Microsoft dubbed March 13th Xmas Eve in honour of the arrival of the Xbox in Europe. By our reckoning, that makes tonight Twelfth Night. So is it time to start pulling down the decorations already, or has the Xbox yet to show its true potential?
Microsoft declared the Xbox to be "a runaway hit" in Europe last week, but the truth isn't quite so clear cut at this stage. Sales figures for Europe as a whole aren't available yet and Microsoft aren't giving out any numbers of their own, in stark contrast to the almost constant bombardment of press releases that followed the American launch. What we do know is that the Xbox's reception in Europe seems to have been mixed. Here in the UK, for example, a credible 48,000 Xboxes were sold in its first three days on sale, with Halo slotting in behind Metal Gear Solid 2 at the top end of the charts. Six other Xbox titles made it into the all formats top 20 according to Chart Track, with the average punter buying 2.5 games with their console. And while initial Xbox sales trailed 30% behind the figures achieved by the PlayStation 2 at its UK launch, the PS2 had virtually no competition and appeared just in time for the all-important pre-Christmas shopping frenzy. Of course, Sony would argue that their sales were largely limited by supply problems for the first few weeks, one problem which Microsoft certainly hasn't had. In Germany it was a completely different story though. As few as 10,000 Xboxes vanished off store shelves at launch, with some retailers apparently already slashing the console's price in an attempt to shift stock just 24 hours after it first went on sale. Anecdotal evidence from other countries such as France and Sweden suggest that excitement hasn't been particularly high there either. Indeed, even in the UK supply has so far exceeded demand by quite a margin. And perhaps more worryingly, sales dropped off fairly sharply during the Xbox's first full week on sale, with Halo losing two places in the all formats chart, Project Gotham dropping five to tenth, and Dead or Alive 3 slumping to 14th, despite having twice as many shopping days to notch up sales. This suggests that many of the people who wanted to get an Xbox at this stage probably parted with their money right after the launch.
So is this Game Over for the Xbox in Europe? Of course not. Microsoft has deep pockets and is in this for the long haul, and although initial sales outside of America have been disappointing, they're not about to give in. Microsoft's Hans Stettmeier told MCV Germany that "we see the Xbox not as a sprinter, but as a marathon runner". Looking ahead, there are several games on the horizon that may help improve the Xbox's standing in Europe, including the soccer and motor racing titles that were notably absent from the launch line-up. Championship Manager may not push the Xbox's graphical capabilities - it's effectively a glorified spreadsheet - but thanks to the built-in hard drive this is the first time that the multi-million selling football management franchise has appeared on a console. The inevitable FIFA World Cup tie-in from EA Sports will be launching in late April as well (alongside PC and PS2 versions), and their latest Formula One game will be debuting on the Xbox with some rather impressive looking visuals. The real problem at this stage though isn't the hardware (the Xbox is undeniably the most capable console on the market) or the software (games like Halo, Project Gotham, Tony Hawk 3 and Rallisport Challenge are all worth owning). The problem is the pricing. European gamers have to pay 50-60% more for their Xboxes than the Americans and Japanese, and the games themselves generally cost a few pounds more than the competition as well. With the GameCube looming big on the horizon and another PlayStation 2 price cut possible over the summer, the Xbox could end up costing almost twice as much as its rivals. Until this is dealt with, we wouldn't expect the Xbox to make much of an impact outside of the hardcore niche. A pre-Christmas price cut might well help to boost the Xbox into a happier new year, but in the short term at least it looks like the console will remain more of an American phenomenon.