Xbox makes gamers feel included

Microsoft launches its Xbox 360 next month. But with the console’s success largely dependent on the quality of available games, what is the communications strategy behind the product? David Quainton investigates

Gamers are readying themselves for the latest development in a two-decade-old console war that began back in 1986. But the market has changed dramatically since then, when Sega's Master System fought with the Nintendo Entertainment System. By the late 1990s Sega had lost ground, and Microsoft and Sony had entered the fray.
Ahead of the 22 November release of the Xbox 360, Microsoft has admitted that some stores will quickly run out of stock. Inevitably the company is wheeling out a major PR offensive to maximise sales.

But in a market where console sales live and die on the quality of games available, what is the best-case scenario for Microsoft PROs?
'The main problem for the 360 is that it lacks landmark games,' says Stuff editor-in-chief Tom Dunmore. 'When the Xbox came out it had Halo, and that made a huge difference.'

Halo was such a success that its sequel made at least £70m within 24 hours of hitting the shelves. Given that the 360 does not have an equivalent standout game, Microsoft's agencies will have a difficult job convincing consumers of its gaming credentials.

'We were truly blessed with Halo,' admits Manning Selvage & Lee director Dave Bennett, whose agency is handling European PR. 'Our task now is to highlight the strength of the games available on the 360, and to make it clear that it's the most powerful launch line-up ever.'

The user experience
The 360's broad support but lack of a standout feature could, paradoxically, limit its sales. 'We've got to throw the message out that the 360 is about more than just games,' adds Bennett. 'It's a wider experience.'

Although the original Xbox shifted fewer units than Sony's PlayStation 2, perhaps because it came to market 18 months later, the Microsoft machine gained a head start in the online arena. In November 2002, Xbox released the 'Xbox Live' service, enabling users to play each other over the web. It now has over two million subscribers.

'It's an area in which we are miles ahead,' says Jon Cunningham, director at The Red Consultancy, which handles Microsoft's strategic consumer comms in the UK and Europe.  To capitalise on the online gaming fervour, Microsoft launched 'Game with fame' this year,
allowing users to take on celebrities, such as footballer Shaun Wright-Phillips and Welsh rappers Goldie Lookin' Chain, in online tournaments.

This celebrity presence – the 360 was unveiled in May in an MTV special hosted by actor Elijah Wood – highlights how much the gaming world has changed since its 'geek' beginnings, opening the door for a host of new PR opportunities. 'The Sun never used to review computer games, but now it does,' says Bennett. 'Empire is a film magazine that now reviews games. It's not just for young men any more.'

Red backed up a European showcase of the 360 in Amsterdam this month with celebrity-based activity in the UK. 'We took Vernon Kaye and other Radio One DJs to an apartment in Vauxhall to play the machine,' says Cunningham. 'They are influencers, and getting them onside helps the Xbox profile.'

Such efforts are a sign that lessons have been learned from the original Xbox release, which was criticised in some media circles. 'Marketing and PR for the original Xbox was very last minute,' says Steve Brown, editor of Xbox 360 – The Official Xbox Magazine. 'But they've been great with us this time around. We've had early and exclusive access to playable versions of games.'

Xbox's PR was aimed squarely at a niche of 'hardcore gamers', a market that it successfully tapped into, but one that also alienated it from swathes of  potential buyers in the mainstream consumer market. 'There's a feeling that Xbox games are increasingly difficult, and that doesn't help introduce new gamers,' argues Stuff's Dunmore.

Need to attract new gamers
In response, the 360 has a number of games that will be specifically promoted at new blood. 'We have a product, Kameo, which is a fairytale role-playing game with a female protagonist,' says Cunningham. 'With that we hope to entice female gamers.'

According to Dunmore the Xbox has failed to woo women in the same way that Nintendo traditionally has – a situation that is unlikely to change when the Nintendo Revolution console comes out next year. 'Nintendo has the women at the moment,' admits Cunningham. 'It has a younger, more cartoony appeal.'

So can Red and MS&L make a difference to Xbox sales? Is there a new market ready to be sold to?

'You can have the best PR in the world and no one will buy into it if you have no games,' says Helen Melluish, senior account executive at Hill & Knowlton. 'The Gizmondo [hand-held machine from Tiger Telematics that launched this year to poor sales] is a great example.
It had media support, appearing in lots of newspapers and magazines, but it couldn't establish itself as the next must-have gadget.'

But Cunningham is confident his team can drive the 360 to success.

'Gizmondo was launched with a party where you couldn't play the machine,' he says. 'People have been allowed to come and play the 360 – we got as many people in front of it as possible.'

Getting in front of a lot of people could be the ace up Microsoft's sleeve. 'It's absolutely the right thing to do,' says Dunmore.

'Including people in this way lets everyone feel they are at the start of something. I think Stuff readers will love it.'

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