Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a rigged demo. -- James Klass
My Playstation 3 console has started twinkling. WTHeck!?
At first I thought it was a problem so I hit the internet to see if anyone knew what I had done to my television's settings. It wasn't me. Apparently Firmware 3.0 causes the wavy thing moving in the background of your system menus to sparkle like Edward in the noonday sun. Why? Well, it's a feature. According to Sony anyways.
A little more Google-fu showed I was even farther behind the times than I thought. Firmware 3.10 came out in November and was part of the download/install that brought our glittery upgrade. It upped the ante with PS3-oriented Facebook functionality. Oooooooh! If I am ever inclined, I can now spam all my Facebook friends with every trophy I've earned, thingy I've downloaded, or as I'm playing certain games various events will be announced to all.
Microsoft isn't exempt here, either. The "new experience" they touted for Xbox Live last year came in with some very mixed reviews. The kids like it better than I do; I give it about a thumb and a half down. Even after all this time trying to get used to it, the organization really annoys me. It reminds me of trying to find something in the phone book. I always have to roll through all the menus trying to guess what category they've decided to call a particular download.
I haven't explored our flashy PSN too far yet, but I'm already not amused. I did find out how to turn off the sparkles, but I can't get rid of their annoying widget that streams marketing headlines at me. And they've plastered what was once a fairly clean menu interface with obtrusive deep links to their store. And I'm not even going to dignify the Wii's number-crunching nightmare excuse for online interaction with a comment.
Game companies are still mostly developing and marketing games and hardware under the assumption that we're all 17-year-old boys, despite years of statistics and real-life data to the contrary. They seem to have no data that they're willing to apply to guide them towards features that actually might be a selling point for any other kind of users, so they've decided to spackle this pig with a heavy coat of lipstick in the hopes that someone will kiss it. It seems we're very far away from seeing games companies understand and address that gaming hardware has to fit into a context of users' and others' lives.
I don't know where the companies are getting the notion, but they keep claiming this kind of stuff is what users want. What kind of users? Aesthetic-only upgrades don't expand your customer base towards non-gamers, and they alienate your current one by ignoring what they really are asking you for.
Most gamers could give a rat's bikini about the color scheme or any of the rest of the aesthetic upgrades because they only see the system dashboard just long enough to load their game. The stuff that would keep them around—friends lists, messaging that doesn't suck and other online ways to interact—don't seem to be part of the plan. The only feature I see listed as coming out of these last two upgrades that was at all interesting to me was the suggestion that 3.10 would shorten load times. I haven't seen a real difference yet, but I'm still optimistic.
The tardiness of my disgruntled reaction highlights the disconnect. The fact that this has been out since September and I didn't see it until the day after Christmas when my son plugged in his newly unwrapped God of War Collection should tell you how much of my PS3's time is spent streaming anime to my daughter rather than roaming their network offerings. I'm not sure I even know what color the screen background on my profile is much less how fancy it is. If I'm on the thing, it's because I just plugged in Final Fantasy X again to help me bear the wait for Final Fantasy XIII and once it's loaded I'm in Spira, not Sony-ville. Same with Xbox Live. I'm on the system nearly every day, and I didn't even know Xbox Live does Facebook as well as Twitter and that's been out for over a month.
Other types of users aren't any more likely to care. They might vaguely notice frills like this, but they already have a PC and a smart phone and are already using these features there in a much fuller fashion. Even if consoles added a way to interact in a way users cared about, they wouldn't have any friends on there. The Facebook functionality is so hobbled it unwittingly turns anyone who uses it into a Sony-driven comment spammer, which is a good way to get blocked in my neck of the woods. If Sony's lucky, they're at the system dashboard long enough to plug in the Blu-Ray disk they're trying to watch because that's how the gamer in the household convinced them to buy the system.
It's a general problem of principle, not just a specific feature or two. It really doesn't matter much what it looks like on the outside or under the hood. You could call it the OrlandoBloom-box and slap a beefcake pic of him on the faceplate you'd still be getting nowhere. Your non-gamer wife or girlfriend doesn't hate your 360 because it's got a dumb name and a pea-green color scheme.
The idea that you might somehow bring in a non-gamer with a useless feature like an animated theme that changes to reflect time's passing is a sly way of discounting all of their real concerns like:
- It takes your time away from her and the things that need doing around the house.
- It costs a fair amount of money both initially and with recurring costs over the long run.
- It and its ever-breeding paraphernalia take over the entertainment center and half the living room. Or worse, they make you hide in your mancave with all your toys and not talk to anyone.
- It makes you and the kids act like jonesing addicts when she says you all can't play with it, or act like vegetables when she does give in.
- Her friends and her mother tell her it's a juvenile thing to pass the time with, or she gets the ever popular "at least he's not doing drugs or cheating on you" line that in your father's time used to cover project cars and basement poker nights.
- The media and many authorities tell her there's nothing but blood and gore and nudity and sex in all of the games and it's harming her kids by making them violent and fat.
From her perspective the whole thing seems to have nothing she wants to deal with and she doesn't really understand why you even want it. A while ago the satirical website The Onion posted a spoof news announcement about a fictional product release that, swearing aside, gives a pretty good idea of her perspective (warning: lots of blue language).
Making your PS3 scintillating doesn't help any of this, and neither does adding hackneyed cross-platform links to stuff that she's already familiar with and works better on another platform. And both companies adding their own pointless Mii-wannabe avatars and an entourage of virtual dress-up stuff doesn't fix the real reasons she's not fighting you for the controller like it were the TV remote.
If they really want to expand into those areas and truly make the console the center of the living room, maybe game companies could think about what really causes issues for people and spend the time and money to solve them instead of trying to sugar-coat useless things with a new color of paint and a few glitzy words. How about they spend some of the millions they invest in market analysis on something useful, like:
- Don't slather a large percentage of the stuff that you bring home for it with pictures of overwrought weaponry, guns, explosions, blood-splatter, or cheesecake;
- Help her understand the parental controls and the other tools at her disposal to help her deal more easily with the jonesing/vegetable cycle and to protect the kids from harmful interactions (or in the case of the PS3 and the Wii, make those controls actually useful);
- Work with the ESRB on their content rating system to make it express people's actual concerns, report content more accurately and communicate the issues with it to them understandably so she knows what's really in the box;
- Put save/level designs in games that allow you to get in and out more quickly to avoid the "Just a minute Honey/Mom, I've got to get to a savepoint" discussion (always a sore point);
- Build something besides a Japanese RPG or an arcade/puzzle game that she has a decent chance of being interested in, and actually market that game in such a way as to bring it to her attention (Ubisoft's Beyond Good and Evil could have been a contender.)
You want to hook up a cross-platform link she can use, why not work with the ESRB and the MPAA's websites to display the game/movie rating and the content descriptors for the game in the selection menus? Instead of hundreds of avatar pics, how about the ability to change the fonts in the system to make it handle both older and new televisions without inducing eyestrain?
Or maybe it's time to realize that all users really aren't of a piece. How about going deeper into the UI to give different types of users the experience they prefer? You can have a sparkly interface for those who are interested in that sort of thing, but when your no-frills type logs in, they could get something stripped down and ready for action. I'm sure your marketing guys can think of ways to ad-spam and monetize it.
If they keep going the way they are, each update that's forced on users just adds more inescapable marketing cruft and bloatware they have no use for. And what have we to look forward in future updates? Are we finally going to get the ability to talk across single-player games in PSN? How about background downloads of patches and firmware? I don't have a lot of hope.