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Six Things I Learned About the XBox 360

You'd think that, being a Videogame Journalist Extraordinaire and All-Around Cool Guy (it says so on my personal Web site, so you know it must be true), I would know everything about the Xbox 360. You'd be wrong. True, I can rattle off a selection of the system's hit games, its pros and cons versus competing systems, its various retail configurations and their features and prices, and lots of other information ranging from important to trivial.

But being a game journalist means there's one perspective on the Xbox I struggle with: that of a normal videogame consumer.

While I did buy my first Xbox 360 (a Pro system) at retail, Microsoft has since sent me the upgraded Elite system, a debug unit to play unreleased games, three of my four Xbox 360 controllers, and enough Xbox Live Gold membership cards to last me through 2012. A majority of the games I play on the Xbox 360 are provided by publishers hoping I'll review them, and the nature of my job lets me play games during the work day, rather than just during free time. All these things skew my experience with the system in some small way. Intellectually I know the true costs of the Xbox 360; but personally, I'm shielded from having to make the tough economic decisions most gamers face every day.

Which is why I'm grateful for my family. In the past six months, my sister and cousin, both teenagers, have gone through the process of purchasing Xbox 360s. Throughout this process, they both consulted me, the videogame expert in the family, for advice on everything, from what hardware they need to what games to buy. The process of guiding them into the world of a new (and, as you'll see, somewhat bewildering) game system made me realize some things about the Xbox 360 that I hadn't considered before.

1. Friends are the killer app

Before joining the Xbox owners club, my sister and cousin both owned Nintendo Wii and DS systems. In addition, my sister had a GameCube and my cousin had a PlayStation 2. So when I first heard they both wanted Xbox 360s, my curiosity got the better of me. What pushed them over the edge to upgrade to a new system? The answer surprised me: My sister primarily wanted to play "Halo 3" and my cousin primarily wanted to play "Gears of War 2."

Don't get me wrong: I wasn't surprised because I'm some sort of Cro-Magnon misogynist who thinks shooters are for manly men and wholly inappropriate for delicate flowers like my female teenage relations. No, it was because both games were wholly out of character for their professed videogame interests, which up to this point included teen-girl fare like "WarioWare," "Katamari Damacy," "The Legend of Zelda," "Super Monkey Ball," "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band." As far as I knew, neither of them had owned or even played a shooter in their short lives.

The real reason for the surprising genre shift: friends! Both my sister and my cousin have recently begun spending a lot more time with boys their age, as teenage girls tend to do. Unsurprisingly, those teenage boys are constantly on their Xbox 360s -- playing shooters, primarily. It became necessary to learn to love shooters to spend time with these boys, as both my sister and cousin admitted after further questioning.

My sister logs on to Xbox Live to talk to people, whether she's playing a game with them or not. Chatting on Xbox Live is the new chatting on the phone! For my sister and my cousin, interest in socializing with friends via a game system seemed to trump interest in actual gameplay.

I also found it interesting how much peer network effects played into my family's system-purchasing decisions. Neither my sister nor my cousin knew anyone with a PlayStation 3 (save one friend of my sister, who also had an Xbox 360 and therefore never used Sony's system, as she put it). The PS3's price, its library of games, its free online service, its ability to play Blu-ray movies -- none of these pros or cons were even considered by my relations. The fact was that none of their friends had a PS3, so they weren't going to get a PS3. It was that simple.

2. It's the extras that get you

Since my cousin and sister are both 16, money is not a real thing to them. Neither has a real allowance or a summer job. The only real limit on their material wealth is what their parents are willing to buy for them.

Money is a real thing to their parents, though, and persuading both sets to shell out hundreds of dollars for another videogame system (remember, they both had two recent consoles and one portable system already) was a thorny proposition. Thus, balancing features with a parent-friendly price was an important consideration for both my sister and my cousin when looking at the Xbox 360.

The process started with Internet research on the various Xbox 360 configurations and accessories. Both sent me countless links to packages from GameStop, Best Buy and some online-only retailers -- some new, some used, some from Microsoft, some bundled by the retailer -- and asked me to parse the differences in quality and features among them.

Soon it became clear to both my sister and my cousin that the Hard Drive was the driving factor in driving up the price of most of the bundles. So the question became: "Do I really need a hard drive?" I outlined the benefits of the Hard Drive as best I could: the ability to download large demos and games much more easily, the ability to play old Xbox games, the ability to install games to the Hard Drive and save wear on the disc drive, etc. I had to explain to my cousin that even a 20 GB hard drive was, in fact, much bigger than a 512 MB memory card, even though 20 is smaller than 512. (True story!) Eventually both determined they needed a big Hard Drive, but that they'd settle for a $50 refurbished 20 GB Hard Drive if need be.

