Why are Microsoft so happy with their Xbox? That's the question that's been puzzling me for the last few weeks as we see announcement after announcement about developer support. Surely anyone can see that it's digging itself into a hole the size of a small third world country and seems intent on tunnelling even deeper. The way the hardware specifications seem to expand and contract isn't helping matters, but it's compounded by Microsoft's incredibly naïve decision to include a non-fixed state hard disk. The implications of such a move on the console industry's target audience may be mesmerizing to watch. Without a one-switch restoration solution we may see an awful lot of confused and daunted buyers come 18 months time.
To be fair though, Microsoft may find even more trouble from quarters they seem to be blissfully pleased with; the very brand, Xbox. It's not even terribly catchy; it's just a codename that's been used past its sell-by date. After all, consider the implications for a (possibly region-less) DVD-playing computer with broadband Internet access. Sex-box anyone? MCV even reports that the press in America have already started to use the term, those wily tricksters. And all this only weeks after Nintendo stump the entire industry with a brand so pure and infantile that it can't fail to succeed; simply, Game. The GameCube and GameBoy Advance will be huge successes, and of course, not content with the possibility of playing second-fiddle only once, Microsoft are now considering the possibility of entering the handheld industry, one in which Nintendo's domination is so unreserved that they grossed more sales internationally than all of the major home consoles put together last year. So essentially we need to ask just what Microsoft can do to overcome their own naivety. The obvious solution seems to be to scrap the hard disk in favour of more conventional ROM/RAM action and dump the Xbox brand for something more discernible, something that's a little more reverent.
The problem that lies ahead for Microsoft now is that they are facing three major brands with almost instant household recognition. Perhaps the GameCube won't be instantly identifiable to many, but the word Nintendo is synonymous with games consoles. Likewise Sony's PlayStation brand is revered and oft favoured by many. As for Sega, their Dreamcast seems to be on every TV, in every magazine and on every football shirt in sight these days. This is a market Microsoft will have a lot of trouble breaking into, far more than they would have expected. Developer support may be the only way for Microsoft to succeed if they stick with their bogus naming convention. Xthis and Xthat will hopefully wear off and teach them a lesson in time, but until then, getting the big household name developers onboard should be their primary concern.
Thankfully they seem to have this side of the equation in order. If you look at their last two major announcements from the West and Japan, there's a great number and variety of software developers to choose from, with the biggest names like Lionhead Studios, Capcom, Konami and others all set to help them make a big splash. Exclusivity is the next step - although they've managed to conjure up the likes of Metal Gear Solid and Silent Hill, it's a little ad hoc and without exclusivity they run the risk of falling foul of their impetuous brand again. In reality, even Microsoft are unsure how to market it. Their Xbox.com website speaks of nothing in particular whilst promising everything. "The Future of Gaming" is the subtitle, but it's such a blasé catchphrase that it passes most people by without them paying it any thought at all. There are the usual bunch of developer quotes, including this particular, generic PR gem. "Activision is excited about our Xbox games under development, and the progress we've been able to make on the system is unprecedented a year from launch." It seems that the best way to market the Xbox under its present alias is to emphasize the letter "X". Now I don't know about you, but I can think of one company in particular who might have a problem with that. X-Files owners Fox may take issue with such marketing practice, and even if they don't, they've pretty much exhausted the "X" angle for themselves. Other than that, what else is there?
Ultimately Microsoft are looking down the barrel of a gun, and their only lifelines are total abandonment of previous branding in favour of a more traditional approach. It's fairly obvious that the pithy opinions of a games journalist aren't going to be enough to sway them from their current path, but hopefully if they appoint a decent group of industry analysts they will get somewhere. The knife-edge Microsoft find themselves balanced upon does have two sides though. Although this writer thinks an Xbox is about as impersonal and unmarketable as they come, there is the outside possibility that they'll find acceptance. But if not, things may be very difficult. As for their other plan, to develop a handheld gaming console (whose only association with the Xbox itself would presumably be the flimsy branding), it's going to take a lot more than a whim..