Opinion: The Xbox Brand Is Too Big To Care About Next-Gen Confusion

Just a few weeks ago, Xbox chief Phil Spencer commented that the next-generation Xbox would have a name that reflects its utility, later confirming the name of the monolith-like box as Xbox Series X. The broader name for the presumed family of new Xbox consoles is just that, ‘Xbox’, eschewing anything more complicated beyond the back-to-basics title first given to the product line in 2001. While there is a belief percolating among some that Microsoft is shooting themselves in the foot with such a confusing name, the tech giant might just be prepared for a little bit of brand confusion in the pursuit of a grander goal.

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The common wisdom is that new console generations are transitional periods of rebirth, renaissances where the market is open to dramatic changes and every participant is starting from zero at the round reset. As much as the gaming community seems to value everyone going back to their corners and coming back fresh, the actual economics of generational transitions have always been utter madness. It may be anyone’s game when new consoles launch, but that has good and bad connotations.

With the Xbox One, for example, Microsoft found itself in the unenviable position of getting off on the wrong foot, committing the unforgivable sin of committing to a bad idea. That tarnish seeped through much of the console’s life, resulting in major leadership and focus changes behind the scenes at the gaming division over the years. After finally getting back up off the floor, , Microsoft seems ready to take another swipe at reestablishing the Xbox brand once again, but is not willing to throw away the goodwill established so far for a clock reset.

By naming a new console simply Xbox, Microsoft is not just going for simplicity, it’s also sending a message: “We don’t think this singular physical box matters as much as it used to.” In the years since the Xbox One launched, Microsoft has made a point to introduce services like Gamepass, to focus on monthly active users, to talk broadly about cloud-based gaming, to extend the Xbox brand to the PC and even other consoles. It is making a bet that tomorrow’s console war is less about the silicon sitting under your TV stand and more about the ecosystem surrounding it all.

At E3 this year, Phil Spencer proudly explained that next-gen flagship launch title Halo: Infinite would simultaneously launch on the new console, PC, and the Xbox One family of consoles. While this is not new territory, as games that cross generations are moderately common in transition periods, moves like this are likely a prong of Microsoft’s upcoming platform-agnostic strategy. Essentially, it wants you playing Halo: Infinite and subscribing to services like Xbox Live Gold in order to do so. The actual method you use to do so is immaterial.

It does mean there is a chance consumers will be confused, as reuse of a name tends to have that effect. Nintendo fell victim to the hubris of not differentiating the name of its first HD console well enough, confusing the audience, so it would be reasonable to assume that Microsoft is falling into the exact same trap if you were to also ignore all the other mistakes Nintendo made that contributed to that problem. It is up to Microsoft’s marketing to paper over that issue, something it has found success in being able to do before with the name Xbox One.

However, if someone does go to their local gaming store and pick up a console that is not the Xbox Series X, that is not outside of Microsoft’s goal. Whatever box gets those players to subscribe to Game Pass or to play Halo: Infinite is a victory for them. If they walk into a store looking for an Xbox Series X and walk out with an XCloud subscription pass for their Android tablet, that still works out for Microsoft. The name does not matter as much because the box does not matter as much.

This is not to say that this path is a clear cut one for Microsoft. It is rolling the dice about as blindly as anyone else and making a bet on what it thinks is the future of gaming; and it certainly has been premature with those predictions before. Traditionalists in the space still view console generations as the opportunity for manufacturers to fight tooth-and-nail for consumer dollars and come out with an easily digestible install base number, which then flows into theoretical third party support and inevitable establishment in the cultural zeitgeist. Microsoft does risk coming off unfocused.

Should Phil Spencer wake up in a cold sweat tomorrow, or two years from now, and decide that this course of action is not working, he can go back to sleep comfortably with the knowledge that nothing has been done this time that is irreversible. Six years after Microsoft’s disastrous attempts to launch an online-only console, the industry is more or less in the same place Microsoft wanted to begin, but it is still smarting from suggesting it. In 2020, its big scheme has a wide-angle lens, which can be narrowed down to a tighter focus whenever it feels it is necessary.

Who knows how long it can keep supporting multiple generations? As Google has aptly proven, whether or not cloud gaming will ever truly penetrate the mainstream market is still an open question. Game Pass, despite being a resounding success among those who are paying attention to it, might never grow beyond its current base, or may no longer make sense for the developers who provide software for it. These are all concerns that the market will have to answer and Microsoft will have to react to when the time comes. But at first, it just needs to get you in a door, any door.

The future Microsoft envisions right now is one where the Xbox Series X is one option out of many, even if that is a little confusing at the checkout lane.

Imran Khan is a games writer living in San Francisco. You can find his other musings on Twitter.

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