Just A Game (System)

Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning.
-- Benjamin Franklin

My Xbox 360 came as an early Christmas present in 2007. It brought two pack-in games, a lot of wonder, and little else. For a good month the system became a glorified Windows Media Center streampoint, replacing an underpowered home theater PC that wheezed under the strain of ripped DVDs. It wasn’t until Halo 3 was gifted to me that I saw the console’s brilliance, bringing a friend into my playspace through internet wizardry. It wasn’t until Rock Band came into the house that I saw the machine’s ability to draw people together for a drunken, raucous evening of social fun.

It’s a bit melodramatic, but my plucky white 360 (serviced once for the Red Rings of Doom) has grown since it first made a home next to my television. Through media updates, avatars, new user experiences and a bevy of tweaks and twangs, the thing’s changed the way I look at consoles this generation.

Unfortunately, it’s also been losing prominence as a gaming console.
That’s not to say I’m falling for a handheld, turning to my PC, coming back to the emulation scene, or even flirting around town with an iDevice or Android hussy. It’s just that I spend less and less time looking through my library, engaging in multiplayer, or just sitting down with something simple to waste an hour. Even with GameFly to beef up the flow of games through my house, there’s been a kind of apathy towards sitting down with something for the lion’s share of a weekend. The gamer’s routine of just sitting to play hasn’t been there for a while.

12-hour workdays are partially to blame. Not having a go-to multiplayer group or gamer-dates is another fault. As is the insistence of my better half that we “walk places” and “spend time outside” and “sit and watch the squirrels and birds pass by.” It’s a bit difficult to recapture the inner eight-year old (sitting down with soda, a tuna sandwich, and 7 hours straight of game time) when work, dishes and cuddly couch time are also vying for a slice of my rapidly diminishing evenings.

The 360 remains a fixture of my living room, remains the go-to box for entertainment — remains connected, in other words. But, increasingly, I turn to its media apps for fun. Not too long ago, I laughed at the idea of convergence being anything more than a shiny buzzword. The thought of shoving something like VoIP or streaming radio in an expensive box built to make things go “boom” was nonsensical. Who would turn on their $300 videogame machine to watch TV or listen to music, when the radio and computer were in arm’s reach? For that matter, why would anyone shove a motion-tracking peripheral onto a system that, by all indications, was the stalwart hero of the hardcore crowd? With some time, and decent coding, I’ve come around. I see the ways that the base system has been improved, reiterated on and, by all means, expanded and I am in absolute awe of just how different my 2012 360 is compared to the box that came out of an oversized, colorfully-wrapped Christmas container.

Functionally, it’s still a little box that glows and provides fun times. Effectively, it’s become a media hub that lets me play games and gives me access to truckloads of movies and television shows. I scan the manga channel for something nostalgic, look through ad-supported movies for a laugh, boot up Netflix to watch The Office, catch a documentary or play roulette with a library of instantly available goods. I listen to internet-streamed music as I clean the house, discovering new artists between buckets of mop water. I call out to the Kinect to pause as I go check on dinner. I call on it again as I settle down with a meal. I wave to my television to rewind a scene, opting to use my body instead of my voice because it feels more future-y. I groan as my internet cap hits and everything goes from crisp HD to muddled down-rezed mush. This is the reality of my interactions with the 360. The once-tired act of loading a platter of pressed plastic into the disc tray seldom comes into play anymore.

I realize that much of the change I’ve seen is also tied to the connectivity of this generation, an aspect that’s become a standard since the PS2/Dreamcast generation toyed with the idea of online play. Without updates, content and service extensions available over the internet, I doubt the little box could ever have become more than a game machine, much less have flourished into such a diverse ecosystem of media delivery. While most of us were gaga over the idea of an indie infrastructure inside of the Xbox Live Arcade, some bright kids at Microsoft figured that they weren’t much bound by the constructs of the machine as shipped and went to work refashioning the experience. I would have labeled them idiots for taking the game out of a video game console, but thankfully I’m not tasked with making development decisions for multinational companies.

