27 Jan The Rise and Fall of XMB
Category: Interface Design, News

When Sony presented its “Next Generation Portable” device (which I’ll refer to as ‘PSP2′ for the rest of the post) and other plans for portable gaming yesterday, they proudly started their presentation with a bold slide: (images courtesy of Engadget)

Now, when Sony does a bold claim like this, I get very excited. The interface they introduced in 2003 with the mediocre “PSX” product and later used as the main UI for their flagship consoles like the PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Portable was known as the “XrossMediaBar“, and despite its awkward — ‘X-treme marketing’ — name, it was (and still is) an amazing piece of work. In fact, Sony managed to innovate in the stale and extremely unfriendly gaming console interface and create something that was devoid of useless flashy crap, extremely scalable, discoverable, elegant and intuitive.

That’s why it’s no surprise that Sony has decided to outright kill the XMB in its PSP2 console and replace it with an absolute train-wreck UI that shows they lost all sense of what a good interface looks like.

What prompted Sony to kill its primary user interface, which won awards and got major praise? Some people may say that the almost childish, late-nineties ‘bubble icon’ look they have going on in the new interface (marketing-named “LiveArea”) is key to be friendlier for the touch-based interactions the new device will have. However, the Xross Media Bar was easily adjustable for touch, and even while I’d admit there’s a great argument to design a new interface around touch (after all, XMB was specifically optimized for the PlayStation controller input), departing from all of XMB’s core values is hard to justify. We can say LiveArea wasn’t made the way it is purely for making touch input easier.

However, let’s take a look at the competition Sony is facing.

The 3DS, set to release early this year, with Nintendo’s typical interface aesthetic.

… and of course iOS, the touch-based elephant in the room. Apple’s begun marketing the iPod touch as a gaming device and now has several “triple A” titles in the App Store (their actual gameplay quality remains up for debate).

(iPhone photo by Anthony Sigalas)

Ah, now we see why Sony pressured several of its (no doubt talented) interaction and visual designers to disregard their feelings and years of experience to create a saltless and hideous “me-too” interface. Sony is afraid that its sterile and modern aesthetic actually scared off potential customers, particularly the more casual gamers. I have no doubt that there may be some truth in that (I suppose Android 3.0 for tablets will be a good test of that, with its extremely geek-techy look), but to say “LiveArea” is the solution…

Actual usage of LiveArea will show how much of a failure it actually is. But for now, I mourn the loss of the mindset at Sony that led to innovations in interface design which enabled millions of users to get more out of their feature-rich consoles. To decide your interfaces shouldn’t necessarily ape those of your competitors takes balls, and I’m afraid Sony’s put all of those in LiveArea — in the wrong way.

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19 Responses

  1. 1
    S 

    couldn’t agree more. livearea is a horrid failure.

  2. 2
    mvit 

    Although the UI fails, I can say, its usability is amazing, think about this, its two analog sticks, each one gets a set of 6 bubbles, making the bubble selection easy, now, my only complain about the PSP2 is the fall of the UMD, it makes me sad because in the country I live in, the internet speeds suck, with the maximum being 4MB, while most of the PSP games usually weigh about 2GB or more.

  3. 3
    Chris 

    No way, the icons look like bubbles! People love bubbles, right?! Riiight?

  4. 4
    Cobalt 

    “several “triple A” titles in the App Store (their actual gameplay quality remains up for debate).”

    I guess they are good for casual gamers. Still haven’t found any single great game though. I read somewhere that Sony changed from “Look what we’ve invented” murmur “We can do that, too.” I find that sad and true.

  5. The XMB is very, very solid for the most part, but struggled horrifically with buddy list management (maxed at 50, scrolling endlessly). Failure to use grouping on your PSN downloads, music and videos also creates an endless stream of scrolling as well. Other than that (Along with a few minor nitpicks), it’s pretty good.

    I’m not sure what the hell this is though. It’s sobering, despite the NGP making me actually want to get into dedicated portable gaming for the first time since the Game Boy Advance. Blah.

  6. 6
    Mike 

    Sony jumped the shark a long time ago. I don’t mourn their passing. It seems every decision in the past 3 or 4 years has been made by progressively smaller and smaller minds.

  7. I too agree. I can see what they might have been going for, with perhaps larger and more well-defined hit regions for the individual buttons, but as fas as style goes, absolutely terrible. And in terms of scalability, this doesn’t look much better than the XMB- are those iPhone-esque paging dots I see on the left side of the screen? It’s just gonna be page after page of bubbles (granted, iOS is page after page of squares, but at least those can now be organized into folders). I also think the trend of lately of designing iOS icons to actually match the square boundaries of the icon really helps them stand out and convey their message- something that probably isn’t as easy to do with circles, and will result in a lot of regular icons just being slapped into the ‘bubble’ (it looks like they’ve already done that with a few).

    In any event, redesign contest, anyone? ;)

  8. There’s no denying that the new interface is terrible and that the XMB was awesome, but at the end of the day, it just doesn’t affect me. There’s so much functionality added to the PSP through hacking that I wouldn’t dream of buying a new model until said model is completely open for me to fiddle with. At that point, a smart modder will have replaced this horrid UI with either an XMB clone or something better. In my opinion, there’s still hope.

