Finally, after what seemed an interminable wait, Microsoft was ready to let us in on the big picture. We spoke with Microsoft's Aaron Greenberg about next Tuesday's update and what was still in store. "There are three different categories that speak to a majority of the updates," Greenberg told us.
First in that list is downloadable games – that's your Xbox Originals and your Xbox Live Arcade Hits. Though he couldn't tell us how many Xbox games they're looking to put up on the service, he did say they expected it to be more of a portfolio-style system ala XBLA than a library service ala Wii Virtual Console. In other words, don't expect every one of the 465 back-compat Xbox games to suddenly appear in the Marketplace, but they will have six games to kick the service off – Crash Bandicoot: Wrath of Cortex, Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge, Halo, Fable, Fuzion Frenzy, and Psychonauts. Regarding releasing the titles, Greenberg said, "They will not be launching on Wednesdays ... but I know they were looking at a regular day, like a Monday or something like that ... so that it won't conflict with Arcade."
The XBLA Hits program is interesting: unlike the retail space where greatest hits collections are often simply matching the going price for older games, the digital distribution space needs to self-police those prices and lower them themselves. "XBLA Hits is essentially the digital equivalent of the Platinum Hits program. Now that the Arcade library is over 100 titles, we want to be able to permanently reduce prices on some of these best-selling classic games."
How do they determine which games will qualify as a "Hit"? "It will be the best-selling games, but there's not a metric of games that have sold over a certain number. And also, obviously, the publisher has to agree to participate," Greenberg said. That said, kicking off the program are the previously 1200 point ($15) Bankshot Billiards and Lumines Live, both of which are now 800 points ($10) – and we already knew about Lumines' new price. Joining those two are the the previously 800 point Marble Blast Ultra, Small Arms, and Zuma Deluxe, all of which are now only 400 points ($5). We asked if 400 points will be the lowest XBLA game price, or if any 400 point games will drop below that. Greenberg was candid: "I don't know the answer to that. Right now, there's nothing below 400 points on Arcade, so I don't know if that would change as part of this program."
On to part two of this three part update: the social functionality! They've got a new "Inside Xbox" feed just below your gamercard on the Xbox Live blade. What's in there? Think of it as an RSS feed straight outta Redmond – updates on the service, the offerings, the new games that week, and whatever Jeff Bell's up to (spoiler alert: He's slam dunking on your dad at the Y).
We already know about Friends of Friends, we already know you can list your real name in your profile, but what we wanted to know was if you would see that real name while your stalked your friend's friends. The answer: nope. You will see their motto as you scroll over them, but you can't toggle your list to show real names instead of gamertags. You'll need to dip into the profile to get that info.
Notably missing: clan or group support. With all this social networking stuff going on, we'd really like to be able to make a group of peers or setup a clan of hardened UNO warriors. With the new location feature, maybe we could limit our play sessions to peeps from Philly or [fill in your city here]. Greenberg said, "I think it's a great idea ... and it's something that would make sense." Well, we won't take all the credit ... [Update: Tycho has an interesting workaround using a Silver account and the Friends of Friends functionality.]
Also missing: the ability to boost that 100 friend limit. Greenberg explained, "My list is full, your list is full, but the majority of Live members today don't even have 30 friends on their friends list ... hopefully, sooner than later, we'll be able to take care of that." As I've been crawling through friend's friends lists, I've come across a bunch of people who are totally maxed out – I'm looking at your xXBillyGates420Xx.
The final component of the update is a little amorphous. They've got the Parental Timer, which we'll gloss over here. There are also some notable updates on the video side. Small update: full-screen previews. Megaton update: MPEG-4 Part 2 video codec support. Specifically, MPEG-4 Part 2 ASP (advanced simple profile) and SP (simple profile) in an AVI container. What does that mean to us humans? Greenberg decodes, "What that basically means is that our users should find that most of their DivX and Xvid files will work because they're under that umbrella of the MPEG-4 Part 2 codec."
Of course, this is probably the single most requested feature for the console, and we're thrilled that it's been included. We were unable to test this on our 360s, since the Connect360 app for Mac OS X limits the files it shares based on what it knows the 360 will playback. We'll test this in Windows and update the post shortly.
As always, there have been additional usability enhancements to the Marketplace, all of which are much easier to see in images or, better still, using it yourself. Another oft-requested fix: minors who have become adults since purchasing the system, will be treated as adults. That means chat and IM features should be enabled for those users. They've also removed one of our longest-standing annoyances about Xbox Live: the inability to change the Windows Live ID (née Passport) associated with an Xbox Live account. Major Nelson has more on both of these humble, yet long overdue, features.
Lastly, non-US users hoping to get the Video Marketplace in your particular country timed with the release of this update will need to wait a little longer. It's still planned for Fall, but not just yet.
The Fall Update drops next Tuesday, December 4th, but the updates don't stop there. What's next for the Xbox 360 software? Where else could they go? "We're looking at a lot of stuff as we think about evolving Live over the next year and there's some significant and radical ideas on evolving the service. But, until we lock down what those will be and the specifics of it, we really can't address those." So, more Marketplace usability tweaks confirmed. We'll find out in the Spring.
Read – Microsoft Media Alert
Read – December 2007 System Update details @ Xbox Team Blog