When compared to the systems of years past, it seems counter-intuitive to think of a game system’s strengths coming via non-game avenues. This is especially true if the frame of reference that flashes by is riddled with Blast Processing, Mode 7 FX chips, bit metrics and other performance-based shorthand for “THIS is the stuff you want to spend Mom’s money on.” One can look at this as a loss, as the purity of a mythic gaming experience being sullied by the imposition of other forms of entertainment on a once-sacred altar, but that’s a bit silly. Instead, I choose to think of this as a nice little evolution. I like to think that the 360 has changed with me as I navigated the lows of life after college, found a job, moved cities, settled into new living spaces (twice), moved work sites, and took charge of a theatre space.

That’s the beauty of the whole crackpot plan to subsidize two generations of game boxes in the hopes that a computer software giant can get a foot into the living room space. In the last five years, the damned box has grown.

It’s not just a game machine anymore. And I’m pretty ok with that fact.

Comments

2012 and you still can't transfer music to it from a flash drive. Good article though.

UnclGhost wrote:

2012 and you still can't transfer music to it from a flash drive. Good article though.

Music on physical media?

It still feels like a value add to me. The entertainment capabilities are fantastic (looking forward to the Amazon application), but if Xbox loses sight of the device as, primarily, a gaming console, then the anchors that keep those 360's in the living room, the gamers, will move on and put a Roku there instead. They are treading a fine line, in my opinion. The only reason I have bought a Gold membership each year for the last six years is for online multiplayer.

wordsmythe wrote:
UnclGhost wrote:

2012 and you still can't transfer music to it from a flash drive. Good article though.

Music on physical media?

IMAGE(http://www.gadgetizer.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/05/cd-player_phonograph.jpg)
http://www.yankodesign.com/2007/05/29/phonograph-cd-player-by-yong-jieyu-ama-xue-hong-bin/

Just curious--is this a statement of partisanship in the never-ending Sony vs. Microsoft (or, I suppose, Nintendo) console wars? Or is it simply that the Xbox360 is the console you happened to receive, and thus has become the media box in your living room? The PS3 does the media box job quite well, also, with the obvious added bonus of the BluRay player. (Which it now looks like the next Xbox may have as well.)

Just curious--is this a statement of partisanship in the never-ending Sony vs. Microsoft (or, I suppose, Nintendo) console wars?

I figured those were over, at least on this site.

Great article...and one that I can totally relate to.

There are many weeks where my kids get more hours in watching more cartoons on netflix than I do gaming, and they rarely see more than a half hour of TV a day.

sad.just.plain.sad.

wordsmythe wrote:
Just curious--is this a statement of partisanship in the never-ending Sony vs. Microsoft (or, I suppose, Nintendo) console wars?

I figured those were over, at least on this site.

But this article isn't about Rabbit's iPad.

heavyfeul wrote:

The entertainment capabilities are fantastic (looking forward to the Amazon application), but if Xbox loses sight of the device as, primarily, a gaming console, then the anchors that keep those 360's in the living room, the gamers, will move on and put a Roku there instead. They are treading a fine line, in my opinion.

Part of me wonders if folks would pick up the next Xbox on the strengths of its media capabilities alone. Depends how much progress Smart TV makes, I think. I've seen an ad for a kinect-like interface on Samsung's newest offerings, which kind of blew my mind. I think the Kinect has been a real second wind for the console, but not in the way imagined. I'll hardly use kinect-enabled gidgets (it was a chore+ in ME3), but it's really become second nature to interact with a movie or video by shouting at my xbox (so much so that I'm always nonplussed when the dvd player doesn't pick up on my frantic calls to the console). It's really a smart interface in that respect and it's curious to see TV makers taking cues from Microsoft.

Microsoft's really been pushing the development of their media offerings, to the point where I think they've become pretty tightly wound up with the LIVE name. Whether someone would be willing to walk away from that... well, it makes me wonder a bit.

casparnic wrote:

Just curious--is this a statement of partisanship in the never-ending Sony vs. Microsoft (or, I suppose, Nintendo) console wars? Or is it simply that the Xbox360 is the console you happened to receive, and thus has become the media box in your living room?

