There was a time when playing a single-player game meant playing alone and playing a multiplayer game meant mandatory exposure to the (often annoying or offensive) thoughts of random players on the other end of Xbox Live. That time ended during the last console generation thanks to an Xbox Live feature that caused many to pick Xbox 360 over PlayStation 3 as their choice system for multiplatform games: party chat.

Fixing the problem

The introduction of party chat to the Xbox Live equation was a game changer. No longer did the desire to play an online multiplayer game mean that players would — almost without fail — be subjected to nonstop barrages of insults streaming into their ears from other players. No longer was getting into a game with friends and communicating with them while playing a hassle. No longer was it necessary to remember to inform friends how cool that single-player game you were playing was and why it was so cool after you played it. Up to seven of your friends were now right there with you in a party, and nobody else was getting in the door without you first putting their name on the guest list. You now had your own private party, and damn if it wasn’t fun.

So improved is the party chat experience over the only option that preceded it (chatting with random individuals) that I now refuse to play online multiplayer games without first entering into a private party. Even when no one on my friends list is available to play I still start my own private party, just to keep the cacophony of the internet’s worst amateur comedians and trash talkers out of my ears. The multiplayer experience is exponentially improved thanks to Xbox Live party chat, and, until very recently, no other home console has been able to compete with it.

The Wii lagged so far behind in this sort of functionality that it’s not even worth comparing it to Xbox Live. Nintendo’s online solution last generation showed how disinterested it was in providing an online solution at all; it implemented a system because it felt it had to, not because it had any interest in being known for having a great one. The PlayStation 3’s PlayStation Network, meanwhile, at least provided competent online functionality. The gap between the PS3 and Wii’s party chat features, however, was as wide as that between the PS3’s and the 360’s. Yes, you could chat with others on PS3, but you could not party up across multiple games like you could on the Xbox 360. It was a crucial oversight on Sony’s part, and one it was physically unable to do anything about for eight long years due to the design of the PS3.

As for Microsoft, the company has been obsessed with pushing online console gaming forward ever since it designed the original Xbox. For many, Xbox Live was the Xbox 360’s killer app out of the gate. It promised to do myriad things over the internet that no other gaming console had done, and one of them was party chat. While it’s true that the system had its issues (almost anyone who’s ever used it has been unceremoniously dropped from parties and had audio difficulties while in them), it’s impossible to question its claim to last generation’s online console gaming throne.

Breaking the solution

Titanfall Xbox One

That’s why it was so disheartening to learn that party chat hasn’t been working right for many Xbox One owners since launch day. Gamers have reported issues connecting with other players in a party as well as difficulties hosting and joining multiplayer games.

I ran into one of these problems myself when one of my roommates and I were unable to get into a co-op match of Dead Rising 3 together in the days following the Xbox One’s launch last November. Doing so on the Xbox 360 would have been easily and quickly accomplished with but a few obvious button presses. Playing a co-op game together with a friend in a party chat should be as simple or simpler on the Xbox One as it was on the Xbox 360. It isn’t, and last week’s Titanfall beta only made this issue more pronounced.

The beta was open to everyone with an Xbox One and an Xbox Live Gold subscription, and it seemed like pretty much everyone who fit those requirements took the invitation. Then they invited everyone else they knew to play with them. For almost anyone who accepted, the experience didn’t go so smoothly. The Xbox 360 got players used to the idea of jumping into a party with friends and immediately chatting with them and only them. Perplexingly, Microsoft complicated things on Xbox One by turning party chat off by default. It’s incomprehensible why anyone at Redmond ever thought this was a good idea. The result is that the uninformed are now shouting at no one but themselves in in-game chat while their better-informed friends are talking to each other in party chat, which took them an extra few button presses/Kinect commands to access.

Of course, that’s assuming party chat actually works for everyone… which it rarely does. Playing the Titanfall beta in a party of friends meant constantly asking questions like, “I can’t hear you guys, can you hear me?” and “I can hear you guys, can you hear me?” If you weren’t constantly jumping between party chat and in-game chat to try to find the solution that worked for the majority of your party members, then you probably weren’t playing the beta using the party system.

And that’s just part of the issue. Everything about getting into a party is more complicated on Xbox One than it was on Xbox 360. To find friends to party up with, you need to go home, select friends, select online friends, select a friend and then join their party. On Xbox 360 there was one step fewer, as you would hit the quick launch button, go to friends, select a friend and join his/her party.

Maybe your friends like you enough to send you a friend invite, though. That makes things a tad bit easier. Then all you have to do is hold in the Xbox guide button and accept the invite. Even this process has been needlessly complicated: in the past, you only had to hit the guide button; now, you have to hold it in. On the party annoyances scale, this one weighs in as the runt of the litter, but the fact remains that a once-simple action is now (slightly) more time consuming.

The fix is in

Xbox One Join Party

Getting into an Xbox One party so you can play and chat with those in the party is an arduous, convoluted mess, and Microsoft knows it. So much is riding on Titanfall — which features no gameplay mode other than online multiplayer — being a success and moving not just software but also hardware that Microsoft cannot afford to have a shoddy party system in place when the game releases on March 11. That’s why a mandatory system update is planned for March 4. If you could issue a Kinect command to your Xbox One to download the update, it would sound like this: “Xbox, party like it’s Xbox 360.”

Among other unannounced features, the update will bring faster access to the friends list, party chat turned on by default, the ability to chat with friends playing different games, an “Invite friends to game” option in multiplayer titles and the ability to view recent gamers. These are things we had on the Xbox 360 but lost on the Xbox One. For most of them, there is no logical reason for their exclusion in Microsoft’s next-gen console other than that the platform holder didn’t have enough time to get them in there for launch day.

But now the first “killer app” for the console is coming, and the party system needs to work — and work well. Judging from everything Microsoft has been saying about it, the improved system should do just that, but we won’t know for certain until it actually launches. Simple, working communications, party invites and cross-game/app chat are necessary and expected features in a next-gen console, and even Sony finally admitted as much by including them in the PlayStation 4. On launch day.

A working party system means not hearing random jackasses screaming into your ears. It means easily playing in the same games and on the same teams as your friends. It means letting everyone know that they need to haul ass over to Point C on the in-game map before the enemy team captures it. It means telling your friend playing some obscure indie game about the amazing things you’re doing in your AAA shooter — while you’re doing them. And it also means them telling you about the incredible atmosphere in the indie game they’re playing — while they’re experiencing it.

Microsoft had a party solution on Xbox 360. Then it broke it on Xbox One. Now it will try to fix it with an update, and it had better work. Rival Sony has already fixed its own party problems, and gamers have taken notice.