10 features we want to see in the next Xbox

My, how times have changed in the seven years since Microsoft launched the Xbox 360. Back then, all we wished for faster graphics, better online services and a cooler controller. Now, it’s all about competing with tablets, transitioning to a download-only future, and becoming the ultimate hub for home entertainment.

Microsoft could announce the next-gen Xbox on May 21, if reports from The Verge and Paul Thurrott are to be believed. And while we’re still hoping for a more powerful machine able to keep up with the latest PC gaming rigs, there’s a lot more than muscle power alone on our wish list for Microsoft’s next Xbox.

1. Deep sleep

The next Xbox will of course be faster than the current one, with a rumored eight-core CPU and 8GB of RAM. Blu-ray seems like a safe bet as well. But speedy in-game performance won’t be enough. To keep up with the instant gratification of smartphones and tablets, Microsoft’s console should be able to wake up from sleep mode in a snap, and quickly switch between games and apps. It should also update automatically, so there’s no more waiting around while we’re itching to play. (Sony has already promised instant-resume and background updates for the PlayStation 4.)

2. A more useful, less spammy dashboard

The Xbox 360’s interface often feels like a gigantic advertisement for things to buy. This is a missed opportunity to increase engagement. Instead of constantly trying to sell us more content from partners that pay to fill add slots, how about surfacing more useful information, like games our friends are playing, or new shows to watch instantly on one of the many video apps (based on my viewing habits)? We don't expect a completely ad-free environment, but they should be clearly-marked as such, less prevelant, and better tailored to our interests. Especially if we're paying a subscription fee for your online service.

3. Smarter SmartGlass

All too often, SmartGlass is barely more than a virtual controller.

SmartGlass is supposed to be Microsoft's great second-screen solution, but it's really quite limited. Sure, you can launch games and fire up some videos from your phone or tablet, but for many key apps, such as Netflix, SmartGlass is nothing more than a high-latency touch screen version of the Xbox 360 controller. Even in games that support SmartGlass, it's of dubious use. Who wants to look down from the TV to their tablet or phone to look at a map in Forza Horizon? Why can't I use SmartGlass to configure my Spartan loadout in Halo 4? Hopefully the next Xbox coincides with a more robust version of SmartGlass can work in a richer way with more games and apps.

4. An improved controller

The Xbox 360 has one of the most confortable controllers ever made, but it could certainly be improved. A better D-Pad and less wiggle-prone thumbsticks would be welcome, but why stop there? The eight-year-old wireless technology used for the Xbox 360 makes for high latency and very low bandwidth for voice communications. New controllers should focus on higher bandwidth and lower latency, clearer voice, and should lift the 4-controller limit imposed by the current system. It didn't seem like a problem at the time, but it has been a real problem for games like Rock Band. Vibration technology has advanced quite a bit in the last decade, allowing for the possiblity of what one could call "high definition rumble". Wireless charging would be a nice touch as well.

5. No more Microsoft Points

windows store
The Windows Store doesn't use Microsoft points, so why does the Xbox?

Although you can buy full retail titles on the Xbox 360 in actual dollars, other games still require you to use Microsoft Points, a virtual currency that obfuscates how much money you’re really spending. Microsoft has said that the points system allows it to have a single currency around the world, but that reasoning doesn’t hold up now that the Windows Store and Windows Phone Store accept real currency in almost every major market. It’s time for Microsoft Points to go away for good.

6. Better community features

Microsoft has never fully explained why you can’t have more than 100 friends on Xbox Live, aside from blaming the limit on vague technical limitations dating back to the original Xbox. Hopefully the next Xbox will remove the roadblocks. We’d also like to see more robust community features such as groups/clans/guilds, scheduled games or matches, tournament brackets and contests, and finally the real ability for users to create, trade, and even sell in-game content. Does anyone remember Velocity Girl?

7. A competitive downloadable games market

Instead of simply cracking down on used games in the next Xbox, Microsoft should compete with fairly-priced downloadable games. Give us great deals on older games or bundles, similar to the sales found on Steam, and we’ll gladly save ourselves the trip to GameStop. Really, just put pricing control direclty and freely in the hands of the game makers, as is done with the Store on Windows 8 and Windows Phone. As for new games, they should all be available to download on the same day as boxed, retail copies go on sale, with pre-loading available to prevent a big download crush all release day.

8. Lower barriers for game developers

Microsoft
Xbox Live's indie section is home to interesting games like Avatar Laser Wars 2, but you'd never know it from glancing at the Xbox 360 dashboard.

The current Xbox splits games into three markets - one for downloadable games that were available at retail (Games on Demand), another for smaller download-only titles (Xbox Live Arcade), and a third for independant games that don't have to jump through the steep and expensive requirements necessary for Xbox Live Arcade (Xbox Indie Games). As Wired recently pointed out, releasing an indie game on the Xbox Live Arcade can be a grueling process.

Small developers must compete with major publishers for release timing and promotion, and there’s a feeling among some smaller developers that Microsoft isn’t being receptive to their needs. The separate channel for indie games on the Xbox 360 gets no promotion and lives in obscurity. Great games like Cursed Loot deserve to live side-by-side with all the other games you can buy on your Xbox.

Microsoft needs a single store with lower barriers to entry, and should regularly champion the best examples of small-scale, innovative games instead of relegating them to seasonal promotions. (Related: devise a way for developers to patch and update their games without charging $40,000 every time. If games are to be thought of as continual services, updating has to be almost cost-free.)

9. A way to play from anywhere

Sony plans to stream PlayStation 4 games to its Vita handheld. The Wii U allows some games to display entirely on its GamePad. Nvidia’s Project Shield will let PC gamers play from anywhere in the house. The Razer Edge gaming tablet can hook into a television dock. The Xbox should have its own remote play option, so we don’t have to be chained to our televisions. Maybe the rumored Xbox Surface tablet will be the key.

10. No more Xbox Live double-dipping

Why should users need an Xbox Live Gold subscription to watch Netflix or Hulu Plus when they’re already paying a subscription fee for those services? Xbox Live is worth paying for if you’re into online multiplayer, but otherwise, it’s a terrible value when so many other set-top boxes offer the same app with no extra monthly cost.

With competing consoles offering online multiplayer for free, it's questionable whether Microsoft can continue to charge for such a basic feature in a new console generation. There are plenty of opportunities to offer premium features as part of an Xbox Live Gold subscription while moving basic online multiplayer play to the Free tier.

Of course, we don't expect the next Xbox to be nothing more than more powerful hardware and resolutions to our list of gripes with the current Xbox. Microsoft is expected to pair it with a more sophisticated successor to Kinect, and we'd be surprised if that was the only trick in store. Sony's Share button and live video streaming in PlayStation 4 is a good example of the kind of from-left-field surprises the next Xbox will have to incorporate to take the world by storm.

Microsoft simply cannot rest on past success, nor count on its current customers to remain loyal. That's the sort of thinking that caused Sony, completely dominant with the PlayStation 2, to have to scratch and claw its way to a competitive market share with the PlayStation 3. Each new console generation hits the reset button, as every gamer has to make a new choice about where they will spend their money.

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