In the new era of Xbox Live, you’ll get by with a little help from your friends.
A new update is out for for Xbox One and the Xbox app for Windows 10 that adds several new features, including an easier way for people to find others to play with via the LFG system (LFG standing for “looking for group”). Plus, people can make now make Clubs, player-run places where they can chat and join up with friends and like-minded Xbox users.
GamesBeat interviewed head of platform engineering at Xbox, Mike Ybarra, about the upcoming changes, Microsoft’s focus on social features, and how it plans to moderates these new groups.
GamesBeat: Clubs and Looking For Group are out now, but the tournament-based Arena system is coming out a bit later, right?
Mike Ybarra: Yeah, that’s right. Arena will stay in preview for a while. We have some great tournaments for Killer Instinct that will go online. We’re just getting a bit more fine-tuning, a bit more time on it. It’s one of the features that’s among the highest growth areas in esports, in terms of developer and consumer interest. We’re very excited about what that’s going to bring.
GamesBeat: These are also social features. Sometimes these fall updates are more about the interface. Why such a strong push for the social aspect this time?
Ybarra: When we prioritize features, we look at our user voice feedback, which is a general site where anybody can go up and say, “Here’s a feature I think is important and would make Xbox better.” We look at that pretty closely. There are times where we focus on UI elements because the feedback says it’s a little slow, or it’s a little too complicated to get into a party, or people want a brand new feature. This cycle — it’s a good conclusion to say that we wanted to focus on a lot of the top feedback around bringing people together on Xbox Live, making it easier to find friends, making it more inviting to play with people that have the same likes I have.
That’s where you see a lot of the focus in this cycle. In addition to that, there’s a lot of interest in ensuring that Xbox Live goes where people go. We have big investments in our mobile app and the Xbox app on Windows 10, making sure those features show up and light up anywhere that people are. They can check on their status, reply to their friends, and be part of that social gaming network at any time of the day. There’s a lot of social features here, but it’s all based on a consistent prioritization around user feedback and what the fans are asking us for.
GamesBeat: I’ve seen places for games — Destiny is a big example — where people have been setting up their own sites to find groups. Is there a desire to keep people within the Xbox infrastructure while they’re doing these sorts of things?
Ybarra: I wouldn’t say that exactly. I love giving gamers choice to go do things any way they want to. They should have fun gaming wherever they game. It’s true that there’s a couple of websites you can use to get into — you used Destiny as an example, to get into Destiny games. On the console there wasn’t really an easy solution to that. A lot of people love those apps because they can go do the weekly Nightfall or strike or raid or whatever they want with new people they meet. We just wanted to make it easier for people to be able to do that on their console or their PC or their phone at any time. A lot of what you see on the websites are what we call “now moment items.” I want to do a strike right now in Destiny. I need two more people, level 30 or higher. Must have a microphone. That type of scenario.
With our tech we’re allowing you to set it up to seven days in advance, so if you want to do something on Saturday and today’s Tuesday you can set it up. People on Xbox Live will accept it. You can approve them going into the group. It’s a bit more trustworthy in the sense that the number of people who drop out or don’t show up is far less, because you know they’re already on Xbox Live. They’re playing your game. They’ve probably looked at your profile. To me it’s all about giving gamers the choices they want and making it as easy as possible. We don’t want people to have to bring up websites, find websites for different games. We bring that all together in one place across our phone app, the Windows 10 app, and the console.
GamesBeat: As I get older, it’s harder to find time to play with people. I think when we’re younger, we would just get on and your friends would be available and you’d play with them. But as the demographic grows up we need to schedule our game time.
Ybarra: I think it’s a little different from that. Games have evolved from largely single-player experiences to team experiences. Working together as part of a group to accomplish a task. As games evolve, Xbox Live has to evolve to make sure that we’re in front of what customers and game developers expect. To use your example, Destiny’s great. There’s weekly Nightfall, weekly raids, strikes that reset every single week. You want to find people to do that every week. As games evolve and go forward, across all our devices we want to make sure our platform evolves and enables creators to build these experiences and give fans what they need.
GamesBeat: Clubs are similar, except it’s a way for people to join a group and be able to chat with each other that’s centered around a shared interest, right?
Ybarra: We designed clubs with a few things in mind. One of them was, we want Xbox Live to be a great place for every type of gamer. I have a 12-year-old son and he has a club that’s just his school friends. I know it’s completely safe. He can share and chat and do whatever he wants in that club. He has a great time.
I have several clubs for old gamers I went to college with where we hang out. It’s about discovering people that have the same values and goals in gaming that you have, but it’s also about bringing some of the core clans and guilds that exist over to Xbox Live in a meaningful way for them, so they can easily communicate – either when they’re in front of their consoles or when they’re on their phone or PC. I think of it as more of a discovery of people that share similar interests and a way to have a safe place to play together and create some awesome gaming moments.
