Nintendo is increasingly known for its focus on portable games, PlayStation is known for its big-budget blockbuster games, but what is Xbox known for?
At least personally, I feel Xbox has typically been known for its platform services. Xbox Live, Xbox achievements, and now, Xbox Game Pass, completely changed the game. Microsoft has generally been far speedier than Sony and Nintendo at updating its Xbox ecosystem with new features, tweaks, and other improvements. Just this week, Microsoft finally delivered the much-requested wishlist and checkout feature for its store platforms, including Xbox, for example.
Despite the achievements of the Xbox platform team, there are several noteworthy aspects of Xbox Live and its associated services that have slipped into disrepair and neglect. While some of these things are relatively minor, I believe others represent huge missed opportunities that will harm Xbox in the longer term if not addressed sooner, rather than later.
The rise of Discord
One of Microsoft's biggest failures as a tech company is how little care and attention it has given to its instant messaging services. Skype is still hilariously slow when compared to modern systems, and the team working on Skype doesn't seem to realize or care, for whatever reason. While it's not specifically relevant to Xbox, it's indicative of a bigger area of company-wide neglect that is affecting Xbox, in a world where virtually all core gamers have moved their friends lists to Discord.
The glacial pace of updates to these services, however, has left the goal wide open for Discord to score.
Discord has utterly replaced Skype for me, and millions of other gamers. Discord's chat and voice services are faster than Skype, often better quality than Skype, and its focus on community-building tools has left Skype in the dirt, which seems more interested in creating shallow copies of Snapchat's features than improving the quality of life of its remaining userbase. Watching Skype's tires spin in the mud has been a tad frustrating, but not as frustrating as watching Microsoft squander another opportunity it had when it first added Xbox integration to Windows 10.
I recall in the early days of the Xbox app getting voice-enabled party chat on Windows 10. For a brief window of time, it seemed like Microsoft might have been pushing Xbox Live as an alternative voice and social network for gamers. The services there are complete with integration for PC games, sharing of screenshots and clips natively on Windows 10, and beyond. The glacial pace of updates to these services, however, has left the goal wide open for Discord to score, and score repeatedly.
Discord is now the global gamer friends list
We've seen some evidence that Microsoft was concepting more Discord-like features to Xbox Clubs, but they have yet to materialize. Regardless of interface tweaks, there are systemic issues surrounding Xbox Live that will need to be addressed if Microsoft actually wants Xbox Clubs to be anything more than a vanity feature nobody really uses in the real world.
Not only does Discord now do voice chat (arguably better than Xbox Live), it also leaves Microsoft's own tools for building communities languishing in the dust. Xbox Clubs are slow to load on every platform, clunky to use, and have nowhere near as many customization features that Discord has. Even basics like sharing images, gifs, or adding custom emojis are features that are likely to never hit Xbox Live, as Microsoft struggles to decide what kind of social network it wants Xbox Live to be. Aggressive safety policies to protect youngsters are great, but by denying adults the freedom to share content they choose to share, it only adds to Discord's allure.
With Discord actively exploring selling games now, any hopes Xbox had of getting a big chunk of PC gamers to use its services for anything other than an annoying DRM hoop on Microsoft Store games has arguably slipped away. Given how slow and restrictive Xbox Live messages and Clubs are, I have no doubt that Xbox console gamers would abandon those services too were Discord an option on their consoles. Microsoft just doesn't seem to get "social."
What should Microsoft do here?
In Skype and Xbox Live, Microsoft effectively has two different platforms it could use to allow users to create gamers within its network. Even GroupMe, the little-known messaging app Microsoft inexplicably owns and maintains, provides a better instant messaging experience than Xbox Live and Skype combined. Clearly, something needs to be done to get these systems operating under the same roof, rather than against each other.
Skype needs to get real and start integrating Xbox Live more directly. Why can't I get my Xbox Live messages through Skype, despite the fact they use the same Microsoft Account and authentication? Additionally, why can't I use Skype to make calls on Xbox Live without going through the painfully slow, universally reviled Skype Xbox app? It should be directly integrated into the OS, rather than separated out.
Why can't an app, based around communication, get something as basic as instant messaging right?
The Xbox apps for Android, iOS, and Windows 10 are slow, badly maintained, and unintuitive as community-building tools, which try to incorporate far too much into a single interface. Skype could be the place you use to interact with your Xbox Live messages and your Xbox Club communities, leaving the Xbox app to handle other things like game share clips, store purchases, and other features.
Microsoft generally needs to improve speed across all of its services. It takes far, far, FAR too long for me to receive my messages on Xbox Live, to the point where I don't even really bother checking them anymore. Skype too is so slow to open on Android when compared to Discord and other services, and the endlessly annoying spam of downloading messages it received from other platforms is a quirk that seems exclusive to Skype. This would be even more annoying if it had community-building features, since communities you were apart of would potentially receive hundreds of messages while you were offline. Why can't an app, based around communication, get something as basic as instant messaging right? It's maddening.
Can Microsoft get it right?
Clearly Microsoft cares about this stuff, since it uses engagement as the sole measure of Xbox's success. With more and more of that gamer engagement heading across to Discord, regardless of preferred platform, Microsoft has effectively surrendered a huge opportunity it had with Xbox Live and Skype to be a frontrunner in this space. There isn't a single star on Microsoft's own Mixer streaming platform that's using Xbox Clubs to build their communities — they're all using Discord.
Microsoft has neglected the basics — communication — for far too long.
I'm sure Discord will eventually sell itself to one of the big tech companies, as tends to be the case with start-ups like this. Microsoft can't afford to stand by in hopes of winning a bid, and complacently allow Discord to grow (and, actively contribute to its growth, considering Redmond uses Discord quite broadly across its various teams) while neglecting their own platform. What if Amazon wins Discord and integrates it more directly with Twitch? What if Google outbids and combines its community tools with YouTube? Either scenario would be devastating for Xbox Live and Mixer.
It's fine if Microsoft doesn't want to report Xbox console sales anymore, which trail behind PlayStation. But if you're living by engagement, you'll be dying by engagement, and Microsoft has neglected the basics — communication — for far too long.