There’s no hard evidence to support this theory, but I’m pretty confident that Microsoft somehow got their hands on the business plan for Skynet. They currently manufacture one of the most popular and arguably the most notable game console of this generation and have some form of Windows installed on about 90 percent of PCs around the globe. They also have phones and tablets, but those are the unicorns of the mobile market — seriously, have you seen one in real life? Yet they aren’t satisfied. In fact, they won’t quit until the entirety of Xbox owners find no reason to leave their couches.
First and foremost, the Xbox 360 is a device for gaming. It was quite literally built for it.
The plan for Microsoft’s multimedia takeover is to take the gaming juggernaut that is the Xbox 360, and accompanying Xbox Live online service, and pipe other forms of entertainment to the button-mashing masses. While services like Netflix, Hulu, and Last.fm all already offer an escape from the gaming grind, it’s the big picture plan to bring in live streaming and on-demand content that would solidify the Xbox as the ultimate media machine.
With recent reports revealing that the subscription-based TV service will be placed on hold due to cost, Microsoft should take the time to step back from the whole Pinky and the Brain-esque, “Try to take over the world” approach and look at their plan as well as their market.
First and foremost, the Xbox 360 is a device for gaming. It was quite literally built for it. While the addition of Kinect and games that take advantage of the motion sensor and voice recognition have made the device somewhat more family oriented, the overwhelming majority of high-selling Xbox 360 titles are less than kid-friendly–18 of the 20 best-selling games on the console are rated “Mature.” While no one can fault a company for attempting to expand their reach, it’s the core of their consumer base that Microsoft must target to make their on-site TV stream.
Thanks to some of the improvements brought about by the latest generation of consoles and technical advancements, gamers have come to expect some particulars when it comes to their game experience. For example, a game that offers some worthwhile rewards in the form of achievements often will receive more play time. It’s not unreasonable to consider applying similar rewards for consumption of other media. Is it a little shameful to watch the entire run of Firefly in a single sitting? Yes, but if it added 1000 Achievement points toward one’s Gamerscore — or alternatively a new score for other content — then maybe I wouldn’t set my status to “Appear Offline” while sitting with a pint of Ben and Jerry’s in hand, muttering about how I wish Mal would just get with Inara already (too personal? Sorry).
Achievements are one of the defining aspects of the Xbox experience. The stockpiling of points functionally serves as little more than fodder for virtual pissing contests, their true worth comes from the value of fulfillment they provide. Any person can turn on their TV and watch the new episode of Parks and Recreation, so it has to be worthwhile to watch it on the Xbox. This is the answer to services like GetGlue, an application that allows users to “check-in” a la FourSquare when they sit down to watch their favorite show or movie. It’s a badge of sort, and a way to broadcast what a user likes.
Another great way to give people the ability to showcase their taste for media: Include other content makers in the Marketplace. Microsoft already announced that they would finally be dropping the Microsoft Points currency system. Frankly, it’s about time. I was sick of figuring out the conversion rate from the United States’ Dollar to the Island of Microsoft’s Point. (One point equals 0.0125 dollars, for the record. I befriended a math major for that information.) Now that the payment system is simplified, a move no doubt meant to encourage casual users to make purchases, Microsoft needs to give people something they might want to spend real money on. Let studios and shows develop their own marketplace content to give to their audience. Die-hard fans will happily fork out a few bucks to support their show while sporting an inside joke on their virtual self. I need to be able to wear my “#AnniesMove” t-shirt to broadcast my love for Community in real life and on Xbox Live.
Microsoft needs to give people something they might want to spend real money on.
Another cue Microsoft can take to make the TV on Xbox Live experience worthwhile is actually one that was used by a cable channel: Host a post-show discussion show. It’s a little meta, but stay with me. When season two of The Walking Dead launched, AMC filled the slot that followed immediately behind the episode with a live call-in show called The Talking Dead. While this confused Google for a long time (No, I actually mean The Talking Dead Google, stop trying to correct me), the post-program wrap-up did fairly well. With prominent guests, great banter and plenty of interactivity, it added a whole new layer of immersion to a show that always warrants water-cooler discussion. Imagine having the ability to watch the latest drama live, then hop into a discussion room complete with a charismatic host, occasional celebrity and the ability to get your questions answered live. Remember how much buzz Lost generated the day after every episode? Let’s have those conspiracy theory-type dialogues right after the show ends. I’ll happily listen to some nerds argue about things and then steal relevant topic points to seem smart and observant when I use them with my friends the next day.
As long as we’re trying to spark some conversation, borrow the Party Mode that Netflix provided for so long. It’s a simple one as far as concept, but it goes a long way. One of the biggest selling points of playing games online is the ability to communicate in-game via headset. While the majority of this communication boils down to 13-year olds shouting vulgarities at people, the theory behind it is sound. Television isn’t always meant to be a lonely medium — it’s a conversation piece. If I’m going to watch the latest serialized crime drama, I want to be able to beat my friends to guessing who the killer is. More than that, I want them to see I’m watching it and be able to join in.
The interactivity doesn’t have to stop just at the ability to communicate, though. The conversation can be streamlined into a game of its own. Have some trivia relevant to the current programming pop up on the screen during commercials to keep them engaged. It can be for fun to pass the time, or it can have some value. For example, the person in the party with the most points gets to pick the next show. Just make sure never to invite that one friend that always dominates Trivial Pursuit. You know he’s going to pick some boring documentary about candle making or radical Jewish gangs or something when he wins.
Once non-gamers see the appeal of the Xbox Live platform, Microsoft has them in the perfect position to be converted into members of their main clientele.
Once non-gamers see the appeal of the Xbox Live platform, Microsoft has them in the perfect position to be converted into members of their main clientele. When normal ads run on broadcast television, sneak game commercials in for upcoming titles for those that watch on the Xbox. Open up channels that will broadcast major gaming events and hire some decent commentators to deliver entertaining play-by-play. Those that start using the Xbox just for television will more than likely catch one of the people on their friends list playing a game at some point. Expose them to the games that will no doubt be plastered all over the Live Dashboard when they log in. Let them know that their conversion is inevitable so they may as well become educated on what everyone else is playing.
The biggest challenge that Microsoft faces with bringing television to Xbox Live isn’t necessarily a cost concern, though that will be an uphill battle on its own depending on what the final price tag will be for a subscription. We know that people still pay for cable and both Hulu Plus and Netflix still have growing user bases. Instead, Microsoft needs to make sure the content is presented in a way that no one else can. People can watch their favorite programs on the show or station’s website, through Hulu or Netflix, at a variety of less-than-legal outlets, or on that whole television thing. Microsoft has to prove that their service is that much better than every other option, not just another aggregator of media. The company already has a very particular demographic that are lassoed into the system: gamers. While their taste may be diverse, it’s the features that Xbox Live offers that keeps millions of users jumping online every night. Instead of trying to appease an extremely wide and undefinable audience by pandering in a way that risks isolating their current patrons, show the rest of the entertainment world why gamers find the Xbox Live service so engaging.
AJ Dellinger is a freelance writer from Madison, Wisconsin. His work can be found on a variety of sites from Mac|Life to Guyism to his personal blog. He also occasionally writes biographies in the third person.