Microsoft fired the first shot of E3 2008 today, kicking off the annual trade show with a morning press conference chock full of impressive results and lofty goals. As the console manufacturers always do, Microsoft opened its event with some serious feather puffing, touting its install base of 10.5 million Xbox 360s and claiming in no uncertain terms that the “Xbox 360 will sell more consoles this generation than PlayStation 3.”
This brash but most likely true statement from Dan Mattrick opened up a can of worms that Microsoft only partially closed. The biggest question comes from Mattrick’s own term, “this generation.” Microsoft ushered in the current generation of consoles when it launched the Xbox 360 one year before the PS3 or Wii, giving the company a head start on its competition. If Microsoft follows suit with the next Xbox, launching before the Wii’s successor and the PlayStation 4, Microsoft will surely declare the end of the current generation, thus letting it announce the “final results” at a time of its choosing.
Yet even as Microsoft puffed its install-based chest, today’s press conference raised a variety of short-term questions, primarily related to the company’s strategy to bolster its lead over the PS3. If Microsoft’s Mattrick is to be believed, “Xbox delivers for everyone,” and the company’s introduction of a Netflix partnership, Xbox Live Primetime and new games such as You’re In The Movies and Uno Rush will make the Xbox 360 the console of choice for mainstream consumers.
Not so fast, Microsoft.
The Xbox 360 manufacturer has the largest current-gen install base in North America, and the “casual games” on Xbox Live Arcade have stumbled into more successful results than even Microsoft had likely anticipated. Unveiling a SingStar-like game called Lips, even if it does support music imports from a Zune or iPod, doesn’t mean mommy bloggers and “everyman” gamers are going to flock to the Xbox 360. Just because “1 vs. 100” will provide a sweet MMO-like game show experience doesn’t mean the millions-plus people who watch “1 vs. 100” on NBC will swarm Game Crazy or GameStop looking for the new 60GB Xbox 360. And introducing the Mii-like “Avatars” doesn’t make the Xbox 360 the new Wii, no matter how much investors might want it to.
Microsoft obviously feels confident in its “core gamer” audience; why else would the company basically eschew “traditional” games at its E3 press conference in favor of Xbox Live updates and content-partnership announcements? New deals with NBC-Universal and Netflix are intriguing from a digital-distribution angle, and they’re a great bonus for those Xbox 360 owners who have accounted for 80% of all console-based microtransactions. But will the availability of The Bourne Supremacy or Heroes be enough to compel “mainstream” consumers to plunk down cash on a 360? Will a new version of UNO actually push Jane Q. Public to buy a 360 for her family? Can the untested Lips, even with its glowing wireless microphone and built-in clap/impact sensors, sway a karaoke nut from going instead with the PS3 (or even PS2) and the tried-and-true SingStar?
The steps to mainstream adoption are far steeper than Microsoft would ever admit, even if its research and development team seems to do all the right things. Nintendo struck gold with the Wii, which combined a low price point, a radically new experience and the insane luck of hitting the market when general consumers were looking for the next Tickle Me Elmo. The Sixaxis didn’t have nearly the same impact with the PS3, even though the technology was essentially similar. While Microsoft and Sony battled for the core gamer, Nintendo went on its own path, one aimed directly at non gamers. Microsoft did well on its side, while Nintendo did very well on its. To declare “today, our industry is for everyone” begs the question “just whose industry are you talking about?”
Nintendo has a stranglehold on the so-called “casual” market, and it’s not likely to give it up. Nintendo is basically the Apple of the videogame industry, in more ways than one, and it’s futile to try and take them on. Microsoft was impressively bold at its press conference, showing an attitude that had disappeared since the red ring of death fiasco hit full swing. To be perfectly blunt, it was nice to see. What was troubling, however, was to see Microsoft gloss over its bread and butter — the “hardcore gamer” — and turn its sights so brightly on mainstream Americans.
The Xbox 360 has made serious strides toward mainstream adoption, particularly compared to the original Xbox, but if you’re picking up your child from daycare and mention videogames to a fellow parent, the Wii is likely the console that comes first to mind. That’s not good or bad — unless you’re trying to muscle your way into the Wii’s space, in which case it’s quite unfortunate.
Microsoft has the premier online service in Xbox Live, and it has the best lineup of content partners for digitally distributed content. But the “mainstream consumers” Microsoft wants don’t necessarily play online, and they’re more content renting DVDs the traditional way than they are downloading them for 24-hour periods. Will that change from this generation to the next? It very well could; look how forward-thinking Xbox Live was in the last generation compared to this, and how successful it’s been on the 360.
Microsoft, as it always seems to do, is plowing ahead toward its next objective, and it’s forcing the first few steps, even if they seem premature. In this generation, Mattrick is likely right: the Xbox 360 could very well sell more consoles than the PS3. But will the Xbox 360 achieve that and carve a special place in mainstream consumers’ hearts? In this generation, with the Wii doing as well as it is, that doesn’t seem likely. What do you think?
— Jonas Allen