Ahoy! Personal anedcotes ahead. In no way do these fevered words represent anything other than my own experience!

I actually purchased a PS3 for my fiancee some Christmas ago. I'm consistantly underwhelmed by that thing. I refuse to wait through the agonizing Download, Wait, Restart, Install, Restart updating scheme anymore. For a time, it was the Netflix box for the other room, but even that stuck in my craw -- this was back when you needed a Netflix disc to run the stream.

I know it's a pretty versatile streaming solution, but Sony's just lost me this generation. I really hated the Kinect when I first got it, but it's become absoluetly essential to my media consumption.

PCs do all that and more; and were able to do it since 2007. Also, it can allow you to read books, stream media to your mobile device of choice, do word processing and desktop work from remote access, and so on.

The 360's prominence and power as a device stems directly from advances made previously on the PC, and the PC remains ahead as a convergence device. I have not bought a media player of any type, and only specialized games machines for specialized games, ever since I fully glommed on to the power of PCs.

Of course, this is all stemming directly from the growing ubiquity of computing itself in all our activities of daily living. There is less and less of the modern lifestyle that is not invaded by computer hardware and software in a direct manner. It will not be too far hence when these devices - 360, PC, PS3, and iDevice all simply disappear and reincarnate as terminals of Services we recognize.

I will not "have an iPad" as a conscious lifestyle apparel. It's just another portal to my Amazon library; which I can access on phone or PC or SmartTV.

Part of me wonders if folks would pick up the next Xbox on the strengths of its media capabilities alone.

It strikes me that the segment of the public that's interested in this sort of thing is primarily interested in streaming/on-demand content in the living room. Among the people aware of this sort of thing, the portion that's interested in also playing new-release console games will look at the next XBox with interest, the portion that's not will look at cheaper, smaller streaming devices like Roku, and those interested in games with streaming-curious family/S.O.s not interested in games will tout the extra media features ("Check out these navigation gestures - the future is now!") as a means of trying to get a new console.

The people who don't have any idea what this stuff is will be oblivious. You'd be surprised how many people either don't know about this stuff or don't understand it. My father successfully tricked my mother into buying a PS3 at launch because they wanted a Blu-Ray player and he wanted to try Guitar Hero 3, and yet they refuse to hook it or their Wii up to their router despite how I often I tell them about how great Netflix Instant and the like happen to be, because they "don't play shooty games," and yet they watch a mind-boggling amount of TV. And these are the semi-technically inclined older folks!

Nice write-up.

The PS3 serves the same exact purpose for me.

Except I never really put games in it and used it in exactly the way you just described since day-1 (mostly bought it for the 'blu-ray' player value at the time).

There are currently 5 active people on my 360 friends list. 2 are watching Netflix, one is watching iplayer, one is watching HBO GO, and 1 is playing a game.

LarryC wrote:

PCs do all that and more; and were able to do it since 2007. Also, it can allow you to read books, stream media to your mobile device of choice, do word processing and desktop work from remote access, and so on.

The 360's prominence and power as a device stems directly from advances made previously on the PC, and the PC remains ahead as a convergence device. I have not bought a media player of any type, and only specialized games machines for specialized games, ever since I fully glommed on to the power of PCs.

PCs still lack a really good, standard 10-foot interface for getting all that content into your living room, though. At least one that doesn't require a master's degree in applied geekery to set up: I know XBMC and Boxee and the home-rolled solution that you cooked up to run on your custom Linux distro are amazing, y'all can spare me. (-:

Experience matters. If it were just a matter of how many "does it support this?" check boxes you could tick off, everything would be a PC and Apple would be out of business.

For that matter, outside of a few pretty specific use cases, the 360 is pretty crap as a multimedia machine, too. Streaming video works great... as long as what you want to watch comes from one of a dozen or so Official Microsoft(TM)-Approved Streaming Video Providers. Want to watch Netflix, Hulu, or HBO? You're good. Giant Bomb or the Escapist? Not so much.

Watching videos sneaker-netted on a USB stick works fine, so that's good. Videos streamed from my PC? Not so much. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, and even when it does, "janky" is the word I would use to describe the experience.

