360 and PS3 deliver poor online gaming

I have both the XBox 360 and the Playstation 3 at home so I consider myself pretty lucky. I’m also not one of these people who loves one console over the other fanatically.

So I think I’m in a good position to be able to speak about both consoles, and in particular the poor online services they offer.

There are a few things you want to be able to do online with a console, and none of these are rocket science. They depend on what game you’re playing and what type of gamer you are, but across the board this is probably what you want:

1. Online gameplay with anyone

2. Online gameplay with friends

3. Downloading of new levels for existing games

4. Downloading of demos

For me it’s that simple, so how can neither console provider get it right? Some of this is down to the game developers of course, but can’t the console owners force them to get it right?

Let’s look at number one, online gameplay with anyone. Isn’t that a feature that both console manufacturers have managed to get right? Well, yes, I have to say it is. I personally don’t think that there’s anything else they could really do on that front.

It’s the second point where I begin to find failing, the online gameplay with friends.

The XBox has it a lot closer than the Playstation here, from the few Playstation 3 games I’ve played online, and this qualifier is worth mentioning.

I’ve played three games online with the Playstation 3, whereas I’ve played closer to seven or eight with the XBox 360, so it’s already ahead.

However it does have problems. If I want to setup a session with friends I have to pull the console menu out over the game and send my friend a game invite.

This feels, and is, clumsy. It’s a fire and forget system and there’s no way to deal with if they haven’t seen the message or if they have received it and are on their way, you just sit watching what game they’re playing and wait, or you sit in the game menu waiting for their name to appear.

Why I can’t see my friends in the game screen and select who I want to join, with a positive visual indicator for acceptance, refusal, and not yet responded I don’t know.

That way I could see who was online, in the game screen, invite them, and watch the progress so I’m not sitting there sending multiple invites and trying to see the darkened half of the screen that remains visible from behind the system menu popup, if they’ve joined already.

Then there’s chat. There’s always one or more points during loading when chat just cuts off. We’re forever chatting away, starting a game, and then missing half the loading conversation before you’re deep into it.

Level restarts and next level loads are equally as frustrating. Sometimes having to reinvite your friends back into the game, and all the time not knowing where they are, if they’re still in and waiting to load or what, for their names just appear when they are fully loaded.

However the experience has been much poorer on the Playstation 3. Trying to set-up a game with friends has proven, so far, to be a nightmare.

I’ve played Formula 1, MotorStorm, and Colin McRae: Dirt, and I’ve been thoroughly disappointed.

For a start there’s no easy way to see if your friends are online when you’re in game, but the real problems I’ve had trying to play online with friends seem to be with the games more than the console.

Formula 1 was a terrible experience. I eventually set-up a private game between myself and a friend, but the whole process of selecting Europe/Australia and then servers seems redundant when playing people you know.

Then when we get into the game we find that all the other AI drivers are pointless as you can drive right through them and vice versa.

The worst aspect is cut a corner, hit a car, etc and you have a strange penalty where your engine is limited and you’re indestructible, meaning other cars can drive right through you too.

It all means that the whole Formula 1 experience is ruined.

MotorStorm was much better and I was online racing a friend really pretty easily.

Colin McRae seems insane. There’s no way to have a friends only game, not as far as I can see anyway.

Thirdly there’s the downloading of additional levels, etc for games. Now while that’s possible in both consoles and I’ve yet to see it on the Playstation 3, the process on the 360 is poorly implemented.

It’s great if the game allows you to check what van be downloaded for it and presents the list all nicely to you, otherwise you have to search through an A-Z list to find your game before even seeing what there is to download. A brain numbing process.

This is the same problem with the final issue, downloading demos of games. It’s the same problem. If you aren’t looking at demos every few days to see the “latest releases” then you’ll miss them as they get added to the huge A-Z list which you have to search.

Why not have something with feeds where I can see all the new demos, levels, etc since I was last logged onto the store?

No. To find something for Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Las Vegas I have to go to the A-Z list and search. Now is that under Tom Clancy or Rainbow Six?

Surely that you could have an option to filter by the list of games you own, or have played on the console? A list that you can alter if you require?

Here’s what I think would make the experience a lot better:

1. Make the online stores like internet sites, give them feeds and the console a feed reader so that we can all see everything new since our last visit.

2. Make the consoles store a list of games that you’ve played and/or owned. A list that you can edit, for you might have deleted or sold a game, and allow all the online content to be filtered by this list of games – therefore showing only the content relating to the games you have, or have played.

3. Archive all the store content – I believe the Playstation store is not going to keep the content and will start to remove it. Now if I buy an old game does that mean all the content that others who bought the game could get could be removed just because I bought it later?

4. Ensure that games allow for private friends sessions.

5. Ensure that games allow you to see a list of your friends that are online. Allow them to send invites and to see the status of the invite and your friend.

6. Ensure that games allow for continuous play with online friends and keeps track of each others status throughout the process of loading new levels, etc.

7.Have a friends matchup which shows what games you have in common, created from that list your console will hold. That’s something I just thought of.

8. Ensure that games keep the online portion of the game consistent and playable – like in Formula 1, don’t suddenly turn it into a whole different game with new rules and pointless features.

That’s what I think would make for a much better online experience from both consoles. Frankly, right now, they seem like applications from yesteryear.

Get it right.

Update: 18/12/2007

Well isn’t that good timing, just as I write something about my frustrations about online gaming both the XBox and the Playstation online services get an update.

Still, the same issues are there, and while the interfaces may look a little better and functionality improved, they are far from addressing the issues with the online service that I’ve written about.

Still, the video update is great for the XBox service as I can now download and watch 720p videos. However there isn’t any way for me to acrhive them off the XBox and keep them, unless this is operating as a rental agreement.

On the PS3 the update is really to play Divx videos, a welcome addition as a majority of non-DRM’d content is in this format. Interestingly a majority of pirated video is also in this format. They’ve also updated the Blu-ray profile to 1.1, something that allows picture in picture which is making some technical gadgety types all excited – me, I’d rather watch the full picture of one programme at a time.

However the online Playstation service still has a way to go, and they need to integrate friends and playing games online much better than they currently have.

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