Xbox, why? The baffling incompetence of the Xbox One interface

It looks like an improvement. And as long as you aren’t actually using it, it is. The Xbox 360’s sprawling, multi-layered, ad-splattered interface, crammed as best as the engineers could manage into hardware that was never designed to support it, has been replaced by an elegant three-pane view. Home shows recent activity, Pins shows user-created shortcuts, Store holds everything you might want to buy.

Advertising, though present, is less obtrusive. Three blocks on the main screen are apparently targeted based on user activity, and even if they aren’t then it’s hardly the obstruction that it used to be. Not having a social feed in the main interface, like PS4, is a missed opportunity, although to Microsoft’s credit it takes only a single button press to launch the quick-loading, Facebook-like activity feed. It’s when you try and do anything from here that problems arise.

Mindful of its prior issues updating the functionality of Xbox 360, Microsoft has elected to make almost every system function an app. This might make more sense from a development point of view, enabling more rapid updates – and for Microsoft’s sake, let’s hope so – but Xbox One’s debut user experience is stuttering, clunky, and a serious challenge to Xbox Live’s long-held status as the premier console service. Bluntly, they take too long to load, don’t offer the functionality that Xbox Live was built on, and are, inexplicably, badly handled by the OS.

The most perfect example of Microsoft ruining its prior work is Achievements, and the number of hoops you have to jump through to view them. Rather than the quick tap of yore, you have to spend several seconds holding the button down. This, incredibly, then reboots the Achievement app – even if it’s already running – in order to display some challenges, which you have to skip past to view an Achievement list built not around charmingly crafted icons but a slew of previously-released screenshots, which take several seconds to appear and then have to be selected to show what you did to unlock them.

Xbox’s Achievements system was once a boon – not so on Xbox One, where it has been turned into a clumsy, obtuse app.

By the time you’ve discovered what you unlocked, you’ve stopped caring. That’s assuming you even knew it happened in the first place, as the app is online-only and offline play silently adds your tally to a register you have to go online to view. Thus, what was once a strength of the platform is either blocked entirely or hidden many layers deep, an ignominy previously reserved for Xbox Live Indie Games.

The party system, another former highlight, is similarly broken. It now insists on inviting every member to each game launched. The Friends list, which also grinds ponderously to life where previously it was available instantly from the Guide menu, doesn’t show if people are in parties, gives no option to join them and no longer shows the biographical detail that enabled you to identify people. It not only fails to match Sony’s smart Real Name feature but actually takes a step backwards from its implementation on 360.

This shambling, zomboid clunkiness permeates the entire interface. You have to go into the Games & Apps list to view downloads. Missed game invitations aren’t stored, but lost forever. You can’t view or manage storage, a spectacularly poor decision given that the 500GB hard drive will be approaching capacity by March. The overall sense is of a design handed over to the team behind the similarly unloved Windows 8 interface, rather than anybody who has used an Xbox 360 regularly or had any familiarity with its strengths.

There are no core-friendly abbreviations, no way to cut through all this partially-featured, tablet-based guff and get to the features you want. Press the nexus and you’re just returned instantly to the dashboard. The only “shortcut” is to use Kinect, an improved but still fundamentally unreliable input that’s incapable of solving the problems that the interface should never have had in the first place. The only functional, speedy part of the whole affair is the comprehensive and well-explained Settings menu which, not coincidentally, is primarily text-based and can be accessed at almost any point from the Menu button. Not unlike the old Guide menu, in fact.

‘Kinect is an improved but still fundamentally unreliable input that’s incapable of solving the problems that the interface should never have had in the first place.’

The most bewildering thing is that Microsoft has deliberately restricted the machine’s gaming ability to do all of this, locking off a chunk of system resources for apps and OS and then singularly failing to exploit it.

It can’t even offer feature parity with Sony. Incredibly, having signed an exclusivity deal with Twitch, it then failed to have the service ready at launch, instantly preventing people from sharing their game footage with the world. This could, in time, prove to be the most significant failure of the Xbox One launch; the removal of a marketing tool that even Microsoft’s millions will struggle to replace. For all the public mea culpas, the blunders of the initial reveal and the potency of Sony’s E3 riposte lasted all the way to launch, and those early adopters – the CoD, ACIV and FIFA players – are heading to PS4.

Beyond Sony’s superior early sales figures, you can see it play out on social media as people tentatively sign up to PSN for the first time, after years of Xbox Live. Once there, they start sharing: screenshots and Twitch footage is how games and platforms are marketed in this new generation, and Microsoft has launched with no easy way to do either.

In fairness, the tools it has provided are superior to Sony’s: Upload Studio, developed at Microsoft’s Soho Studio, is a smart, user-friendly piece of software and its YouTube-style featureset will welcome a thriving on-console community that could engage gamers far more than Major Nelson could hope to. The Skydrive implementation, added to the launch at the last minute, opens the door to YouTube sharing – but it’s not as simple as it should be, and requires yet another app. When Microsoft should be making it easy for people to show off the console’s strengths – the superior games lineup, the superior editing tools, even the superior picture quality of Kinect 2.0 – it has made it hard.

There are two bright spots in Xbox One’s future. The first, as previously mentioned, is that all of these problems can, hypothetically, be fixed by app updates rather than a full-scale interface reboot. Given the strident complaints around the party system in particular, we would hope it does so sooner rather than later. The second is Titanfall.

Respawn’s debut, Titanfall, is increasingly looking like Xbox One’s great white hope.

Respawn’s shooter, still the most impressive next-gen title, arrives in March largely unchallenged by Sony. It’s also multiplayer-only, and – while no announcement has been made – it is expected to be preceded by a beta period. In the glory days of 2007, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s beta tempted the hardcore over to Xbox Live, establishing an audience that lasted the lifespan of the console. It’s possible, just, that Titanfall could do the same for Xbox One. But Microsoft has a great many problems to fix first. If it cannot get its house in order, it will attract guests, but not residents, to its new console.