There’s a piece making the rounds from The Verge all about how Microsoft is in trouble. That’s not completely true. The Xbox One is doing very well, just not nearly as well as the PlayStation 4. That thing is doing astronomically well, so much so that anything else looks bad in direct comparison. Yet, the Xbox One can’t shake that reputation that it’s doing poorly, and it’s struggling for mindshare and precious social capital. The Verge blames exclusives, or lack thereof. Xbox One exclusive games have seen delays and cancellations, while things like open betas and timed exclusives, historically Microsoft territory, have jumped ship over to the Sony juggernaut. But I don’t think that’s a cause. Xbox One has a fair share of exclusives, but nobody talks about them much. It’s clear to me that’s a symptom of a much greater identity problem the console brand has suffered from for a while now. It just took until this generation to catch up.
From my perspective, the Xbox line has always been a strange case. It was always a system that seemed to exist because of really strong mass-market appeal, thriving on the strength of its casual-friendly, shooter-and-sports-dominant appeal. It had Halo, sure, but it also had four controller slots and a bunch of other accessible, yet competitive games. The PlayStation 2 needing a multi-tap meant there was a market it couldn’t easily capture, even with its incredible install base. At that point, the Xbox was a strong second pillar. It was cool, something games struggled with at that point.
The Xbox 360 managed to coast on that, also benefitting from Microsoft’s infinite coffers and the Sony competition stopping just short of literally shooting itself in the foot. The early success and built-up good will from before led to all the exclusivity deals from the multi-platform publishers. Sony’s console was large, expensive and difficult to develop for. It may have been the more hardcore system, but some seriously poor decision-making and the out of nowhere success of the Wii made things look a lot like they’re starting to now, with a couple roles reversed a bit.
The problem with catering to multiplatform, mass-market games is there’s no true demographic appeal. You’re just casting a net out there to everyone, to people who don’t really care about things like brand loyalty or anything really, other than the ability to hook a box up to their TV and play Call of Duty or Madden. These companies cater to everyone, and then follow the money when it comes to things like timed releases and DLC. It’s a great way to solidify a lead, but an awful short-term strategy for basing your brand identity around.
Sure enough, it blew up in Microsoft’s face in spectacular fashion the next go-around. Towards the end of the previous generation, Sony smartened up and slashed the price of its hardware, added huge incentives like a big hard drive, and casted more targeted nets out to a variety of demographics. The Xbox 360 remained the group play and casual machine, the PlayStation 3 had that, plus single-player action games, story games, and RPGs. Sony was quietly making a comeback as a “hardcore” console. It was the box for gamers with distinctive and diverse tastes.
When the Xbox One was revealed, Microsoft went all-in on that wide net. The Xbox One was pitched to the public as a living room box, a machine that let you channel all your cable, your music, and your communication tools through it and into your TV. There were games too, but all the games you would expect along with a few other neat things. But more importantly, this was the mass market box, the always online box. The One Box, if you will, that would do all the casual entertainment things.
Sony made a machine that was almost exactly the same. It had similar specs and bells and whistles. There was less media functionality, and similar but less restrictive online functions. Oh, also, games. Sony went all in with the “hardcore gamer” identity branding, and it paid off in dividends. All the things the Xbox 360 could do were also present here, but you could also do stuff like borrow games and play weird Japanese stuff. And boy howdy, did weird Japanese stuff make a comeback this generation. Through a mix of bad PR and not really catering to anything that wasn’t already expected, Xbox One went on to just, exist in the minds of the community.
The split no longer really existed. Both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 can more or less do the same stuff and run the same games. Maybe you care about resolution, maybe you don’t. The PlayStation 4 is once again the cool thing to have. Microsoft still has the audience it cultivated before, the people who invested in their Xbox Live accounts and maintain their friendships there, but that edge, that multi-demographic appeal, no longer exists. Exclusives are more of an appeal to install bases and smaller niches, but those exclusives won’t come the way they have to the PlayStation 4 if your system isn’t already ahead.
The Nintendo Switch being the success it already seems to be further complicates the situation for the Xbox One. Remember that the Xbox 360 was also an early platform for indie games. Now, Nintendo is busting ass to get ahead in that market, nailing down exclusive content and timed releases in a market that didn’t really have that sort of thing before. Meanwhile, nobody talks about indies on Xbox One. Nintendo may very well be getting back to that “second pillar” status it had back when the Wii was huge, but with much greater unique software appeal than even that console had.
So, there are a lot of factors to consider here. Exclusives certainly are one, especially for people still figuring out which box to buy. But the real problem is brand identity. You can’t look at the Xbox brand right now and definitively say what it’s all about. Years of catering to third parties and the demographics that follow them is not an identity. If people can’t identify with a product, they won’t talk about it, even if they have it. Sony reached out to fans, with a product based on an insular, hardcore mentality. That pushes out casual players, but makes dedicated folks turn their wallets inside-out with glee.