OK, so what about Internet connectivity? Remember, the primary point was being able to play and talk on Xbox Live. That meant a Headset ($20 if purchased new, but free and included with the more expensive Pro and Elite systems), an Xbox Live Gold subscription ($50 a year) and, most appallingly, a Wireless Network Adapter ($100 and required, since neither had wired Ethernet access in their rooms). There was audible exasperation on the phone when I explained these added costs, one-by-one, to two desperate teenagers. While a $200 base system seemed well within the realm of parental convince-ability, all these required extras were quickly pushing the price into the "No" zone.

3. Warranties are important

Both my sister and my cousin had heard of the Red Ring of Death from their friends, but neither of them thought much about it when purchasing their Xbox 360s. Remember, they're 16 and have no concept of the future. They just know what they want, and will try to figure out how to get it NOW.

When news of the Red Ring trickled up to the parents making the purchase, though, system reliability became a very real concern. They'd be damned if they were going to spend hundreds of dollars on a system that was notoriously unreliable -- unless, of course, it was covered by a warranty. Before making the final purchase, both my mom and my uncle got me on the phone and peppered me with questions about how common Red Rings really were ("Relatively," I replied); whether used systems were more likely to Red Ring ("Relatively," I replied); whether the return process was painless ("Relatively," I replied); and whether it was worth buying an additional warranty from the retailer ("NO, NO, NO!" I screamed).

Despite the high price of accessories, and concerns about reliability, both my sister and my cousin ended up getting their systems. The one-year warranty on a "refurbished" Xbox 360 (complete with 20 GB Hard Drive and Headset for $200 -- a decent deal) was almost a deal-breaker for my mom, but she capitulated after making it clear that she was not buying a replacement if it failed after that warranty was up. For my cousin and her dad, the shorter warranty on used systems was a deal-breaker -- they ended up buying a brand-new, $300 Xbox 360 Pro unit rather than a significantly cheaper used system, primarily for the three-year warranty that came with it.

4. Patience is a virtue

My cousin first talked to me about getting an Xbox 360 on Aug. 20. At that time, it was abundantly clear to anyone paying attention that some sort of Xbox 360 price drop was coming in the near future. I told my cousin that she should wait a week or two before buying the system. She ignored my advice, of course, because money is not real to her, and she was "desperate" to get the system before school started. On Aug. 30, the Xbox 360 Pro she had purchased nine days earlier dropped in price by $50.

I didn't tell my uncle about the impending price drop when I talked to him on the phone because I'm a freaking idiot.

5. People actually buy Xbox Live Avatar accessories

When my sister signed up for Xbox Live, she used my mom's credit card to purchase her first year of service. That credit card information is still stored in the system, allowing my sister to buy practically anything she wants on the Xbox Live Marketplace until 1) my mom notices these charges on her credit card bill or 2) my mom learns how to use the parental controls on the Xbox 360. Neither of these scenarios is incredibly likely (nor is her seeing this story, unless I specifically direct her to it. But Mom, if you managed to get this far, consider yourself warned!)

A few weeks ago my sister declared to an Xbox Live party of me and my cousin that she was planning to buy pom poms for her Avatar. I urged her not to, partly in a weak attempt to protect my mom's pocketbook from getting slowly picked (without ratting on my sister directly, of course), and partly because I thought it was a waste of money. That $2 could be going toward one of the great selection of Xbox Live Arcade games, after all, which I argued would provide much more enjoyment then the mere sight of digital pom poms on a virtual avatar.

Of course, the argument fell on deaf ears. But even if it had been real, hard-earned money, I doubt it would have mattered. Never underestimate the vanity of a 16-year-old girl.

6. I am freaking OLD

A few weeks ago, I played a round of 1 vs. 100 with my cousin and some of her Xbox Live friends that had wandered into her Xbox Live party. A question came up about which singer won the Grammy for Best New Artist in 1994. Someone on the line piped in, saying "How am I supposed to know that? I was, like, two years old in 1994."

I went and had a good cry after that.


2 Responses »

  1. Hilarious article. I love my 360! Just got netfilx too! Woo hoo for Xbox live. Can't wait for Project Natal to come out! =)

  2. The warranty is a good thing. Xbox 360s are known for having a failure rate of 54% (Game Informer), most of the time requiring factory repair ($100 without warranty). Microsoft tried to fix these problems with a new processor late 2008/early 2009, but the new systems still fail at a rate of 25% (SquareTrade). For comparison, PS3 fails at 7% and Wii 2%.