Having had a few days to digest the two very different launch events for Sony’s PlayStation 4 and Microsoft’s Xbox One, I’ve come to a realization. As much as people don’t seem to like the Xbox launch, it wasn’t a failure in and of itself. In fact, I believe that Microsoft successfully accomplished what it set out to do.
The Xbox One and PlayStation Four both play video games. However, if you were to watch the two launch events, I’d understand if you were a little confused by that statement. While the PlayStation 4’s launch emphasised how it plays games and how it augments that with the social networking and sharing features, the Xbox spent comparatively little time talking about the games.
The difference in the launches was an example of how the console manufacturers are positioning their next-gen consoles in the market.
First, let’s do a little backgrounder. When I talk about positioning a console, I mean who Microsoft and Xbox are primarily targeting their console towards with their marketing efforts.
Let’s use the current console generation as an example. The PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 aren’t too differently positioned when you look at them as gaming machines. Both are more about the games than the ancillary features and cater to the so-called core gamer (well, before you add Kinect into the mix). However, pricing positioned the PlayStation 3 as a more premium product than the 360 which was a more affordable gaming machine. The Xbox skewed a bit more casual than the PS3 thanks to the emphasis on social gaming with your friends through Xbox Live.
If you look at the PlayStation Four launch, the positioning was a little bit closer to the Xbox 360. While new games were touted and shown, there was a strong emphasis on the newly added social aspects such as sharing and social media integration. The PS4 still wants the core gamers but Sony sees the Xbox 360’s community gaming environment as their target for the ideal gaming experience.
Meanwhile, the folks at Microsoft took a look at the sales results of the last generation and said, “we want to be the top dog.” That top dog was the Nintendo Wii which sold about 100 million units. The Xbox 360 was the third-highest selling console with just under 80 million units.
Nintendo positioned their console for casual and family gaming. They weren’t trying to sell a console based on the standard games that you were going to see that generation but Nintendo was trying to differentiate itself. They weren’t going to make scads of sales by going head-to-head with Sony and Microsoft. Instead, they positioned the Wii as an affordable console that everyone can use and enjoy.
Understanding this brings us back to the Xbox One. The One’s launch spend an embarrassingly short period of time featuring games and gameplay. That’s because Microsoft isn’t targeting the core gamer. They’re targeting the casual consumer. They want the people who bought the Wii and haven’t yet gotten a Wii U. It’s a direction that Microsoft started going in with the launch of the Kinect. The Kinect’s launch featured the same style of mini-games that we saw on the Wii at launch. Microsoft is just continuing to follow Nintendo here.
The reason the reaction to the Xbox One’s launch was so overwhelmingly negative when compared to the Wii U despite having some similar features (TV integration, an augmented interface through the WiiPad/SmartGlass) is that Nintendo stuck to their casual target while Microsoft made a hard marketing shift from core gamers to casual ones. The core gamers wanted something for them but found themselves disappointingly underwhelmed.
When you think about it, Microsoft did a good job of hitting the nail on the head. The Xbox One is the console for the ADD generation. When I game on my PS3 or Wii, my phone or laptop is usually at hand. I can surf the net, check Twitter or blog when gaming. The Xbox tried to eliminate the second screen experience. Want to check Twitter or surf the web? There’s a voice command to do that while the loading screen is up. Don’t want to wait through an install? You can watch SportsCenter without picking up the remote control. Theoretically, this console has something for everyone.
Ignoring what actual features were announced and if you actually want your Xbox to be a supplementary cable box, the biggest problem with the One’s launch was where and how they made the announcement. Console launches don’t appeal to the masses. Console launches aren’t mainstream events. The people interested in console launches aren’t casual gamers. Microsoft was pitching all the casual-friendly features of the One to the core gamers use their game consoles for gaming.
In addition to the viewing audience of the event being core gamers, Microsoft’s message isn’t getting out to the mainstream consumer and casual gamer they’re targeting. Gaming and tech blogs and news sites are relatively niche in their reach. Most people aren’t going here or Kotaku or The Verge. They’ll see it on Google News or MSN. That requires a click-through to the article. If the click rate is low, nobody finds out how this console could appeal to them.
Traditional media isn’t helping to spread the Xbox One’s casual message, either. Listening to the BBC World Service the night of the launch, the story about the Xbox One was that Microsoft announced a successor to the Xbox 360 and it would come out later this year. That’s not getting the message out to the people you are targeting your message to. Instead, the casual gamers and mainstream consumers are hearing the very negative word of mouth from the core gamer who hate the message.
The Xbox One won’t be a bad console and isn’t likely to alienate the core gamer. However, Microsoft has missed the mark in the early days of the battle against the PS4. They’re currently losing the PR battle quite badly but may be able to salvage the war. They can regain some ground with the core gamers at E3. As for the casual gamer, I’d suggest the talk show circuit. Conan likes games, after all.