Microsoft's latest overhaul of Xbox Live will give gamers more control over who they play with — as well as who they don't. The Cortana-powered Looking For Group and Club modes will make it easier to find people who are a good "cultural" match. Whether you hate homophobic and racist trash talk or would prefer to only play with your gender, Xbox Live has you covered. In short, you'll soon be able to erase the gamers you don't want to interact with forever.
With all the hoopla surrounding Xbox One S and Project Scorpio it was easy to forget Microsoft's other major announcement — namely, the drastic changes coming to Xbox Live. In a few months, three major new features will be incorporated into the existing service: Clubs, Looking for Group and Arena. The latter is an online tournaments platform geared towards competitive gamers but the first two have been designed to bring like-minded gamers together.
Clubs are user-run multiplayer hubs that allow any player to create private communities with people who have similar play styles, personal interests or values. In addition to being a lobby for specific games, each club also have a persistent real-time chat area that can be used with a range of tablets and mobile devices including Android and iOS.
Looking For Group, meanwhile, is the accompanying search tool that let's you connect with players or "clubs" that meet your specific criteria. This is achieved using a filter system that locates the type of people and clubs you're looking for via a process of elimination.
During E3, we were given a run-through of how these modes will work by Microsoft's program manager Jeff Henshaw. All three Xbox Live features can be accessed and navigated through Microsoft's voice-controlled digital assistant Cortana. Tellingly, you no longer need a Kinect to access voice commands; any wired or Bluetooth headset will do. Cortana allows the user to speak naturally and will also understand gamer tags and/or names when you're trying to connect with friends.
In the Looking For Group demonstration, Henshaw went into a game hub dedicated to Tom Clancy's The Division and gradually whittled down the available online players by applying different filters. These included everything from the game mode you want to play to cultural preferences such as the aforementioned 'No Trash-Talking'.
"We all know from personal experience that playing multiplayer is more fun when you actually enjoy the people you're playing with," Henshaw explained. "One really unique thing we're doing is letting gamers specify how they want to play. If you're not up for trash talking right now, you can join a group that's on the same page as you."
Once you've settled on a group, you simply request to join and the host pulls you straight into the game. In addition to ensuring you're playing with gamers you gel with, this can also be used for stuff like geographical region. We imagine this could be a very popular way to ensure nobody has an unfair advantage due to server issues. Clubs can be public or private, so it's easy to avoid requests from randoms if you'd prefer to make it invite only.
Once you've found a club you like, you can enable a Play Now feature which basically ensures your games can only be joined by members of your club. This essentially eliminates random match-making and ensures every player has the same interests and beliefs as you or plays the same way as you. It's no longer down to chance.
One of the clubs we were shown for The Division was simply entitled "Female Only". According to Henshaw, Clubs with very specific criteria such as this will largely rely on the information in gamer profiles to decide who is eligible. Plus, every club will have an owner or administrator so if an undesirable manages to bluff their way into a club, they can be immediately booted out.
"Ultimately, club membership is completely owner driven in terms of who is able to stay in the club and who's not. The owners and moderators get to enforce the culture they want to create. Their front door is about expressing: "hey, this is the kind of place this is. You're welcome to come in if you follow those rules."
According to the official spiel from Microsoft, these new features are supposed to bring gamers together rather than tear them apart. But we can see it turning into a massive shitstorm if it isn't executed properly. What happens when someone tries to make a "Whites Only" club, for instance? We asked Henshaw how Microsoft is planning to monitor and police this.
"I'm going to answer this very carefully because it's important that everyone understand. Our goal is to make Xbox Live a fun, safe, reliable place for everyone to play. The community is going to the the first line of enforcement. But that's not always enough. We understand and respect that. So when an issue needs to be escalated, Microsoft will continue to deploy Xbox Live's security and enforcement team when the community can't resolve something on its own. We have a standard of conduct for Xbox Live already and that standard of conduct will be applied to user-generated content as well. It has to be fun and safe for everyone."
In other words, Clubs fronted by obvious hate groups will certainly get the ban hammer but stances that are "greyer" might cause some problems. It's certainly an exciting addition to Xbox Live with loads and loads of potential. Hopefully the gaming community will be mature enough to use it in the way it was intended. Let us know what you think in the comments!
Chris Jager travelled to E3 as a guest of Microsoft.