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Xbox 360


 After the over-hype, shortages and exuberant declarations have slowly faded into the crisp winter night, the Xbox 360 leaves one question that begs clarity – was it all worth it?
Dismissing the excessive rhetoric, there is a single clear answer – No.
No? No? I hear you declare, how can that be? A fair question and one that I intend to answer. In this answer there are three specific areas of importance to focus on, these are: availability, hardware and software.

Availability/launch:

Despite Microsoft’s hopeful strategy of a month long worldwide launch where the three major territories; North America, Europe and Japan all received sufficient units to cover the initial surge of demand, it didn’t go quite according to plan. Whether Microsoft underestimated their figures or the demand was just so over-the-top that it could not have been foreseen, there will undoubtedly be many upset individuals – even those who had pre-ordered a machine – who will still not be the owner of an Xbox 360. Given that Microsoft, according to many analysts, are taking a significant hit on the upfront price of the 360 (estimated to be around $100) there surely can be no excuse for not making certain that every person who wanted a console, got one. The basic economic law of ensuring supply equals demand was obviously lost and with it the ability to recoup the initial loss through software and peripherals to a far greater degree than they are doing.

What makes this situation worse is that a stunningly large percentage, somewhere between 50-70%, of consoles available for the Japanese launch are still on the shelves. In a disastrous repeat of what happened to the original Xbox, Japanese gamers have shunned Microsoft’s new console with a vengeance. When you consider that to date the Xbox has sold roughly 500,000 units in Japan compared with PS2’s staggering 22 million units, the disparity becomes obvious. Why did Microsoft assume it would be different this time around? Instead of making concessions toward their lack of success in Japan in order to answer the demand in North America and Europe, Microsoft vainly carried on regardless. To mind it suggests an ill-conceived marketing strategy and rushed launch that relied heavily on the belief that because 360 was the first next-gen console, the Japanese would go equally as wild for it as their western brethren.

Price is also a distinct factor. The two separate packages; the deluxe edition with hard drive and the basic package without, offer no saving incentive in picking one over the other. Neither were sufficient hard drives on shelves, when individuals who had purchased the basic package realised how much they needed the hard drive. Throw in the large mark-up on software and peripherals, particularly the wireless devices, and totalled up, buying an Xbox 360 becomes a costly endeavour.   

So in the final analysis of launch success, Microsoft gets a big red cross, not only for it’s inability to produce what the customer wanted but also for creating a secondary market through websites such as e-bay, where individuals lucky enough to have acquired an Xbox 360 could make a handsome profit on their purchase, off desperate fans and parents alike.      

Hardware:

However weak the launch programme though, the quality of the Xbox 360 means that Microsoft can be forgiven their lack of accurate planning, right? Sorry I’m afraid not. From the uninspiring packaging to the drab colour scheme, the Xbox 360 screams PC. In fact if you turn it horizontally it would be tough to describe it as anything other than PC-like. Admittedly the face-plates are a neat idea but at that price, almost half the cost of a game, who would want to cough up more money for one?
Turn the machine on and the first thing you notice is …. the noise. Having not seen or played an Xbox 360 other than my own I cannot comment on all machines, but mine is very noisy. Whether it is the hard drive or the DVD belt is unclear, suffice to say I can play Call of Duty 2 with the sound off and still have decent sound effects. All the extra features that Microsoft have said make the console so good – being able to download pictures from your digital camera, storing and playing MP3’s etc I have yet to use and highly doubt they will ever be used. Not to belabour the point ad nauseam but that’s what I have a PC for.

An important component for the next generation will be backwards compatibility. With such vast back catalogues of games on the present generation of consoles, any company that doesn’t deliver the goods by providing a smooth transition between old and new will be certain to lose a fair amount of potential customers and casual gamers. Microsoft have, it is accurate to say, made a complete hash of this key component. More than any other element, the inability to play even the most recent Xbox games (Star Wars: Battlefront 2, Spartan: Total Warrior and Matrix: Path of Neo didn’t work and I received the same ‘Requires download patch’ message each time) has left me aghast. How can you not supply a significant portion of your fan base with the means to continue playing their old games on the new console, rather than having to continue to use the old console alongside the new one. It certainly defeats the purpose of a new console and although you can download the patches, it requires you have internet connection and the savvy to do so – not to mention the patience to go hunting for a patch for every single game you own on Xbox. None of this frustration is offset by the graphics, which are an improvement without being staggeringly better and there is a clear expectation of something ‘more’. Of an experience that was new and varied, not just another games console with bells and whistles that will rarely be used. Even the controller for all it’s plus points is simply a wireless PS2 pad with slightly improved ergonomics.
Again, disappointing. Whether the hype and or expectation were too great, the Xbox 360 could have been more aptly named Xbox 1.5.

Software:

Unfortunately this notion extends to the software element. When the list of launch titles was announced there was a distinct feeling of being under whelmed. Despite J. Allard’s description as this being the best software launch for a console to date, the list alone – prior to several key titles being put back, left a lot to be desired both in quality and quantity. Gun, Tony Hawk’s Wasteland, Peter Jackson’s King Kong, Call of Duty 2 and Quake IV are all ports from other platforms. Not a crime in itself as long as the effort was made to enhance and improve the titles using all the extra power and options supposedly available through the Xbox 360. Unsurprisingly this didn’t happen. The companies involved with the listed titles seemed willing to bet that purely because of the Xbox 360 logo on the box and a higher price tag consumers would foolishly lap it up. Again it can be inferred that the ports were rushed, that Microsoft did not insist on a certain standard for their launch titles and that the person who really paid for it was the consumer, both in the pocket and in the quality stakes. Other titles that were used heavily to demonstrate the capabilities of the Xbox 360 prior to release such as Gears of War, Dead Rising and Alan Wake are currently scheduled to be released late in the second quarter of 2006, a disturbing gap of three months when very few titles will be available for the Xbox 360. Several significant titles listed as being either available at or close to launch, such as; Ghost Recon 3: Advanced Warfighter, Saints Row, The Outfit and Dead or Alive 4 have only now appeared. The reason cited by both Tecmo and Ubisoft was that: ‘there wasn’t enough time for the teams to make full use of the technology available’, which raises the spectre once more of a rushed launch. So far none of the launch titles have wowed audiences with variety, sheer quality or innovation and although this is an inherent part of a new console’s evolution – learning to get to grips with the technology, it poses some worrying questions about the near future for Microsoft.

When Sony launches PS3 late in the year then Microsoft faces several serious tests of the Xbox 360’s ability to compete in the market. With limited availability of consoles, a dearth of quality titles and any worthy titles being released close to a PS3 launch date, Microsoft are now in a defensive position and must find a way to alleviate the pressure Sony will undoubtedly put on them. The Playstation brand has sold consistently in all territories and with the previously mentioned advantage Sony has on its home turf and throughout Asia, Microsoft could see demand for the 360 fall rapidly. Given the hype that will begin to increase around PS3 in the build-up to E3, many consumers, who could rightly be disillusioned by not getting an Xbox 360 immediately, may opt to wait and pre-order a PS3 instead. When you add into the equation the three months in which games will be sparse on the 360, it presents a fragile picture for Microsoft that could easily be shattered by a strong PS3 launch. If Microsoft have Halo 3 under wraps and awaiting release, now would be a good time to get it ready for launch.

The last few months in console gaming have been about the Xbox 360. Microsoft have not turned this to their advantage and rather than silence the doubters the 360 continues to be a work in progress.

Owen Jones © 2006                     
 

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