Four Out Of Five Stars: How User Ratings Will Boost Your Xbox Experience

The new Xbox rating feature, one of many Microsoft released today, won't win any sexy points. Games on Demand has the sizzle. Netflix "party watch" draws the "oohs and awes." And the Avatar Marketplace better enables self-expression.

But no other update is more important in helping you play more games than the easy-to-overlook user ratings, or as Microsoft calls them, Community Ratings.

"We're excited to bring this new functionality to Xbox," says Ben Smith, program manager of Xbox Live. "Now that all game content can be rated with a five-star system based on the collective vote of users, you can easily find great games and demos that you may have missed by sorting the 'Top Rated' section of the Games Marketplace."

For example, I'm a noob when it comes to knowing the best indie games to play. Upon browsing the "Top Rated" of both the Indie Games and Xbox Live Arcade sections, however, I quickly become informed, thanks to helpful Xbox owners willing to star their favorite games. At the time of writing, I see that CarneyVale Showtime, Miner Dig Deep, and Kodu Game Lab sit at the top-two of which I've never heard of (and I get paid to keep up with this stuff.)

Castle Crashers, Portal: Still Alive, and Battlefield 1943 currently lead the Arcade Section-the latter I'm also unfamiliar with. Out of said titles, Miner Dig Deep appeals the most to me, so I download. Easily worth the $2.

But what about bigger games and add-on stuff? User ratings help there too. "Every piece of content on Games Marketplace can now be rated using the 5-star system," says Smith. That includes Demos, Arcade and Indie Games, Videos, Games on Demand, and Add-ons among others. Additionally, disc-based games can also be rated.

The bigger categories provide fewer surprises. Bioshock, Halo, and Mass Effect-games which most handsome readers have already beaten-predictably lead the top rated Games on Demand section. Rock Band tracks dominate the top rated add-on content. And Xbox owners still love to watch Orange Box and Halo 3 videos-the latter of which makes sense, as Marketplace sorts it as the "best-selling" of any Xbox game.

But with a little digging, you'll soon reveal and handful of similarly rated games you may have snoozed on. And who doesn't like discovering new games, even if you're late to the party?

Four Out Of Five Stars: How User Ratings Will Boost Your Xbox Experience

What's more, user ratings are often more reliable than collective critical ratings, provided you have feedback numbering in the hundreds. As my demanding statistics professor once taught, a sample of 200 to 300 votes can accurately judge quality on behalf of the entire population, give or take a few rare exceptions.

The top rated Fallout 3, for example, has already been stared a whopping 40,000 times. Even Metacritic averages can't compete with that, making the Xbox community a more dependable critic, not to mention more convenient since the scores are baked into your console now.

Granted, user ratings are nothing new. Amazon has been doing them for years. But this is the first time they've come to aid of console players looking to separate the chaff from the wheat. Wii owners might quickly counter with, "Hey, we have recommendations too!" But that system is cluttered, tedious to sort, and in no way easy to read like the universally accepted stars found on Xbox. Conversely, PlayStation 3 has no rating system.

It's unclear how the rating system might evolve over time. For example, will Xbox owners be able to see friend ratings with similar tastes as opposed to the entire community? And Microsoft won't say how current ratings are calculated (all-time, last month previous year, etc). But when coupled with both Top Downloads (formerly Most Popular) and Best-Selling categories, Community Ratings are a powerful and pragmatic way to "zero in on great game content"-like the gamer gift that keeps on giving.

Microsoft is certainly hip to the idea. "There is something very social about being able to tell people what you like or see what other people recommended," Smith concludes. "User Ratings will help Xbox Live members find great games and fantastic add-ons more easily than they could previously-and that's what it's all about: making it quicker to have fun."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Blake Snow writes about video games and technology from Crecente's neighboring state of Utah. His curious work has appeared on MSNBC, the Wall Street Journal, and GamePro among others.