  9. 9
    toastr 

    Bubbles? Really? It isn’t 1998 anymore Sony.

    And I agree, XMB could be scaled to work on a touch screen, while still being “user friendly”.

  10. 10
    Mikey 

    Although much of this is personal preference, we need to consider who Sony is designing for. It isn’t accomplished UI experts or iconographers. Although they are certainly following here and not leading, I would imagine they’re going for a wider audience who are looking at colourful things, in consistent shapes, and they’re getting into the touch interface field too. Colour is sexy. Tell me the OS X dock zoomy, slurpy effects and insane reflections are purely for usability and I’ll have a good laugh :)

    Let’s think about the XMB. It’s great for a controller, you can quickly jump through the icons to reveal their names… but with touch, you don’t have a “hover” or “pre-select” state as you do with a controller. The XMB works well with a controller, as it takes advantage of the four D-pad directions. When you change that to touch, it becomes restrictive. With touch, you have an entire surface to play with, at once, at any time. You shouldn’t have to shuffle through hidden menus and sub-menus. With touch, restricting the UI to an area the size of the XMB is wasteful.

    Perhaps you might dislike Sony’s bubble aesthetics, or the shades of the WinMo 6.5 “honeycomb” layout. But that’s personal preference. For touch, more use of space is better. Like it or not, Apple are leading the way here and others are following. I’d love for Sony to innovate too… and I reckon if they had all the time and resources in the world they would. I’d imagine they’re under a fairly tight schedule and budget. That tends to restrict much of what can be achieved. For what I reckon was a design brief to make a colourful, extensible and touch friendly interface… well… that seems to be what they’ve come up with isn’t it?

  11. 11
    Kostas 

    Ouch, LiveArea hurts my eyes.

  12. LiveArea does seem like an amateurish, ugly disaster of a UI, but I have to respectfully disagree with the opinion that Sony’s XMB interface was any good.

    Sure, XMB has a clean, minimal aesthetic, but other than that, it’s a nightmare. The UI is really nothing more than a glorified series of overlong lists, with little sense of hierarchy or organic organization. Text is generally tiny and hard to read from one’s couch. XMB makes it feel as if the system has been chopped into hopelessly tiny pieces.

    I could go on about the seemingly thousands of other UI problems on the PS3, but when you look at what’s been done with Xbox 360, XMB feels like a UI afterthought with some nice icons attached.

  13. 13
    Interwebs 

    I was really disappointed when I saw the PSP2 UI, looks like a cheap no-name digital camera UI.

    I actually only got a PSP 1 towards the end of last year, and the XMB still looked fresh when I used it. The design hasn’t dated at all and only needs a few small tweaks until it is perfect.

    No idea why the thing has two touch screens either, surely it’s too huge to hold comfortably with one hand.

  14. 14
    Nick 

    Sony just don’t have a clue. As far as I can see they operate either in reaction to competitors or out of misguided attempts to drive technology adoption. The PS3′s XMB looks elegant, but the PS3 in general is a user-unfriendly nightmare.

  15. 15
    Johnno 

    I muhc prefer the XMB. Never had any issues. It was intuitive and easy. Love it on PSP and on PS3. Even the new Xbox interface is basically a colourful copy of Sony’s XMB compared to the mess it was with the blades.

    I’m more for the minimilistic elegance of the XMB. Though I understand that they will want to make a touch interface, and the XMB won’t wor with touch. That said, their current mock-up looks terrible. Surely they can design it better with better aesthetics. Or why not allow users to customize their interface? They can probably have the touch bubble interface as the default but allow users to switch to a dpad controlled XMB if they choose.

    Apple’s and Nintendo’s interface looks great on iPhone/Pad and 3DS. NGP’s simply doesn’t. The circle bubble things just look amateurish and the colour scheme is ghastly. I’m sure this is just a mock up they tossed together, but man is it ugly! If they’re going to imitate their competitors, then at least imitate them correctly. Use blocks instead of circles. It’s easier to organize and matches your machine. Choose a more monochromatic colour scheme for your background, interface and icons. I dearly hope this changes a lot for the better when we see it again, either at GDC or at E3.

  16. 16
    Hamranhansenhansen 

    It seems like everyone but Apple is stuck in the 20th century, trying to cater to nerds, who now only make up a tiny minority of the tech user base. I thought Mac OS X was too nerdy at first, but then it turned out to be the development platform for iOS (including music and movie development) and then it all made sense. Other manufacturers are still making stuff that is more complicated than Mac OS X, let alone even beginning to match the simplicity of iOS. Honeycomb might as well be a Rubik’s Cube. Who wants to use that? Sergey Brin?

  1. [...] Sebastiaan de With sums it up eloquently on his blog here [...]

  2. [...] January 31, 2011 | Author: Mike | Filed under: News | Tags: ngp, sony, xmb | Leave a comment » Sony’s new user interface for its NGP handheld looks like a car-crash. The old XMB was clear, simple and easy to [...]

  3. [...] Sony’s new user interface for its NGP handheld looks like a car-crash. The old XMB was clear, simple and easy to navigate. [...]

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