Xbox SmartGlass and Forza Horizon: Cool Tech, When It Works

Forza Horizon logoBack in November 2012, Forza Horizon was one of the first games to get support for Xbox SmartGlass. If you’re unaware, Xbox SmartGlass is Microsoft’s “second-screen” technology for users to enhance their Xbox experience via a tablet. It’s cool stuff that I briefly talked about back in November when it first came out.

Forza Horizon is one of the seven currently-released games for Xbox 360 that actually supports SmartGlass – and the only one that I own – so I was excited to give it a try the other day. Its big feature in the game is to offload the map to your tablet, making it a little easier to navigate the game’s big open world. In my limited testing so far, this definitely falls into the camp of a promising technology that just doesn’t nail the execution.

Getting connected

I could have almost predicted that it wouldn’t just immediately pop open and work. I’ve got an iPad (3rd gen), and getting it connected to my Xbox 360 just feels like something that would be sketchy. And it was. I had a lot of trouble getting Forza Horizon to recognize that I had a SmartGlass device attached – it just sat on the “Start driving to activate GPS” screen for quite a while.

Here’s my first beef with the Xbox SmartGlass app: it’s not good that it doesn’t immediately connect when I have Forza Horizon open, it’s even worse that the app doesn’t give you good feedback on what the problem might be. This is the screen that appears when you fire up the Forza Horizon Xbox SmartGlass Experience:

Forza Horizon's Xbox SmartGlass wait screen

 

The thing is, you get this same screen regardless of what the state of your system is –  even if your Xbox is off. I spent quite a while playing Forza Horizon with this screen open not realizing that my iPad just wasn’t “connected” to my Xbox. I started up the iPad app before turning on my Xbox, so it never actually connected. The iPad SmartGlass app knows this – I would have appreciated a message telling me so. “Start driving” doesn’t help.

And the last time I tried to test this out, it just refused to connect. No amount of restarting devices and re-connecting connections made any difference. I have no idea what happened there. Does this work better on Android tablets or on Windows 8 devices? I’m sure hoping it does.

When it works

Okay, so assuming you get your tablet connected to your Xbox, what does SmartGlass do for you? It turns your tablet into a map of the Forza Horizon world. This is actually really cool. I complain a lot here on the site about accessing game maps, and I absolutely love the idea of being able to separate out the map from the game screen. It does force you to take your eyes off the road so to speak, but more often than not it’s the sort of thing where you’d pick a new destination only when you’re already stopped. Like immediately after you finish a race, that’s when you want to pick a new destination.

A view of the map in Forza Horizon via Xbox SmartGlass

What’s more, a touchscreen tablet is a way better interface for maps than is an Xbox controller. One of the most impressive apps to come with the original iPad was definitely Google Maps. Using touch controls on a map is really satisfying, especially when compared with a thumbstick.

A view of the map in Forza Horizon via Xbox SmartGlass

Sadly, tapping “Set Route” doesn’t seem to do anything for me.

But once again, this experience still wasn’t flawless. The map is supposed to show you all the races that are available, and let you set a destination right from your SmartGlass device. In my testing, despite the filters being set correctly, none of the landmarks ever showed up. And while it looked like I could set a destination, it never made it over to my Xbox. So that’s pretty much the entire point of the entire integration, and it just didn’t work for me, which is unfortunate.

For the record, this random YouTube video does show the functionality actually working for an iPad user, so it must be something with my setup. I have no idea how to troubleshoot a problem like this though.

 

Conclusion

From a UX perspective, I fully believe that Xbox SmartGlass-like applications could be a huge benefit to gamers, if used appropriately. What if in LA Noire, your casebook was actually on your tablet instead of something you constantly had to swap to on the screen? That would be awesome. But in a Call of Duty-style FPS, I’m not sure if there’s anything that gamers would actually take their eyes off the screen long enough to read, and it probably would cause a competitive balance problem anyway. Halo 4 uses SmartGlass to display stats about your character, which seems reasonable.

Much like the promise of the Wii U’s tablet controller, when used appropriately, there’s a lot to be gained here. Merits of the Wii U’s controller (and the Wii U itself) aside, it at least functions consistently, which is more than I can say for the Xbox SmartGlass app on my iPad. I hope Microsoft gets this worked out and developers actually take advantage of what could be a really cool add-on.

So what do you think? Is there any second-screen functionality that you could put in an FPS that would actually work? Maybe a leaderboard I suppose? Lets discuss in the comments!

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