State of Gaming ’11: The Xbox Brand

I originally wrote a piece on the State of Microsoft Gaming just under a year ago. A year later, I felt it was time to re-evaluate Microsoft’s position. What has changed in the past 12 months? What rights have been wronged? What wrongs have sprung to life?

 

 

 

As I said a year ago, I think it’s hard for anyone to state that the Xbox 360 isn’t the Cinderella tale of the generation. Going from a middling and pretty distant second place last generation to the perceived market-leader (I realize technically that Nintendo and the Wii are in first, but I’ll explain more during the Nintendo section!) of this current generation. They have doubled the sales of the original Xbox, gotten Live to become the standard bearer for online services on a console, and have created quite the empire between 1st party and 3rd party titles.

And sales? It has bucked the trend/conventional wisdom of a video game consoles, that sales gradually increase for the first 3-4 years and then gradually slow until the successor hits. In the past 18 months, the Xbox 360 has been the system to beat. It has had some of the best sales of its life time, and software has followed suit. Not only that, but with the introduction of Kinect, the console and add-on just can’t sit on store shelves long enough.  It is near impossible to discount what Microsoft has accomplished over the last 5 1/2 years.

This much has not changed.

Then let us take a brief refresher on what has changed over the past 12 months in camp Xbox. We’ve had e3 2011 come and go, so we know all of Microsoft’s 2011 plans and we can begin to see their 2012 line-up taking shape. We’ve had the launch of the Kinect, the device that was most intriguing just a year ago, and we now know what to expect in terms of support for the device. And just recently, we received Microsoft’s financial statement for their fiscal year.

Now, let’s take a look at what each of those have bought to the table.

The release schedule presented at e3, is anemic at best. Its a line-up that tries to walk the line between the Xbox’s traditional audience, and the new wave of gamers that got introduced to the device via Kinect, and seemingly fails at both ends. While there’s little doubt that titles like Gears of War 3, and Halo 4 won’t excite their audience and do well for their pockets. There’s very little else in the way of exclusives over the next 18 months. Yes, I realize this has the potential to change, but as it stands now its a paper thin line-up.

On the other end is Microsoft’s dedication to Kinect software, and while there appears to be a greater number of exclusive titles for the device, the quality of some seem questionable. Again, this is solely based on the demo/footage released during e3, but games such as Star Wars Kinect and Fable: Journeys just seem like a poor attempt at making games for both audiences and failing horribly. And giving “support” to such titles as Mass Effect 3 and Ghost Recon will do very little to bridge the appeal of the device with their more traditional gamers.

Though, not everything is sour in Kinect-land. Titles such as Disneyland Adventures, Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster and Dance Central 2, knows their audience, and seem like they can be nice and enjoyable family-friendly games. Those shall hopefully do well over the holiday season.

Though that brings up another problem since the launch of the Kinect. Kinect came out of the gates with a fire and a passion. It had a decent line-up of games, and a killer-app in Dance Central. The device has been on the market for about 9 months now, and we haven’t seen a second push of software for it. Microsoft may be in the camp that Kinect-owners only buy a few games a year, but they shouldn’t try to actively test that theory. The momentum of the device has seemingly hit a wall or a snag, Microsoft hasn’t announced any recent sales figures since the device crossed the 10 million unit sale which was back in like February of this year.

Looking forward beyond the current year, Microsoft finds themselves in the same position I complained about last year. The depth of their first party studios is shallow at best, and at this point may as well be non-existent. With Bungie out of the picture, their premiere 1st party studio would fall on LionHead, and let’s be honest. The company is known more for its president’s hyperbolic words than quality, AAA-affairs.

Beyond them, Rare is all but of a shell of their former self, both in content provided and staff that actually remains. 343 Industries is an untested variable in the market-place, and while they are releasing a Halo re-make this year, we really won’t know their potential until next year. Remedy is up to some Alan Wake title, but the fact it wasn’t on display at e3 in any fashion, probably speaks to how far along the title is.

The rest of their studios are really low-key developers (and that’s not to knock them at all really, you never know where the next great hit comes from), but they are almost all focused on Kinect-development at the moment. I assume that some of them have started pre-production on Xbox Next launch titles though.

At the end of the day, none of this would be an immediate problem for the Xbox 360. Microsoft still has a ton of multi-platform releases, and after several years on the market has shown itself to be the preferred system of choice for many. Kinect has been doing gang-busters for them. The problem is they don’t seem to have any interest in building for the future. There seems to be little desire for them to invest into new Ips or nuture new first party studios. Their thinking seems to be on short-term growth as opposed to the generational turnover, which is coming sooner rather than later.

Then, what is the State of Microsoft Gaming in 2011? Really, it is the most promising of the 3 companies. They have the most successful console on the market, continue to see strong software sales, and have the most thriving online-community. While gamers may moan about the lack of solid exclusives all year, it hasn’t seemed to hurt them in the least bit. At the end of the day, most of those gamers already owned an Xbox and Microsoft doesn’t need to sell to them twice.

As we move into the future though, things begin to look a bit more bleak for them. Can they keep up Kinect’s momentum for another 2-3 years? Will the Wii U have any impact on their sales next year? What will really drive hardware sales if Halo 4 is the only major title of 2012 announced so far? We shall see, but it is a dire situation.

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