GI.biz Editorial: Rings of Red
Microsoft needs to act now on hardware failures - or risk losing consumer support.
Published as part of our sister-site GamesIndustry.biz' widely-read weekly newsletter, the GamesIndustry.biz Editorial is a weekly dissection of one of the issues weighing on the minds of the people at the top of the games business. It appears on Eurogamer a day after it goes out to GI.biz newsletter subscribers.
With all the accolades presently being paid to Nintendo for the astonishing success of the DS and the Wii, it's understandable that Microsoft occasionally seems a bit put out by the whole situation. After all, the Xbox 360 sailed through the seemingly ambitious 10 million unit goal which was set for its first year or so on the market, and is outdoing Sony's PS3 in most markets - a situation which few would have dared to predict only a few years ago.
Given the circumstances, it's not hard to see why some more ill-advised comments from Microsoft executives regarding the Wii have seemed... Well, a touch bitter. Right now, Microsoft must feel like the kid who stayed up all night learning all the best combos in Street Fighter, only to arrive in school the next day and discover that everyone else in the class has decided to play marbles instead.
Nintendo's resurgence, however, doesn't really detract from Microsoft's success in real terms. Right now, the Xbox 360 is winning the battle which it set out to win - namely, the battle with Sony's PS3 - and is showing no sign of relinquishing its dominance of the "real" next-gen market.
I have always argued that this fight was Sony's to lose, and that remains the case; what's happened here is that Sony has slipped up badly enough, and fallen hard enough, to give Microsoft a clear shot at goal. The problematic PR, delayed launch and presently weak software line-up for PS3 are all fairly major concerns; the enormous price point, however, is the most serious issue.
Prior to launch, plenty of people questioned whether the market would support that pricing level - Blu-ray drive or not. The answer has returned, loud and clear; no, the market will not support this price point. Every day that Sony leaves the PS3 on the shelves with this unattractive price tag attached gives its rivals more of a head start.
With flawless execution, Microsoft could sail into the space which is being left by Sony's failures and build an Xbox 360 market share which would be practically unassailable. In some regards, that's exactly what it has done. Nobody can downplay the company's astonishing achievements with regard to software; the Xbox 360 has a compelling line-up of software on shelves, and an even more compelling line-up of exclusive titles in the pipeline.
Games like Halo 3, Bioshock and Mass Effect make Xbox 360 owners feel good about their purchase, and provide compelling reasons for Xbox and PlayStation 2 owners to upgrade. Indeed, in the top ten Most Wanted games chart compiled from user data on GamesIndustry.biz's sister site, Eurogamer.net, seven of the top ten titles are Xbox 360 games. Two Wii titles (Super Mario Galaxy and Super Paper Mario) make it into the ranking; only one PS3 title, Metal Gear Solid 4, appears.
It's obvious, then, that Microsoft is doing more than just making headway with the hardcore audience. Frankly, that battle is all but won, and the onus is now on Sony to demonstrate that it is capable of creating an offering for hardcore gamers that is as attractive as the one Microsoft has crafted.
The obvious criticism - which is no less true for being so obvious - is that there's precious little evidence of Microsoft's software line-up managing to break out of that hardcore market. The company still lacks not only the kind of Singstar, Eye Toy and Buzz titles which drive casual market adoption, but also the Final Fantasies and Tekkens which appeal to the vast mass of "average" gamers who lie outside the hardcore market Xbox 360 has so far exploited.
This is, at least, a well-understood problem, and one which is widely commented upon. It has, of course, done nothing to slow down Microsoft's race to ten million; but it may make the next ten million a lot harder to sell, and the following ten million almost impossible, if the issue is not addressed.
However, there is another problem which Microsoft faces at the moment - one which the company has shown even less sign of understanding, or addressing. It is the problem of hardware reliability and customer service, an area in which the Xbox 360 has a track record that is nothing short of utterly appalling - and an area which Microsoft absolutely must address, or risk handing the goodwill of the market back to its rivals.
Of course, this too is not a new problem. Microsoft has been slammed over the failure rate of Xbox 360 consoles, and its own poor customer service in dealing with that matter, many times before - British readers will undoubtedly recall that the firm was hauled over the coals on the Watchdog programme here only a few months ago.