Paul Fox of Microsoft Europe

Interview - we talk to Microsoft about the recent Xbox price cut and the console's future

While the long overdue arrival of the GameCube in Europe is the big news this week, the industry has also recently witnessed the rebirth of the Xbox, following a dramatic 100 price cut just six weeks after its relatively disappointing debut. European Xbox PR supremo Paul Fox wouldn't tell us how many Xboxes the company has sold in Europe so far, saying that "we typically don't provide sales breakdowns on a regional basis", but industry estimates suggest that less than 200,000 units were shifted in the console's first month on sale.

The Price Is Right

may05b

Halo - if you have an Xbox, you probably have a copy of this

Pricing was one of the biggest gripes that European gamers had about the console though, and thanks to Microsoft's decisive action that should no longer be an issue. Of course, the million dollar question is why was the European price set so high in the first place, when almost everybody was telling Microsoft that it needed to be cheaper to compete with the PlayStation 2.

"There were additional costs, such as shipping and taxes, that were reflected in the price", according to Paul, who believes that even at 300 the Xbox "represented tremendous value" at launch. "In head-to-head comparisons Xbox is clearly the choice for the best gaming experience, and advanced features such as the Nvidia graphics card, online readiness out of the box, and the in-built hard drive meant that 479/299 was an extremely competitive price for Xbox to launch with."

"We priced Xbox to launch at the same price as other premium consoles that have launched in the past, in fact at a price comparable to PS2. This worked well in some European countries - there are many thousands of consumers who felt 299/479 was great value - but in other countries we recognised that price was becoming a hurdle for some. The price change allows more people to enjoy the Xbox experience, and as part of our long term strategy to grow the installed base this is the right thing to do. As we've said in the past this is a marathon, not a sprint. We've made a substantial investment from a hardware standpoint for the long term, and we're already seeing the results of our effort in tremendous game quality and subsequent game sales. The attach rate for Xbox is the highest of any next generation game console in its launch period - a very positive indicator."

Premium Gaming

apr02b

Enclave - a European-developed Xbox actioneer due out later this year

Although the attach rate is certainly impressive, there has been some grumbling about the comparatively high price of Xbox games in Europe. "There's no change in pricing for games, our pricing represents fantastic value for the gamer", Paul insisted, before going off on a tangent about how great the Xbox's launch line-up was, something we wouldn't argue with.

But despite Paul's claim that the Xbox arrived on our shores with titles in "all of the key European genres", one thing was notably lacking from the launch line-up - a football game. The good news then is that April 26th saw not only a price cut, but also the arrival of Championship Manager and 2002 FIFA World Cup on the Xbox. It's been described by many commentators, ourselves included, as a second launch for the console, but Paul didn't see it that way. "This is not so much a second launch as the shape of things to come. We have an incredibly strong line-up of games which will keep gamers excited and interested in the gameplay that is only possible to achieve with the Xbox."

"Microsoft has a long history of providing great products that address Europeans' specific needs - we have Europeans running the European subsidiaries and making the critical decisions in Europe. Many of our publishing and development partners - like Peter Molyneux's Lionhead Studios, Infogrames and Codemasters - are based in Europe, and we think Xbox will again demonstrate our commitment to giving European gamers better games than they've seen on any other console to date."

Free For All

04b

Rallisport Challenge - the real jewel in the Xbox's crown, it should be the first game on your list if you're claiming your free games and don't already have a copy

Punters who had already bought an Xbox at 299 were no doubt feeling a bit miffed about seeing the console's price plummet by a third just a few weeks after it launched. Luckily then Microsoft are offering to give anyone who bought an Xbox at the higher price a free controller and a couple of games. The catch is that the list of games from which you can choose only includes first party titles.

"This offer is for first party games only", Paul admitted. "But with such a strong line-up of games for people to choose from, we're sure that everyone will be happy. Titles such as Halo, Dead Or Alive 3, Munch's Oddysee, Amped and Project Gotham Racing offer the best in videogaming experience."

While there are certainly some gems amongst the first party launch line-up, the high attach rate means that many Xbox owners already have some or all of the best titles. Microsoft have added a couple of new games to the deal since the provisional list was first posted, but from what we've heard neither Azurik nor NBA Inside Drive is exactly a must-have title, and it would have been nice to see a few of the better third party games included in the offer. Still, if you bought an Xbox at launch and haven't got the likes of Rallisport and Project Gotham yet, this is a great way to expand your game collection.

The Future

feb02b

Championship Manager - not exactly pushing the hardware to its limits, but it's one of the most popular Xbox games in Europe at the moment

The good news for Microsoft is that the price cut may have given the Xbox a second lease of life in Europe. The latest UK sales report shows Halo leaping 13 places up the all formats chart to number five, just short of where it debuted back in mid-March, while the newly released Xbox versions of 2002 FIFA World Cup and Championship Manager have also performed strongly.

The real crunch will come at Christmas though, as all three consoles - PS2, GameCube and Xbox - go head to head in Europe for the first time. "Christmas is obviously a crucial selling time for the whole industry and we are really looking forward to our first one in Europe. This is a really important time for us, and we believe we will have the software to make this Christmas very special - we will be announcing more games very soon."

Something else we can expect an announcement on soon is the Xbox's much vaunted online support. Paul confirmed that "we will be making some announcements at E3 about our online plans", but the real question is how soon those plans will extend to Europe, where broadband take-up has traditionally lagged behind. Unfortunately all we could get out of Paul was a recognition of the problem. "We totally recognise that the online infrastructure varies around the world, but also know that broadband is currently the only technology that will successfully deliver a quality online gaming experience". So in the meantime all we can do is "stay tuned for further European announcements".

Conclusion

It's certainly been a dramatic debut for Microsoft's console in Europe, but with a more reasonable price point, a rapidly growing software catalogue, and promising exclusives such as Deathrow, Enclave, Midtown Madness 3 and Unreal Championship in the pipeline, the Xbox's future on this side of the pond is looking rosier than it was just a few weeks ago. "Feedback [to the price cut] has been incredibly positive across the board", according to Paul, who is confident that "this is absolutely the right decision and benefits the whole industry, not just the gamers".

Obviously the gamers are the big winners though, as Europeans now have a choice of three next-gen consoles, all of them costing under 200 / 300, and all of them with a great line-up of software on the horizon. Cue chorus of "you've never had it so good".

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