Look, you know I’m an Xbox guy. So you know how much it pains me to say that I’m kinda sick of seeing Microsoft’s hardware at the top of the NPD’s sales list for the eighteenth consecutive month. That’s right, The Xbox 360 has been the best-selling console in North America for the past year and a half, essentially since FleshEatingZipper started. I’m not saying that the Xbox 360 is a bad console by any means, but this is hardly the ‘comeback kid’ win that the original Xbox enjoyed in 2004 up to and following the release of Halo 2, winning in thin margins over the dominant PlayStation 2. No, this is the sign of some deeper woes.
The Other Guys Gave Up
As disappointed as I am now, watching the Wii dominate the sales charts as a persistent sell-out for years on end was irritating. The other console makers have adapted motion controls to their own platforms to various degrees of success. In the case of Sony, none at all, and even with the success of Kinect, motion controls haven’t completely overridden the function of the controller, unless you’re just dying to play Dance Central. But the Wii’s biggest strength for Nintendo was also its greatest weakness: making bank on cheap hardware limited its future potential, so now they’re rushing the stage with the Wii U and ditching motion controls almost entirely in favor of getting a head start on their competition, not rumored to release until next year. Sony had the opposite problem: they launched hardware that was too ambitious for the wallets of most gamers with hardware that more expensive and games that didn’t look any better than their Xbox counterparts. Sony’s had some great games since then, but they’ve all lacked the blockbuster appeal of Gears of War, New Super Mario Bros, Halo, or Wii Fit. Now it appears they’re fine with settling with a third-place finish.
Microsoft Has Stopped Living Dangerously
With the original Xbox, it felt like Microsoft executives were working paycheck to paycheck trying to sustain their distant second-place finished with edgy ads, radical price drops, and crazy leaps in technology (see: Xbox Live). Even in the earliest days of the Xbox 360, no one was quite sure how well they’d fare with the specter of the PlayStation 3 looming on the horizon, a similar situation that wound up dooming Sega’s Dreamcast and driving them from the hardware business entirely (yes, I get that Microsoft had billions of dollars and Sega was limping along). But Microsoft ‘figured it out’ through incentive means of building an audience with a brighter identity (and a white console to start) and more content to impress people who weren’t the traditional hardcore gamer that usually bought the console at launch. As the years went on, Microsoft focused on blockbusters instead of weird and new ideas, they introduced avatars and Kinect to get the kids involved, and slowly they didn’t need to have the tight community connection built on the backs of hundreds of fan sites. The Xbox 360, despite its successes and use of technology, is a more homogeneous experience than ever: a platform designed to appeal to everyone with a clumsy interface to match.
Watching the others fall behind or give up has softened the Xbox’s approach and so long as Microsoft remains on top, they’ll have little incentive to change. It seems odd that a decade ago, I thought it would be bizarre for Microsoft to be the big man on campus, a stuffy figure that knew how to lace his shoes in a fancy way and told the audience what to expect, rather than asking what they wanted. Well, here we are.