On November 22nd, 2005, Microsoft’s new console would be released a year ahead of the competition. This turned out to be one of the smartest moves Microsoft could have made.
Coming into the current generation Microsoft wasn’t exactly riding very high on the horse. The original Xbox sold out at launch and due to a fantastic online gaming system and a plethora of games was considered popular. However the sales figures would only reach 24 million units by the time the Xbox 360 reached market. PlayStation 2 on the other hand had sold a staggering 100 million plus consoles before the PlayStation 3 release and would go on to sell 150 million plus in it’s 10 year life-cycle. Microsoft had to do something to wow gamers and to grab market share and by releasing a full year early they accomplished just that.
Early adopters and hard-core gamers clamored to be the first to get their hands on the newest Xbox. I remember standing in the freezing cold, bundled up with my head stuck down in my coat like some kind of horribly deformed fleece turtle, and waiting for the 360 to be released at midnight. This was not like last time where I had been late to the party, and at this point I was Xbox thru and thru. While my earlier fanboy snobbishness had disappeared, and I could admit quality gaming existed on other consoles, Microsoft was still the horse I choose to back. I remember picking up Kameo, Perfect Dark Zero, and Oblivion on release day and it took a huge chunk out of my wallet.
I loved achievements which lengthened the time I played a game and the controller was, and still is in my opinion, the best I’d ever held. The triggers were perfect for shooters and the layout of the buttons were placed ideally. On the other hand the D-Pad would leave something to be desired when it came to fighting games, but being as I didn’t play many it was gaming heaven for me. Kameo, in my opinion, was a joy to play and I still wish we would see a sequel. Perfect Dark Zero, while far from it’s name, was a fun shooter that took hours out of my time and Oblivion soaked up over 100 hours of my life with it’s epic adventure. On top of all that was the Xbox Live Arcade. As I write this article and think back it’s odd to think of a time when we didn’t have downloadable games showering onto the consoles. However, even on Xbox, it was all DLC content like skins or extra characters so I was immediately drawn to XBLA.
I could download retro games I used to play and even some original games for a little next to nothing. I dove into the following years with gusto with some of the best exclusives of any console. Halo 3 literally defined multiplayer with it’s ease of connecting to other players, Gears popularized cover based shooting and made PlayStation fans jealous, while games like Lost Odysey and Blue Dragon provided fantastic exclusive RPG gaming (ironically enough at this time the PS3 was starved for RPG content, which is odd since PS2 was the platform of choice for RPGs before). While Microsoft’s first-party stable wasn’t expanding and they relied heavily on third party exclusives, those third party exclusives were fantastic. Games like Mass Effect and Assassin’s Creed were at first Microsoft exclusives and it gave us Xbox fans something to brag about.
Suddenly the gaming system that was on bottom rose to the top. Late to the party, it didn’t help Sony’s case that the PlayStation 3 was a staggering $600 dollars at launch which was well above most gamer’s threshold of what they would pay for a console. At the time Blu-ray really hadn’t taken off and the average person didn’t want to spend an extra ten dollars to get a slightly perceptible increase in video quality. Things would change for Sony later as Microsoft had a gigantic red stumbling block.
It’s impossible to talk about the Xbox 360 without talking about the RROD or Red Ring of Death. Whenever a component within the 360 failed the four green lights that encircled the power on button would change to three red rings. Whenever this happened the only function able to be performed was powering the system off. At first Microsoft claimed that failure rates were within the electronics industry standard which is typically 3 to 5 percent. Since no statistics from Microsoft were ever forthcoming that number can’t be confirmed though electronics warranty provider Square Trade published an examination of 1040 Xbox 360’s and said that they suffered from a failure rate of 16.4% (one in six). Obviously a large number greater then 3%, one which resulted in many consumers dropping the system altogether after numerous red rings and going with their main competition: Playstation 3.
Personally I feel that Microsoft’s response was true customer service in action. They announced a program that extended the warranty of every 360, for free, for three additional years. If your system red ringed you could send it to Microsoft at no cost to yourself. There was a downside of course in waiting almost three weeks to get your console back, but Microsoft could have easily shrugged it off. Even people who had been struck multiple times by RROD were still buying the console, albeit bitterly. These are the sorts of moves that endear me to companies and prove to me they do care about the customer. Was there business involved? Of course. They knew they needed to plug the giant hole in their marketing and word of mouth was running off consumers, however that business also means focusing on the customer to build consumer trust. I for one never was struck by a red ring and I had one of the first systems out of the gate.
Meanwhile Nintendo was, sales wise, destroying the competition. As of the time of this article latest sales figures puts them at 89.36 million consoles sold. They did this by focusing on a huge and largely untapped portion of the populace: casual gamers. Parents and grandparents flocked to the store in droves to pick up the Wii which was prominently featured on every fluff piece on the news. Nintendo brought motion gaming to the masses and their system packed in a game with, the first system to do so in a long time. With a flick of your wrist you could bowl, play baseball and bat a tennis ball around. Consumers, including myself, were wildely interested in the novel little device and Nintendo’s sales figures speak for themselves. It wouldn’t take long for Microsoft to take note.
While PlayStation went the route of improving upon the Wii’s controller, Microsoft purchased and helped develop a tool that could see what you did without any controller at all. Originally titled Project Natal, the device was rumored to have a microphone for voice input, a motor in it to track movement and a state of the art system that could recognize movements and provide facial recognition. The rumors were true. In a very odd event Microsoft announced the true name of the console. the Kinect, at E3 2010. Wearing jump suits journalists from all over were treated to a bizarre Cirque du Solei performance. Xbox 360 was gunning for the casual audience with the same sort of novelty that consumers originally experienced with the Wii, and it worked. Kinect sold 8 million units in the first 60 days after release making it the fastest selling consumer electronics device according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
Since then Microsoft has pushed heavy on it’s foray into casual gaming with games like Kinect Sports or Kinect Adventures, which came with the piece of equipment. I bought the device day one and was caught by the same fascination I had with the Wii. Floored that it actually worked, I played it until I was sore. Since it has, regrettably, gathered dust until recently when the excellent Gunstringer was released. Showing that, yes, it was possible to have a game that would appeal to hardcore gamers. More traditional games are adding in content as well for the Kinect, Mass Effect 3 will have Kinect support in the form of voice commands as did the recently released Halo Anniversary.
Still a lot of gamers feel that Microsoft has begun to abandon gamers in order to make a quick buck with casual sales. Is Microsoft the next Nintendo? Come back tomorrow when we wrap the series up by taking a glimpse into the future including my opinions on the matter.