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Microsoft aims to make Xbox more family-friendly

New feature lets parents set a daily or weekly limit on how many hours children can use the game console.

Microsoft on Wednesday showed off a new Xbox feature that will allow parents to set the amount of time that kids can play games.

The move is part of the company's effort to broaden the reach of the Xbox 360 to include more families. The company also recently introduced a lower-priced Xbox 360 Arcade model that skips a hard drive, but includes a handful of casual games like Pac-Man and Uno. Microsoft is also working to expand its Viva Pinata title into a franchise of products aimed at younger kids.

"All of those things are starting to make Xbox a much broader gaming world than it was even six months ago," Robbie Bach, president of Microsoft's Entertainment and Devices unit said in an interview.

The move comes ahead of an important holiday selling season, with consoles from Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft all now in volume production. Nintendo's Wii has been the surprise hit, but Sony has dropped the price of the PlayStation 3 and Microsoft is and other titles to help boost its holiday sales.

Bach said the ability to set time limits on children's gaming should help parents feel more comfortable with having a game console in the house.

"At the same time, I think it does more than just make people feel good," Bach said. "I think when we talk to parents, when we talk to them about things that would matter to them as a purchase criteria, family settings in general certainly make the list, and time controls has been one of the things people have been talking about for a few years now."

The new feature, which will be available in a few weeks, is also designed to be easy for parents who may not be as technologically savvy as their game-playing offspring. "It's really, really easy," Bach said. "You go to family settings. You go to timer. You say daily or weekly. You pick a number of hours and you are done."

This is just one of a number of areas in which Microsoft is hoping to make the Xbox 360 attractive to a broader range of customers than its traditional base, which Bach noted tends to be older than those that use rival consoles, such as the Wii and the PlayStation 3. There's work that can be done in terms of game development, improvements to the console, additions to its Xbox Live online gaming as well as new types of peripherals.

Another thing Microsoft needs to do, Bach said, is find more ways to make the console cheaper to produce. "That's something we need to do over the life cycle to continue to make the business work," he said, "so, over time (we can) bring down prices."