As for streaming music from my PC, that worked... once I installed a third-party application onto my PC to make it work, because no amount of fiddling with firewall exceptions and NAT addresses and port forwarding would help until I did. Now it works fine... as long as I don't care what I listen to and just set it to shuffle my entire collection. Browsing my meticulously-organized collection of folders is a joke. You spend thirty seconds to a minute staring at the swirly "loading" icon to get roughly a 15% chance of getting to the root folder, then select the first sub-folder, then another 30-60 seconds of loading for a 15% chance of seeing what's in THAT folder, and so on.

Honestly, multimedia on my game consoles has been less a, "OMG this is awesome, look at all this other stuff my game consoles can do!" experience and more of a, "I can see where this would be awesome if it worked for sh*t. Wonder if Roku's any better at this than Microsoft," experience.

hbi2k wrote:

PCs still lack a really good, standard 10-foot interface for getting all that content into your living room, though. At least one that doesn't require a master's degree in applied geekery to set up: I know XBMC and Boxee and the home-rolled solution that you cooked up to run on your custom Linux distro are amazing, y'all can spare me...

Even as somebody who spent a lot of college doing exactly that kind of home-rolling, I fully agree with this. It's not that I don't think that the PC can't do any of this stuff, it's that I don't want making it work to be my problem anymore. I don't have the time or energy to do a "quick" tweak and recompile or start checking for codec updates when the chicken is getting cold and my wife and I really just want to watch Farscape already. I'll never say that the XBox can outperform a finely tuned PC, but I at least know that it is going to do what it claims it is going to, and honestly that is just way more important to me right now.

Isn't that less the 'fault' of one platform, or one company, than it is the collective failure of all of them, that everyone wants to make their own little castle and there's no overall draw to interoperate?

hbi2k wrote:

a master's degree in applied geekery to set up

I really should nab one of those certs.

hbi2k:

Actually, the out-of-the-box experience using iTunes to stream music from the PC is fairly simple to employ and effective. It allows you to select and play music using the iPad (or whichever iDevice you choose) as an interface and it allows you to select and create playlists which are subsequently saved on the iTunes program on the PC, last I checked.

You can also install a desktop iTunes app which will allow you to use the iDevice as a wireless remote to allow you to control iTunes on the PC from the couch.

In fact, the PS3 can also be used to access the content of the PC over a wireless network, allowing you to play PC content on the TV wirelessly straight from the hard drive using the PS3 as a wireless media hub (it'll also stream that content onto a Wifi-capable PSP or compatible phone).

Netdrive video and music streaming directly to a SmartTV is also fairly simple and painless. If nothing else, you can just wire the TV to the PC using an HDMI cable. The same netdrive can serve as an iTunes media server and as an actual internet server - you can map a domain name to the netdrive if you care to pay the annual fee.

I gave up on the HTPC idea in the end. Although there were comparatively few pieces of software on there, something always wanted updating. I though about using my 360 or PS3, but they aren't part of our main tv setup.

In the end, I went for a Boxee Box, an Apple TV and a DNLA equipped Blu-ray player. The total cost was less than that of a semi-capable HTPC, but more than that of a console. It's pretty much hassle free.

To stream app music around the house, I have an old laptop running itunes with the library shared to my iPad, Apple TV and iPhone. I have an Altec Lansing speaker dock in the kitchen and a Logitech Boombox Mini to put wherever.

If I didn't have the slightly odd lounge set-up that I do (two TVs, a 360 and a Wii, both of which are cross-wired so either TV can support either console), the 360's evolution to a media machine would be an issue. If it wasn't for the fact that the Wii runs Netflix too, it would have meant that as the 360 became out default set-top box that the wife and I would be competing for who got to use it.

LarryC wrote:

[stuff]

I'll take your word for it. I'm neither an iTunes user (not a Mac owner, and every indication I've ever gotten says it runs for crap on Windows) nor a PS3 owner (nothing against the system, I bought a 360 back when its library was demonstrably superior and never had a compelling reason to switch even after the PS3's library improved).