Microsoft’s Xbox Live: the Family Labyrinth

Xbox Live gaming can be a blast. Getting it set up for the family can make a parent’s head explode.

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Texrat's Xbox Live profile

My two sons are huge Xbox fanatics.  If they had their way we would be a 24/7 Xbox 360 gaming household.

Me, not so much.  I love the games, especially team-based first person shooters, but I’m not able to use the controls well.  I’m a mouse and keyboard guy by nature.  Although I do find Kinect to be fun.

I like my sons to have fun doing the things they love so I created a family Xbox Live account a few years ago.  The purpose was to consolidate us onto the console as a family, with every member having their own sub-account (per Gamertag), and for me to have some control over what content was consumed.  For the most part I trust my sons though and my main intent was to manage the financial aspects.

But for this parent, the experience has been a nightmare.  Especially today.

I don’t care for the way Microsoft has implemented account management.  The problem starts with the fact that some management is performed on a website, and some on the console itself.  There are certain activities that can only be done on one or the other.  Why can’t I just manage everything from the cloud?  Make whatever changes I need there, and have them replicate to the console?  I don’t get on the 360 much so that would be my preference.

For instance, today I was setting up my seventeen-year-old son’s shiny new Nokia Lumia 900.  I didn’t know his live account email address offhand, and guess what: it’s not available at  Oh no.  I have to log into the Xbox 360 console to get it.

Navigating the console can be a pain.  For one, the main menu doesn’t wrap, which I keep forgetting.  So if you’re at the first (far left) screen, you have to scroll through several screens to the right to get to Settings.  That’s a UI fail.  Why can’t I scroll left and the menu just wrap around?

So, anyway, I get the email address but, lo and behold, even as the family account manager I can’t get my son’s password info there.  No, I have to go back to the website and search for how to do that, which by itself was frustrating because it took an excessive bit of hunting and reading.  To me this should be a simple process that doesn’t even require a search; there should be a plainly visible menu item to let me retrieve or reset the password from a Family account manager screen.  But there really isn’t much immediately available for Family account management; plenty for MY personal account, of course, but all I could dig up for my need this time was a link for resetting my son’s password and even that was difficult to discover.  But okay.  Their solution is to email a reset link to the main Live account, and that did the trick.

But I was lulled into a false sense of accomplishment.

After getting Daniel’s Lumia phone set up with his Xbox Live account, I thought I would treat him with some apps.  I clicked an advertised link on the phone to purchase Galaga Legions DX.  I was prompted to enter my credit card information, and then rewarded with a surprising message:

The Family Settings on your account won’t let you download or buy this item.


Okay, so maybe the fact that my son is seventeen is the issue, right?  Surely all I have to do is override the restriction, right?  Since I don’t know offhand how to do that, let’s search for a solution.  First I’ll try Google.  Entering the error as search criteria should pull up a FAQ, surely.  Or not:

No results found for “The Family Settings on your account won’t let you download or buy this item”.

That’s a fail.  Every single error message should be in a Microsoft (or Nokia) FAQ or knowledge base article, and should come up quickly in a search.  Well, maybe it’s a Google thing and I need to bring the Bing instead.  Whoohoo, three answers!  Let’s click on the first.  Ruh roh: the word “Vista” in the URL doesn’t instill confidence!  Neither does the text:

Family Safety provides a website and a free program that you install on the computers your kids use…

Another fail!  Let’s go back to the other…ummm… two results.  They’re both responses to a Yahoo Answers query, and the consensus isn’t encouraging.  Apparently even changing parental controls won’t resolve something like this.  And on Twitter I’m told I have to lie about Dan’s age.  Oh come on.  That can’t be true!  Back to the Xbox 360 console to see.

I logged back in and did the stupid Scroll All The Way to the Right Because the Menu Won’t Wrap finger dance.  Clicked on Family and selected my son’s account.  Oh look! a Grant Allowance option!

That had nothing to do with permissions– just an enticement to award him some points (which have to be purchased).  Thanks for the misleading menu item, Microsoft!  Let’s try something else: the Change Settings item on the menu screen to the right.  I had him set to a Custom configuration, so maybe that just needed to be modified again.  Sure enough, there’s a Purchase Content option.  Check that, and: set to Blocked?  I wouldn’t have blocked that.  Okay, maybe a default setting that I overlooked the last time I braved this thing.  So, change to Allowed and save.  Ah, now I get to enjoy the controller-driven virtual keyboard to enter my password.  I already logged in once– isn’t that good enough?

Guess not.  <sarcasm> Oh, how I love this keyboard </sarcasm>.  Well, at least it wraps.  If only it was more responsive.  Anyway, saved.

And greeted by a message saying the changes may take up to four hours to be available.


I’ll provide an update later on how that goes.

This whole ordeal is agonizing.  It’s designed for people who are FAR more patient and forgiving than my kids or I.  It’s an exercise in gleefully sadistic UI design.  And it goes beyond bad UI implementation; the whole Live experience is scattered across domains both hard and soft.  Why can’t Xbox management be more like Steam?  Which JUST WORKS.  And now Steam’s creator Valve says they’re getting into hardware design.  Just peripherals?  Or maybe PCs/Consoles???

Anyway today’s misadventure has just cemented my love/hate relationship with Microsoft and its products.  They create really great things and somehow manage to muck them up anyway.  The teeth-gritting part is that any thirteen-year-old could help them design better user experiences.

But they would probably need their parents’ permission.


UPDATE: Okay, all those contortions paid off.  We can now buy apps on Dan’s Lumia.  Note that the device had to be rebooted for the account changes to be recognized.

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