Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Feature: Microsoft Play it Hardcore

It could be said that the hardware wars as recently as the last generation was a marketing battleground drawn upon, primarily, the hardcore gamer. As a definition it’s difficult to encapsulate exactly what a hardcore gamer is, but it’s something the general public is not. Commonly speaking, a hardcore gamer is somebody who identifies gaming as a culture and possesses a competitive attitude to gaming as well as a working knowledge of the industry itself. Traditionally the people for whom triple A titles were built, the hardcore gamer was the consumer who powered the old school sub cultural media. What Nintendo have done with their recent design and promotion structure is subverted the traditional hardcore market and demonstrated that there is another, previously unseen consumer who will buy products dubbed “family,” “educational” and “casual.” Furthermore, Nintendo have shown that this new market, with its bewildering demographic, is a very big and very profitable one.
With the DS and Wii streaking ahead in sales in both portable and home console markets, those that had dubbed the Wii and its remote as short termed gimmickry are being forced to eat humble pie. Said analysts are now going as far as to say that this generation is now the Wii and a battle between Playstation and the Xbox as units of cookery and brain training “games” fly off the shelves.
For Microsoft, the trend has become a particular concern. In June 2007 the Xbox 360 owned 45.9% of the three-horse market share in home console sales. Come June 2008 Microsoft had shifted a further 8.7 million units worldwide, however the PS3 had sold to the tune of 9.4 million and the Wii a staggering 18.4 million. What this resulted in was a considerable drop to 32.2% of the market, being pushed into a distant second place against the Wii, with the Blu-Ray playing PS3 making considerable gains.
Naturally this was to be expected, the Xbox had a substantial head start on the other two consoles and this was in partial effect come June 2007. About this time the Xbox’s mechanical problems were coming to light and being splashed about every corner of the media as a host of new, younger gamers began snapping up Wii’s and PS3’s made all the more attractive by significant price cuts. Worse was to follow when Toshiba announced it had dropped its support for the HD-DVD format, rendering the XBOX’s already overpriced and external HD-DVD drive all but obsolete.
This made for bleak reading for Microsoft and with the announcements at the Nordic Game Conference that a variety of continental European retailers were considering delisting the big white box, 2008 was turning out to be a bad year. The reasoning given for the seeming disinterest in Microsoft’s machine outside of the US, Australasia and the UK was that the console was unable to loose its “urban, irreverent adult male feel,” and this sentiment seems to be at the root of Microsoft’s problem. Mainland Europe, particularly France, Portugal and Spain is a casual gaming base. With Microsoft stocking up a software catalogue based solely upon hardcore genres and a multiplayer ethos that is ferociously competitive, the Xbox is beginning to loose traction on its opponents with a last generation attitude to casual gaming trends.
Having seen their efforts to wean casual gamers away from the Nintendo market dubbed “disastrous” by a panel speaking at the Nordic Games conference in May, it was less than surprising to see a raft of new “casual” applications in the developmental pipeline when Microsoft presented at E3 in July.
Nevertheless, Microsoft’s presentation seemed nothing more than begrudging lip-service to an industry it appears to understand less and less. Banding around words like “Family” and “casual,” Microsoft’s promotional push into the bounds of Nintendo’s market appeared lazy and unimaginative, almost depressing to the average onlooker.
Sure Microsoft is pushing its timed exclusive Rock Band with an advertising campaign showing it as a family or friends party game, but with the cost of its peripherals alone totaling more than your average Nintendo DS, Rock Band is unlikely to pull in many undecided gamers. So what of Microsoft’s new wares? Well rumors abound that Xbox Live could be enlightened with digital personas, currently dubbed “Avatars.” Looking ever so slightly like the Wii Mii’s, the new avatars will be available to all Xbox Live members in the place of the frankly more sophisticated gamerpics and are a keen indication of Microsoft trying to pull in pre-teen gamers. Furthermore, online videos have begun demonstrating Microsoft’s new avatar system in what appears to be a dumbed down version of Sony’s as yet unrealized Home system. Coupled with “Lips” a game that will basically be Singstar for the 360 and a Wiimote style motion control peripheral currently being developed by Motus Games and the term “disastrous” could quickly be joined by the term “Copyright Infringement.”
At the end of the day Microsoft know they have to make some inroads into new gaming trends. To ignore what Nintendo have achieved would be corporate suicide and with the installed brand loyalty Playstation achieved with the PS2 and with a new market hungry for a cheap Blu Ray player’s Microsoft have to act fast to secure their position within the hardware market, simple imitation will do nothing but destabilize itself further.
Additionally, Microsoft are a company being increasingly crippled by its hardcore demographic. Now finding itself at a nexus in new gaming ethics, Microsoft could take the casual gaming route at the risk of alienating its already installed user base, or it could continue to concentrate on hardcore gaming genres in the hope that it can siphon off those with nostalgia for old school gaming fashions. However such a summary would be ignorant to the tremendous amounts of money Microsoft and its third party publishers have to throw at next generation blockbusters. Without the support of some casual gamers, often willing to spend on cheap thrills, continued output of triple a games will be limited as evidenced by the considerably more anemic release roster of 2008.
Painful rebellions from Microsoft loyal users aside, the 360 is in desperate need of some innovative tactics to influence front room gamers as a knock on to funding its hardcore gaming ambitions. Sony has realized this with a diverse software catalogue. Admittedly light on console exclusives, those it holds run a complete spectrum of gaming wants coupled with the ability to play next generation movies. Seemingly incapable of learning from successful models, Microsoft has decided to boost their long term casual push with knee jerk and predictable supplements. Touting an upcoming price reduction on its machines and toying with another external drive, this time for Blu-Ray, Microsoft are treading a much worn path at a time of year when hardware manufacturers expect sales slumps.
It’s clear then that Microsoft has one ham-fisted eye on gaming’s big new profit margin without a real grasp on what kind of software it needs to support its bluster. Still those “fanboys” loyal to Xbox will probably relish in the companies decided ineptitude in hauling in new younger players and families, after all the majority of Xbox gamers are traditionalists more than happy to see their chosen brand plow its particular gaming furrow. Only time will tell if Microsoft can turn it round, in reality both Sony and Microsoft seem resigned to losing this generation and for the hardcore gamer this can only be of concern for the future of gaming and the next-next generation.

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