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Sony's most recent update to the PlayStation 3 firmware, version 3.00, has brought with it a little more controversy than anyone had expected. Coming in the week when the console notched up the highest point in its sales since launch, it's unlikely that this unrest has caused too many sleepless nights at the firm, but it's interesting to consider the source of the complaints.
A few minor issues regarding user interface aside, the primary source of the backlash was, perhaps, somewhat predictable. Many users don't like the new "What's New" panel which appears when you switch the console on - accusing it of being a platform for advertising rather than a useful addition to the system.
Sony refutes that viewpoint, arguing that the panel also gets you into games more quickly by offering hotlinks to recently accessed games on the hard drive. However, there's no doubt that What's New is, for the most part, designed to serve as an advertising platform.
So, do consumers have a point when they complain that this update has polluted their dashboard with adverts, eroding the sleek, minimalist aesthetic and functionality of the XMB interface in favour of the steady encroachment of adland? From a design standpoint, possibly. From a functionality standpoint, however, the PS3's dash is long overdue an advertising mechanism.
Regardless of your personal views of the console war, there's no doubt that one of the big winners in this generation has been downloadable content - in the form of game add-ons and small games on services like Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Store. Whether it's providing more content for blockbuster games, such as song packs for Rock Band or new areas and missions for Fallout 3, or encouraging creativity and risk-taking in development by providing a channel for the distribution of low-cost games like Braid and Flower, these services have provided new breadth and depth to the gaming market.
However, they suffer from a huge problem - visibility, or rather, the lack of it. XBL and PSN titles are locked away behind an icon on the dashboard, often buried several levels deep in a store interface which few users will peruse on a regular basis. Consumers who regularly read the gaming press will know which titles they're hunting for in these stores, but the average user will probably either ignore the store entirely, or only skim through it on a very infrequent basis.
Rockstar went for the obvious solution to this problem when it released expansion content for Grand Theft Auto IV - the publisher invested in a major TV advertising campaign, the first of its kind for a piece of Xbox Live content. This avenue, however, is only open to major publishers with high-profile content to push. Much of the point of XBL and PSN is the benefit it affords to smaller firms, for whom TV advertising is out of reach.
The obvious, logical solution to this is, of course, to create an affordable, tightly targeted advertising solution on the platform itself. Console dashboards need a way to put new releases and products of interest front and centre, where users will see them, rather than burying them in the store.