New Xbox Experience Due November 19

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At the Tokyo Game Show 2008 this week, Microsoft officially lifted the veil on its New Xbox Experience, a new version of the Xbox 360 Dashboard that integrates social features—like a “Live Party” amongst up to eight friends and customizable gamer avatars—along with community-developed games. And the update will be free to Xbox 360 owners beginning November 19.

“Our industry is defining the future of entertainment,” said Microsoft’s John Schappert, in a statement. “When the New Xbox Experience launches in just six weeks, we will be inviting the whole world to play.”

Perhaps the most-hyped feature of the New Xbox Experience is what Microsoft is calling “Personality plus” and what the news media seems to believe constitutes a virtual world for Xbox 360 gamers to compete with the likes of the forthcoming PlayStation Home. The new feature lets players create a customized, animated avatar that represents a player and their personality in a selection of Xbox Live features, including the new Live Party, but also talking with friends. However, the system is not a virtual world per se: as yet, there is no “world” to navigate and explore, with (say) public areas, private avatar residences, landscape and environments…however, that would be a logical next step for the service. It would also make sense that Microsoft would want to monetize and amp up avatar offerings. If there’s one thing environments like Second Life have proven it’s that people will spend real money to pimp up their avatars: expect Microsoft to capitalize on that with gamer badges, trophies, achievements earned through specific games, and (quite possibly) exclusive avatar add-ons that players can win…or buy.

The New Xbox Experience avatar creation tools are surprisingly deep, although the results are probably a little more cartoony than hard-core action gamers might like. However, anyone familiar with Nintendo’s Mii avatars may be thrilled with all the extra options.

Also in the New Xbox Experience will be Xbox Live Party, a feature that effectively enables players to create an eight-person avatar “party” using their Xbox 360 consoles. Party invitees can chat, play games, share photos, and generally hang out. Players don’t have to be in the same game to be in the same party: users can join a party to go into a multiplayer game, or hang out on a party channel while playing casual games or pursuing different activities. Voice and text chat between attendees is always available, along with player profiles and other information.

Microsoft is also announcing new holiday-aimed Xbox 360 bundles, rolling Sega Superstars Tennis and five Xbox LIVE Arcade games into the the $199.99 Xbox 360 Arcade, and Lego Indiana Jones and Kung Fu Panda with the $299.99 Xbox 360 and $399.99 Xbox 360 consoles at no extra cost.

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