t games. But services like Pandora and Aweditorium demonstrate how much further discovery has to go on games consoles. We may not get there this generation, but with all signs pointing to a longer-than-expected wait for new machines, we can only hope the platform manufacturers come up with a solution to the disease of more before the next arms race begins.
N’Gai Croal is a writer and videogame design consultant. You can follow him online at ncroal.tumblr.com, or read and follow all N'Gai's columns on his topic page.