GamesBeat: Are clubs going to be moderated by Microsoft at all, or are the people who start the clubs self-moderating there?
Ybarra: It’s a mix of both. When you create a club there’s a code of conduct that you accept. Of course, we have teams watching that. At the same time, we want to empower the people that create and moderate the club to have the freedom to do so. Obviously there’s the owner of a club. That person controls a whole set of settings on privacy and who can do what within the club that they can manage. There are admins of the club who can invite people and kick people. There’s a set of tools that not just one person, but a set of people defined by the owner of the club, can use to help manage the conduct in the club and make sure that it’s a great place for people.
GamesBeat: Both of these features have been available in the preview program for a bit. What has the feedback been like? Have you made any changes based on feedback?
Ybarra: We’re very excited to get this out of preview and into everybody’s hands. It’s been a great feedback process we went through and we’re super happy with where we are today. All the features we went through in preview, I can’t think of one where we didn’t receive feedback that caused some change. Some of those changes were minor – maybe the way the UI works – up to questions of whether something was really designed correctly. Several features, we didn’t release them. We went back to the drawing board because of feedback. I love the preview audience we have. They give us invaluable feedback. They’re some of our most passionate fans. Their feedback impacts the product across the board, whatever it is we do.
GamesBeat: Achievements are seeing some changes in the update. Why mess with something that’s been relatively unchanged since the launch of the Xbox 360?
Ybarra: One of the big asks we see from fans — achievements is something that’s a staple of Xbox Live. There’s a set of folks out there who love that score and want to drive that score as high as possible. From a game developer’s standpoint, it’s their way of patting the user on the back when they do something great in the game. We’ll introduce achievement rarity later this week when we launch this update to everyone. We wanted to give a special pat on the back to people who achieve something that less than 10 percent of the people playing a title accomplish. To keep going down the Destiny path, if you beat the latest raid in the latest expansion, probably less than percent of players achieve that.
So when you do that and get the achievement, it’s a brand-new animation and a brand-new sound in all the UIs – mobile, Windows 10, Xbox. They all show a diamond next to it to recognize the fact that you’re one of the 10 percent to achieve that. At the same time, for all achievements, you’ll be able to see what percentage of the Xbox Live community that’s played the game received the achievement. In Destiny you get one that’s almost mandatory, right out of the gate, and you’ll see that 85 percent or whatever it is have achieved that. There’s a rarity element to it, and then there’s the overall percentage element, which has been awesome.
The feedback we have is very positive. You have a goal of getting rare achievements now. People are becoming rare achievement hunters, spending hours trying to get the achievements nobody else has. It’s a great feature that’s been widely accepted.
GamesBeat: Why change Achievements now?
Ybarra: It’s something fans have asked for for a while. We wanted to think about how to implement this in the right way. There are lots of feedback channels and processes we go through. From a feature prioritization standpoint and a user feedback point of view, it was high. We felt like now was a great time to deliver that and give people a little more insight into the number of achievements their fellow gamers are doing across titles.
GamesBeat: Clubs are on both Xbox One and Windows 10, correct?
MS: Yeah, that’s right. A lot of users right now are logging in to Xbox Live on their mobile devices. We’re very proud of the Xbox app that we have. The engagement is very high. It’s our commitment to make sure that when new features come out, users can engage with those anywhere they are. If they’re on the bus, on the way home, they can check in on their clubs. They can chat in their club chat. They can look at their latest achievements. They can reply to group messaging on their phone. If they’re at their PC, at school or work, they can check in really fast. And of course, if they’re in front of the console, they can do the same. That element of consistency is important to us.
GamesBeat: You said Arena is going in testing a bit longer. What info do you want to get out of that longer testing period? What are you looking to tweak?
MS: It’s a couple of things. One, developer feedback on Arena. Competitive play, which is inclusive of esports, is one of the hottest areas in a lot of the latest games and future games coming out. Developers are spending a lot of time saying, “I want to figure out how our title engages with that.” It increases the amount of time people play in their games. It’s healthy for game developers and the titles they make. So we’re having a lot of discussions with developers about what that means and how we differentiate ourselves in a meaningful way that provides value to them. Then, from a consumer standpoint, there’s a whole host of feedback as far as the experience.
Today, to effectively compete and play in competitive games, it’s pretty difficult. There are these large events, but that’s .001 percent of the population that actually particulates in those events. A lot of people watch, which is very cool — more people watching and playing is a trend we see too. But we want to make sure that anybody has a chance to play in Arena. There’s some work we want to do from an experience point of view to make sure that’s super optimized for the broadest set of users on Xbox Live.