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The first true price-cut of the new generation of consoles, which I explored a little last week, has done what you'd expect it to in the first few days - driven a spike in Xbox 360 sales, and given Microsoft a fresh angle for its promotion of the console. Sales were up 40 per cent over the weekend in the UK, and the new GBP 159.99 price point of the Arcade model has been heavily promoted - with a new marketing push focusing firmly on the new entry-level price.
One concept which has slipped readily out of the mouth of Microsoft's European Xbox supremo Chris Lewis in the wake of the price-cut is "mass-market". The Xbox 360 Arcade is now, after all, the cheapest console out there - undercutting Nintendo's Wii by a fairly significant GBP 20 margin in the UK.
As such, talking about mass-market appeal is fair - isn't it? After all, it's well-established that there are certain price-points at which consoles break out of the core gamer audience and start to flood the living rooms and bedrooms of less devoted game players. Are these not the much-vaunted "mass-market"?
Actually, while that's a common perception, it's also something of a falsehood. Price is only one of a number of sets of interlocking factors that influence a wider update of game systems - and even dropping the price of a system to under GBP 100 will make little difference if the system and its software aren't already attractive and desirable to a wide range of consumers.
The proof of that lies with the many, many consoles whose low price-points haven't suddenly attracted massive success. The GameCube is a recent example, a console which traded on hugely competitive pricing but ultimately failed to attract much more of an audience than Nintendo's traditional core consumers - most of whom would have bought the machine even at a higher price. Indeed, every console in history has eventually seen its price crash down through the GBP 100 barrier - but very few of them have become top sellers as a result, even when they significantly undercut their competition.
Price, then, isn't simply a matter of "cut the price, sell more units". A price-cut can provide a valuable boost and a broader appeal for a console that already has major sales momentum and desirability - but it will do next to nothing for a console that's stalled, or that doesn't appeal to a wide enough range of consumers.
The simplest comparison, perhaps, is to say that dropping the price of coffee machines might increase uptake among consumers who want one anyway, but couldn't previously justify the cost - thus creating an immediate sales spike. However, it won't do anything to improve sales among customers who prefer tea or soft drinks - if the product doesn't appeal, then the same product at a cheaper price won't appeal either.
The relevance of this to Microsoft's situation at present is obvious. While the Xbox 360 is by no means stalled in the market - and comparisons with consoles like the GameCube or Dreamcast are clearly unfair - it does have a problem in terms of the breadth of its appeal. It's an old drum and it's been banged many times in the past year, but the Xbox 360's biggest limiting factor right now is the perception that its line-up rarely strays from the safe core gamer genres of driving and shooting.
As such, simply being twenty quid cheaper than the Wii won't be enough to eclipse the appeal of the Wii. I don't doubt that the price-cut will be very effective in delivering a sales spike that lasts quite some time - and it will pay out handsomely once again when gamers make console-buying decisions around the launch of GTA IV. However, talk about reaching the mass market may be premature - because I'm not convinced that price was the barrier between the Xbox 360 and the mass market.
Let's take it back to basics - who, exactly, are the mass market? We talk about mass-market products in a manner which often conflates them with casual products, but that's simply not an accurate way to define the term. Halo 3 sells millions of copies; does that make it mass-market? The Sims, most people seem to agree, is a mass-market product - but it's a less successful franchise, in terms of sales over the last few years, than Mario. Is Mario mass-market? How about Grand Theft Auto, one of the biggest new franchises of recent years? It's shooting and driving, so can it really be mass-market?
The answer, in simple terms, is that "mass-market" is a term that's utterly meaningless when used to describe software. In order to define it usefully, we could simply say that the mass-market refers to the broadest possible appeal across a large number of different market sectors and demographics. It's about having a product that appeals to a vast array of different people - people of different ages, genders, careers, education levels, socio-economic background, and so on.
Individual games, for the most part, don't meet those criteria. Halo 3 isn't mass-market - it just sells a lot within a certain demographic. The same goes for GTA, and for Mario - and for The Sims. Just because it's selling a lot within a specific demographic that isn't the same demographic all our other products reach, doesn't make it mass-market.
This isn't just a limitation of games, either. Films mostly aren't mass-market - not many teenage boys went to see Titanic half a dozen times, and I didn't spot very many middle-aged women watching Rambo the other day. All of these things - films, books, games, television shows, music - hit a certain demographic and appeal to a certain range of tastes. None of them, on their own, are mass-market products.
So the term is meaningless - unless you apply it to platforms. Films aren't mass-market, but cinemas are - because they show a range of films that appeal to all sorts of different people. Disney movies run next door to the latest horror gore-fest. Albums aren't mass-market, but CDs and iTunes downloads are, because they encompass all sorts of different music.
That's where the discussion about "mass-market" with regard to the Xbox 360 - and its rivals - falls down. This isn't about making "mass-market" software, because there's no such thing. Instead, it's a matter of making the console appeal to the mass-market by appealing to as many different tastes as possible. Right now, the Xbox 360's failure with the mass-market is that it provides a deep well of great games for people with certain clearly defined tastes, but little more than a shallow puddle in other areas - a marked contrast with the PlayStation 2, whose success was built not on headline games like Metal Gear Solid or Gran Turismo, but rather on the extraordinary breadth and depth of software on offer.
The mass-market isn't "one thing for everybody", it's "something for everybody". It's not a Holy Grail, a monolithic audience just lying out there waiting for the Right Product - it's a collection of niches, some larger than others, some very small indeed. Fill enough niches, and you can call your platform - and your medium - mass-market. Simply keep pumping your efforts into one or two niches, and you'll always be on the sidelines.
Microsoft, to my eyes, seems disheartened by the commercial failure of some of its early experiments with other genres - such as Viva Pinata, Blue Dragon and Scene It? This misses the point, however. People outside of the Xbox 360's core niches need convincing that this is the console that can provide to their tastes, not just by throwing out one product that's aimed at them, but by demonstrating an ability to create a broad library of software that fills as many niches as possible.
The biggest mistake Microsoft could make right now would be to recoil, burned, from the perceived failure of Scene It? and Viva Pinata. Marketing and price-cuts will only go so far to expand the appeal of the Xbox 360 - if the firm really wants to make sure its lead over Sony continues to expand, it needs to learn to love the myriad of tiny niches that make up the so-called "mass market". Until the Xbox 360 really can boast something for everybody - or indeed, quite a few things for everybody - Microsoft's market will always be limited.
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