Yesterday, Microsoft announced that party chat, previously only available to members of Xbox Live Gold, will soon be free to all Xbox players. The company revealed the news in a tweet with phrases like “Alpha,” “Alpha Skip-Ahead,” and “flighting.” Meanwhile, an accompanying blog post featured a string of numbers: 2104-210323-0000. What the hell does all that stuff mean?
The short version is that it’s all a bunch of references to the ongoing Xbox Insider program, which allows Xbox users to test-drive upcoming features before they’re made available to the wider population. Earlier this month, for instance, the program allowed some members to suspend games while other games are downloading, which can significantly increase download speeds. In some cases, members can even preview upcoming games.
That’s not all. In January, Microsoft announced (as part of an about-face on a proposed, drastic Xbox Live rate increase) that sometime this year Xbox Live Gold membership will no longer be necessary to play free-to-play games, reversing a years-long precedent.
This latest Xbox Insider rollout starts the ball rolling, lifting that restriction for players in the Alpha and “Alpha Skip-Ahead” tiers of the program. Soon enough, Beta- and lower-tier members will also be able to play Fortnite, a free-to-play game, without paying money for a monthly Xbox Live Gold subscription. Microsoft still hasn’t said when that change will roll out to the general playerbase.
OK, I’m into it. How do I sign up?
Easy: Turn on your Xbox. Go to the Store. Open up the search function and punch in “insider”. Download the Xbox Insider Bundle app, boot it up, and then click on the “join” button. (It’s the only one.) That’s it. You’re in!
So, how’s this work?
Xbox Insider offers benefits based on a tier system. There are five tiers, three of which you can actually attain:
- Omega: This is the starter tier. You’ll receive updates just before they go live to the general playerbase — still early access, but without the bragging rights and shiny VIP veneer.
- Delta: Once you’ve been part of the program for at least a month, you’ll be eligible to hit Delta tier, provided you’ve also hit Xbox Insider XP level two. (Yes, like a video game, Xbox Insider has levels. I agree. It is annoying.) You’re guaranteed to receive updates before the general playerbase. In some cases, when updates require extra testing, you might get them before the folks in the Alpha and Beta tiers. Fancy.
- Beta: If you’ve been in the Xbox Insider program for three months and have hit level five, you’ll be eligible for Beta tier. These folks get access to updates shortly after those in the Alpha tier.
The Alpha and ultra-exclusive Alpha Skip-Ahead tiers are invite-only. Don’t sweat those.
You won’t automatically jump between tiers when you unlock them. Once you’ve attained a new tier, go to the “Previews” tab, click on “Xbox Update Preview,” open the “info” submenu, and click on “Manage.” That should pull up a list of all the tiers you’ve unlocked. (Side note: This method is also how you opt out of the program. Just go through those steps and click “leave preview”.)
One more thing: You don’t have to start from scratch if you switch consoles. Like Xbox save data, Xbox Insider status will follow your account. Once you open the app on your new machine, you’ll have access to everything you had access to on your old machine.
Why wouldn’t I just automatically level up?
Vaunted tiers offer early access to new features, which is super cool, but those features have generally gone through less testing at that point and thus run a higher risk of bugs. By giving you the option to switch tiers, you’ll have control over your risk of running into bugs or experiencing Xbox features in an unfinished state.
How do I level up?
In the Xbox Insider app, navigate to the “Activities” tab. You’ll see a series of short surveys, each of which will give you a chunk of XP for answering multiple-choice questions. One of those activities is the “weekly pulse,” which requires answering a serious brain-twister. This week’s? “When’s the last time you filed a bug report?” That’s an easy 5 XP.
You even get experience points by completing the tutorial, which is called — I shit you not — “My First Quest.” It consists of two questions. You’ll get 10 XP for sitting through it, a task that’ll take you all of 17 seconds.
It takes 20 XP to hit level two. Delta rank, here I come!
Yeah, yeah, good for you. How much will this cost me?
Zero dollars. C’mon, you’re essentially focus-testing product updates for Microsoft, and that’s to say nothing of the sheer data you’re handing over with every completed questionnaire. If anything, you should be getting paid.
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