Signs of life for Xbox, but it has its work cut out for it if it wants to stay in the conversation.
Xbox One had a terrible year in 2017. It started with the cancellation of one of the most anticipated exclusives in their arsenal (a trend that would continue through the year with other exclusives being delayed or cancelled, and no new ones being announced), it saw sales plummet as a dominant PS4 asserted itself, and Nintendo sucked all the air out of the room with the Switch, it saw the conversation forgetting about Xbox and focusing on PS4 and Switch, and their cadence of great game releases… in every possible way, by any metric- sales, games, ratings, conversation, buzz- Xbox One lost to Switch and PS4 in most of 2017.
By the end of the year, however, the platform had begun to show minor signs of life. The Xbox One X launched amidst a fair bit of hype among the existing Xbox fanbase, and, for a $500 console, ended up doing better than expected, at least in the US and UK. Meanwhile, Microsoft, having secured temporary console exclusivity for PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, the biggest game of the year, also gave it a hit exclusive going into the Holiday season, which undoubtedly gave it another boost.
"In every possible way, by any metric- sales, games, ratings, conversation, buzz- Xbox One lost to Switch and PS4 in 2017."
It wasn’t enough– in November, the month that the Xbox One S was $190, and the Xbox One X launched, Xbox One came in second place, losing to PS4. In December, the Xbox One managed to edge out ahead of the PS4– which was back to selling at $250 with a game bundled, while the Xbox One kept its discounted price- but ended up losing to the Nintendo Switch. In the end, Xbox One finished 2017 with not a single first place finish through the 12 month period.
But those second place finishes are interesting- after months of consistent third place finishes, as Switch and PS4 duked it out for first place, the Xbox One finally managed to beat each of its two competitors one at a time- and therein is the spark of momentum I feel Microsoft needs to capitalize on going into 2018. Those second place finishes came against abnormally strong competition- in terms of sales, the PS4 and Switch are both phenomenons, while the Xbox One is, well, not. The fact that it managed to edge out both systems one at a time indicates that the market can and will still accommodate Xbox- and this is what Microsoft needs to use to its advantage in 2018.
The fact of the matter is, good marketing with a good “exclusive” (such as it was) was enough for Xbox to manage to pull some numbers-now imagine if Microsoft could actually maintain this through the year, and not jut do it at the end of the year. Would they not manage to have higher sales sustained through the year? Maybe not enough to beat Nintendo and PlayStation, who, it must be admitted, have stronger brands and lineups at this point, but enough to be reasonably competitive? Enough to stay in the conversation?
The trouble is that this requires Microsoft to have a cadence of games- and I am not sure they can do that. This year, they have Sea of Thieves, State of Decay 2, Crackdown 3, and the inevitable Forza game. And…? Ori comes this year. Maybe a new Gears comes this year. Maybe a new Halo comes this year. Maybe. That’s a lot of maybes. And they are reliant either on franchises that have failed to excite the mass market much so far (Halo, Gears, Forza, Crackdown), or games with no proven commercial appeal (Sea of Thieves). You cannot sell a console and keep excitement in it maintained through the year off the back of three, four major releases.
“But third party games”! No, that’s not a good counter-argument, sorry. Even though the Xbox One X will play third party games better, it is not enough to convince 70 million PS4 owners to abandon their existing systems, friends lists, Trophies, and collection of games, to spend $500 on a new system, with a smaller poor of games, to play the same games they already can, but slightly prettier. The conversation for third party games is firmly fixed on PS4 at this point, due to sheer momentum and inertia- simply having better looking third party games isn’t enough to swing the pendulum in your direction in the middle of a generation. You need to do something dramatic and radical, something that disrupts things- Sega, for instance, did this with the Genesis and Dreamcast. Nintendo did this with the Switch. In all those cases, the systems involved were unique, sure- but more importantly, they came out swinging with an incredible slate of games you couldn’t get anywhere else. That’s what sold the Genesis. That’s what sold the Switch. That’s what Xbox is lacking.
"Even though the Xbox One X will play third party games better, it is not enough to convince 70 million PS4 owners to abandon their existing systems, friends lists, Trophies, and collection of games, to spend $500 on a new system, with a smaller poor of games, to play the same games they already can, but slightly prettier."
It has really long odds to surmount- simply being a slightly prettier PS4 is not enough in this case. It needs to have something so unique to it that all eyes are drawn to it. It needs its own Breath of the Wild, its own SoulCalibur, its own Sonic the Hedgehog. The sixth Halo and eleventh Forza game will not do that.
So, we come back to- exclusives. Microsoft needs exclusives. As soon as exclusives are announced, good ones, everything else follows. Suddenly they have something to market. Suddenly they have buzz. They can have more events and showings with which to stay in public consciousness. They have games to spur sales. Games, not 6 TFLOPs and “true power” of 4K, are important- as long as Xbox does not have these, it is doomed to stay behind the PS4 and Switch, no matter the little momentum it was able to accrue for itself these past few months.
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