How Microsoft Got Avatars “Right”

Back when the ‘New Xbox Experience’ (NXE) was revealed one of the sticking points with so-called ‘hardcore’ gamers was the Avatar system.  Previously on the Xbox 360 you were identified visually by your Gamertag (your ID, or handle) and your Gamerpic, a small bitmap much like those on Twitter or most other social networks.  Gamerpics could be purchased from the Xbox Live Marketplace but essentially there was only a finite number of different images, and most of my friends plumped for something sporting the visage of the Master Chief anyway.

To many of the people I spoke with around the reveal of the NXE the new system, the ability to customise your own 3D humanoid avatar and then take a picture using the NXE’s camera for your Gamerpic, the traditional system was better – after all some people had spent considerable money on their Gamerpics (I bought the retro Rare pack for Jetpac).  Thankfully when the time came Microsoft said you could just keep your old Gamerpic anyway, so what would be the point of the Avatars then, and what exactly have Microsoft done that makes the system so much better than the comparable features in Home?

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For starters, and this is absolutely crucial, the Xbox 360 Avatars are part of the 360’s Dashboard.  Your Avatar, and those of your friends, are clearly visible, active and animated throughout much of the NXE’s menu system.  Instead of the big ugly grey boxes that Sony thought were a nice way to see what our online mates are up to, on the NXE you can actually see your friends (or, at least, their Avatars) next to a box of whatever game they’re playing.  And if they’re in a multiplayer party chat, you’ll see them bunched together in a group.  It’s visual, immediate and really quite impressive.

Secondly, as you’ll see in the video put together exclusively for this article by our editor, Peter, the Marketplace for the Avatars is also part of the Dashboard.  You don’t need to load up Home, stroll over to the Shopping Mall and then find the shop you want to before buying clothes – it’s right there in the NXE and is supremely quick too.  And it’s not just clothing – watch the video and tell me you’re not impressed by the seriously cool additions that you can also kit out your Avatar with – toys, RC Halo Warthogs, giant earbuds from Monkey Island – yes, it’s mostly marketing and cross promotion, but it works so well.

Once your Avatar is equipped with whatever outfit and accessories you’ve deemed necessary, he or she will be displayed for all your friends to see, but this isn’t just limited to the Dashboard because Microsoft are actually quite open about letting developers use Avatars in their games too.  Codemasters’ DiRT 2 lets you hang your Avatar in-car, Arcade titles like Avatar Golf are centred around the little devils and even Indie titles are permitted to get in on the action, as the 80 Point Avatar Drop demonstrates in the video.  The number of Avatar enabled games is growing all the time, too.

Naturally, though, the Avatar system doesn’t have the sheer amount of online substance of something like Home about it.  At the moment you can’t walk around a virtual world, sitting down with other Avatars and doing the ‘rock’ dance, but we’re sure that’ll come in time if this survey carries any weight.  Sony’s PlayStation Home might be a damp squid for some, but it has legions of fans that use the service regularly and new Spaces are continuously popping up – for my money though, Microsoft’s Avatars is already doing everything right and I’m sure there’s much more to come.

Thanks to Peter “HD” Chapman for his wonderful work on the video.

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