In December, with Xbox One freshly released, we delivered our verdict on the interface. It was not an encouraging one. Rushed to market, woefully designed and lacking feature parity not only in relation to PS4 but the Xbox 360, it remains one of the most curious oversights of this new generation: it is possible to see how Microsoft convinced itself that always-online and a TV focus was the best approach for its console, but there are no spreadsheets in the world that would suggest that throwing away a category-leading multiplayer system is the key to success.
Three months later and, as we speculated, ahead of the expected arrival of new players courtesy of Titanfall, Microsoft has issued the first two updates to the console’s frontend. They address some of the more obvious flaws: the woefully under-featured party system, the inability to discover which of your friends is online and the absence of a way to manage the too-quickly filled storage space (In Microsoft’s defence, this is at least a sign of the console’s considerable games lineup; for all Sony’s success in positioning itself as “for the players” it hasn’t delivered the software that Microsoft has).
The result is an undoubted improvement. The party system is now more or less the same as it was on Xbox 360 and it’s easier to find and play with your friends. UK users can actually use the TV features thanks to the addition of a 50Hz output option, and they can disable the Kinect gestures that have blighted the experience for those in the US.
There’s also an almost unseemly focus on streaming via the long-awaited arrival of the Twitch app. Understandably delighted by the discovery that it can finally boast a demonstrable technical superiority to PlayStation, Microsoft has made much of a robust featureset, and with good reason: higher-resolution footage, the ability to archive streams, join games in progress and other additions are all excellent features, and it does show every sign of justifying its description as a next-gen streaming system. By building broadcast notifications into the very top level of the interface, Microsoft has demonstrated how seriously it is taking the offering, and how much it expects it to be used.
We remain unconvinced that building it out was reason enough to entirely skip the streaming revolution that PS4 has been a part of since its launch, and which even now ensures that the previously unloved camera peripheral is so rare as to be considered contraband – but the demonstrated functionality is compelling and deserves to build a big user base. It also, finally, gives the gaming audience a reason to use Kinect. If streaming proves as popular on Xbox as it has on PS4, then this could finally justify the device’s inclusion before Microsoft’s own studios can.
This is encouraging. It demonstrates that Microsoft does indeed understand the gaming audience it did such a poor job of reaching last year, and the updated party features prove that there is after all a section of the development team that caters to those who would rather spend time on killstreaks than CSI. This is, at last, approaching something like the functionality that should have been there at launch.
But it’s not there yet. Titanfall will surely be a hit and will help sell Xbox One to skeptics, but the newcomers it will bring will still find a console that, while surer on its feet, still lacks an interface deserving the “next-gen” moniker. Achievements remain too well hidden, sign-in notifications are entirely absent, biographical detail and real names aren’t available, and there’s no external storage support. These are smaller irritations than we raged at last Christmas, but they’re irritations nonetheless, and with Sony still ahead in sales, perception and perceived value, any irritation is significant.
Microsoft has proved both that it is listening and that it’s able to correct these oversights – and has partially justified its app-based interface strategy – but there is a long way to go. The interface and the overall offering will require many more updates between now and the all-important Christmas sales period. Once the trump card of Titanfall has been played, the staff in Redmond will be hoping that Sony has not been able to prepare bombshells of its own. At GDC, and E3, we will find out.