On Wednesday, September 4, 2013, I awoke to the stillness and tranquility of what was otherwise an ordinary mid-week day. As I embarked upon my normal routine, I plodded over into the adjacent room where my hibernating computer stands ready to provide stimulation for my sleep addled cognition. Waiting for me in my e-mail inbox was a message from Microsoft's Xbox One marketing team; an announcement that their next-generation console was scheduled to release on November 22nd of this year. There was no grandiose fanfare, no attention grabbing media event; just an e-mail sitting in my inbox and the obligatory internet press news articles. From that point, the day resumed as usual. Why didn't Microsoft announce a release date during the ceremony and spotlight of Gamescom? Why didn't they allocate and schedule a special occasion so that Xbox fans and gaming enthusiasts could focus on and revel in the importance of this announcement? These questions are both baffling and perplexing, and they remain unanswered barely a week later. What isn't perplexing, however, is that Microsoft would continue with their comedy of errors. Following their Xbox One reveal back in May, Microsoft has filled the virtual space of the web with mixed and ambiguous messaging. They have allowed their detractors to grow in size and vociferousness, and to gain momentum, all while doing little to thwart these efforts. Microsoft has become consistently clumsy with their marketing strategy, and it is becoming clear that the Xbox One release date announcement continues this tradition. With the release date of the PS4 already public, Microsoft had an advantage over their competition for once. Instead, they proceeded to schedule the release date of their new console after the competition's, cementing what may be a major marketing blunder they just might soon regret.
Sony’s PlayStation 4 Has the Price Advantage
Microsoft does know that the PS4 is $100 cheaper than the Xbox One, don't they? They must know that the average consumer is aware of this fact. They did indeed reverse their DRM policies under heavy scrutiny and internet criticism after all. But do they understand that most consumers base their purchasing choices on pragmatism? Variables such as brand loyalty and fanboyism don't factor into this decision making process. Most consumers make choices based on economic common-sense. The PS4 is $100 cheaper, comes out first, and is, therefore, more attractive. Many gamers will only be able to afford one console this fall, and at a cheaper price point the PS4 seems to be the obvious choice. Microsoft seems to be making the same mistakes Sega made with the Saturn in the mid 1990s. The Saturn launched in 1995 admidst heavy messaging confusion; perceived technical inferiority to the Sony PlayStation; and it released with a price tag that was $100 more than their main competition's incipient console. Although the Sega Saturn came with a pack-in game and internal memory storage, both of which new PlayStation owners would have to purchase separately, Sega did a poor job of communicating these features and advantages to the public. Sega squandered an opportunity when they released their system unexpectedly months before their announced release window. This action caught many retailers by surprise, and it left them unable to accommodate Sega's imprudent decision. As a consequence, those retailers refused to carry Sega Saturn products, effectively damaging Sega's reputation irreparably. However, Sony benefited greatly from this folly. Does any of this sound familiar? Microsoft has yet to make it clear to us why the Xbox One is worth $100 more than the PS4. At this late juncture, Microsoft would have been wise to firmly grasp any advantage that may have presented itself. During E3 2013, Sony exploited the advantages they had by announcing their PS4 policies and price point after Microsoft, giving them the opportunity to undercut the Xbox One at every point. Sony then gave Microsoft a gift by announcing a release date first, an advantage Microsoft summarily let slip through their grasp. If Microsoft were truly confident in their product and had any marketing foresight, they would have released the Xbox One earlier than the competition, allowing the vocal fans to fill-in the messaging holes by singing praises of the new technology through their applied experiences with it. Instead, the reverse is the reality, and the Xbox One is still $100 more expensive. Microsoft would do well to examine history: the PlayStation went on to be the most successful console of its time, while the Saturn fell into the precipice of obscurity.
