What's worse than paying $50 a year more than Games For Windows Live gamers, just to play Xbox 360 games online? How about paying that same fifty bucks plus having to eyeball banners that unfurl across your Xbox 360's interface like royal proclamations, flocks of leering emoticons that shout "hello!" (emphasis 'LO') like irritated eyeball-rolling tweens, or human silhouettes that groove in looping jukes as dangling ear buds flail like weird, pliable antennae?
Alright, probably not gonna happen. I mean, Microsoft would be certifiably insane to allow that sort of media boondoggle into its blessedly placid Xbox 360 dash space, right? Right...or, well, maybe, because it seems they are planning to make things a bit busier by introducing Silverlight-powered ads to the dashboard.
According to MediaPost channeling Microsoft Advertising Business Group Director Sean Alexander, "Microsoft plans to bring rich media technologies, including Silverlight, to Xbox Live within the year," and "Silverlight-powered media on Xbox will have the same appearance as ads seen on a Web browser."
Now the Xbox 360 already has ads in its Spotlight section that launch by default. Today, mine's displaying a pitch for Worms 2: Armageddon in Xbox Live Arcade, another's telling me to "Try Netflix for free," and yet another's touting "Video discount days" (33% off all summer long!). You can't turn any of that off, and you can't make any of the other views (the ones that actually matter) your startup default instead. To paraphrase The Outer Limits, Microsoft controls the horizontal and the vertical, like it or no.
What about the new technology? Well, Silverlight -- Microsoft's Flash alternative -- is explicitly designed for animation, vector graphics, and audio playback. It brings motion and sound into play, in other words. Those static pictures on the Xbox 360's collage of tinted windows? Replaced -- in theory, anyway -- by advertisements that move and/or make sounds. Commercials, if we're riffing on web analogies, that could run in advance of free downloads or video feeds, just as they frequently preface a Comedy Central video clip or cable news segment offered "free of charge" through a web browser.
Attempting to mitigate negative buzz about the plan, Microsoft's Larry Hryb (aka Major Nelson) wrote the following on his blog:
"I need to let you know that you don't need to worry about a huge influx of ads across the dashboard. One of our core principles is to enhance, not interfere with the gaming experience, and we work directly with our partners to only deliver experiences that are relevant to the LIVE community. Silverlight will help make those ads a more organic part of the dashboard, like we've done with some of the NXE slots in the past. No one on the team wants to turn the dashboard into something that looks like Shibuya Crossing. That's just not good for anyone."
Hryb seems like the nicest guy in the world, but "enhance" is one of those words that drives me crazy. As far as I'm concerned, anything that's designed to entice me to buy more stuff while I'm reading a book, listening to a music CD, watching a DVD, or yes, even playing a video game, is interfering with my gaming experience. The question is, how much interference is too much interference?
I don't know what's acceptable to you, but I do know what isn't to me. Cheap, shameless attention getters, like the bouncing Apple iPod commercial clones, the Flash videos that start without first asking your permission, the audio clips or effects that sound unexpectedly, or the ones that grow out of their ad-space to hijack your screen temporarily. Sticking beautiful people in revealing attire that have nothing to do with the product (textbook case: IGN's Kane and Lynch contest), or playing adolescent titillation games with sexual motifs, like the Singapore Burger King poster in which the company's "Super Seven Incher" torpedoes phallically at a gape-jawed, wide-eyed arguably computer-generated woman's mouth.
Advertising's only half about getting you to buy something. The other half's just getting you to pay attention. The frequently missing brackets would be "sensitivity" and "restraint." Gamers buy game systems to play games, not be advertisement receptacles. In a smarter, more imaginative world, companies like Microsoft wouldn't need to gild the lily to lure advertisers and bolster revenue. Unfortunately, it's not a smarter world.