The Perception of Microsoft’s Indifference
Although Microsoft reversed many of their controversial DRM policies concerning the Xbox One, indicating their acknowledgment of the temperament of gaming enthusiasts, a vexing question still remains. Did Microsoft really think video game fans would like these policies before they announced them? Only one answer remains resoundingly clear: Microsoft is out of touch with the gaming community and consumer sensibility. If they cared about consumer reaction to their DRM policies, they would have done a more effective and personal job communicating their intentions and explaining how these policies benefit us – the consumers. Instead, they approached their efforts to expound upon these policies both didactically and with sterility, speaking to the gaming public as if they were kindergartners. Only under the pressure of poor pre-order sales data did Microsoft reverse their proposed Xbox One policies, indicating further that their reaction is based more on potential financial failure than an altruistic desire to placate the fans. While Sony is busy racking up brownie points with the fans by appealing to indie developers, Microsoft is equally busy racking up demerits with their perpetual public relations bungling. Since E3 2013, Microsoft has done an admirable job rehabilitating their damaged image, but one false move is all that is necessary to undo all of these efforts. Releasing the Xbox One after the PS4 is that misstep. By releasing their console before the competition, they could have conveyed to their fans and the general public that they care enough about us to want us to experience their new technology first; that they want us to experience why the Xbox One is worth $100 more than competition with the utmost confidence. Instead, the reverse is reality, and the Xbox One is still $100 more expensive, without a compelling reason why this is so. Only indifference and hubris would govern such decision making, seasoned by a healthy dash of marketing ineptitude.
They Are Forfeiting Call of Duty Fans Over to PS4
On November 5, 2013, Call of Duty: Ghosts will release to one of the largest and most rabid community of fans in the gaming world. This is the day that Xbox One should have been scheduled to release. Microsoft has spent many years and a lot of money cultivating a partnership with Activision and the Call of Duty franchise, producing a result that has gamers around the world associating Call of Duty with the Xbox brand. Not releasing their console with this game is a huge oversight, a missed opportunity, and it borders on pathological. Are the folks at Microsoft trying to lose the PR battle with Sony? Releasing the Xbox One alongside Call of Duty: Ghosts just makes sense. Combining their marketing muscle with Activision would have done inordinate loads of good for the maligned Microsoft console on release day; it would have perpetuated the strength of the association they have with the Call of Duty franchise, thus it would have perpetuated the strength and viability of the Xbox brand going into the next-generation. Of course, any critically thinking gamer would already know that this title will generate most of its revenue on the current-generation hardware. With an install base of around 77 million Xbox 360s, Call of Duty: Ghosts will thrive on that platform. But Microsoft is trying to convince us to buy their new hardware, and being available on day one alongside the release of one of the year's most anticipated games would have greatly benefited them with this endeavor. Microsoft is essentially abdicating their Call of Duty advantage over to Sony. Impulsive console Call of Duty loyalists will buy their title with the next-generation system most immediately available to them, especially when that system in $100 cheaper. An online community of Call of Duty gamers will already be budding on PS4 by the time Xbox One releases in America, encouraging future Call of Duty gamers to congregate on that platform. Microsoft must be crazy to let this happen, or they must be blind to the potential ramifications this may have moving forward.
Microsoft may have many reasons for scheduling the release of the Xbox One on November 22nd. Manufacturing and logistical considerations most certainly have an effect on launch target dates. Also, November 22nd is the 8th anniversary of the North American release of the Xbox 360, a little bit of trivia that would only really matter to Microsoft and not to video game fans around the world. What does matter to the fans are games and trust; these are two characteristics Sony's platform is perceived to have in surplus. Although the Xbox brand has many fans, those individuals do not promulgate ardent loyalty to the Microsoft Corporation like Sony fans fatuously express for their chosen side over the internet. Microsoft should take note of this. They do not have the same luxury of being able to commit long sequences of marketing missteps like their competition seems to have. Any bits of good news, however small, could have large and positive implications for their struggling PR image. Releasing the Xbox One before the PS4 could have been the start of some positive momentum moving in Microsoft's favor. Instead, the Xbox One and its parent company have a long, steep hill to climb in gaining the mind-share, and market-share, of the fans in the face of competition that less expensive, yet perceived as either equal, or superior, in quality and performance. Microsoft would have been wise to have learned the lessons of history; a history that details the emergence of a decade-long market-share domination of Sony's PlayStation console brand.