Continuing its frenetic media blitz for a single game title that it hopes will reverse the fortunes of its Xbox One video game and entertainment console, Microsoft this week confirmed that it has a lot riding on the success of Titanfall. Should this game not succeed, and the Xbox One continue to fall further and further behind the PlayStation 4, it could face an awkward failure in devices at a crucial time.
"Titanfall is an incredibly important game, and it's coming at an important time," Microsoft Chief Marketing and Strategy Officer Yusuf Mehdi told The Wall Street Journal. And just in case that wasn't clear, he similarly told The New York Times that "it's hard to understate how incredibly important Titanfall is for Xbox."
This is obvious to anyone who pays attention to the firm's strident marketing efforts, as I reported previously in "With PlayStation 4 Sales Hitting 5 Million in Sales, Microsoft Pins Its Xbox One Hopes on Titanfall." Microsoft has pushed Titanfall—which will ship only on its own platforms, including Windows, Xbox One, and Xbox 360—harder than it's ever pushed a single video game title. And yes, that includes such previous platform exclusives as Halo and Gears of War. Indeed, the firm's push for this one game rivals its marketing efforts for such products as Windows 8 and the Xbox One itself.
And Microsoft doesn't even make Titanfall: the game is the creation of a video game studio called Respawn that was started by ex-Infinity Ward leads who were tossed out of Activision in a dispute over royalties. But this team, which created and then turned Call of Duty into one of the top entertainment franchises in history, is financially backed by Microsoft and supported both directly and indirectly by the firm's constant marketing of this one game. Can this team do it again?
Microsoft's marketing of the game has been pretty effective so far, with private and then public beta tests of the game garnering much excitement and positive reviews from gamers and reviewers alike. And Microsoft could use a hit: Where the original Halo games legitimatized the first Xbox console in the eyes of hardcore gamers, the hope is that Titanfall will do the same for a console that many believe is too focused on non-gaming activities.
Whatever the reason, the Xbox One is falling further behind the PlayStation 4 each month. At year's end, Sony had reported PlayStation 4 sales to customers of 4.2 million units, and Microsoft responded with a 3 million figure that obscured the gap since that included sales into the distribution and retail channels. Since then, Sony revealed that it has sold more than 6 million PlayStation 4s to customers, and NPD data for January shows that the PlayStation 4 beat the Xbox One in January sales by over 2-to-1 in the United States. The gap is growing.
With the PlayStation 4 lacking a franchise title of its own, Microsoft would perhaps be better served by attacking some other weaknesses of the system. The Xbox One is still sold in far fewer markets than is the PlayStation 4, and it costs $100 more. So Sony's biggest advantages—distribution and pricing—are two areas where Microsoft should be able to make up lost ground pretty easily. I will say this: If Titanfall is anything less than a smash hit, you can expect Xbox One prices to start creeping downward.
And in some ways they already have: Interested customers can purchase an Xbox One/Titanfall bundle that includes the console and the game for the same price ($500) as the console itself. If you were going to buy both anyway, that's a savings of $60. As with the bundle, Titanfall sales start tomorrow, on Tuesday.
But the Xbox One's slow start is starting to stir unrest in Redmond. The Xbox brand is among Microsoft's strongest, and the Xbox 360, with over 80 million units sold, is considered a success despite a record $1 billion in warranty fixes due to endemic reliability issues. Until the Xbox One, it seemed that this one part of the company could do no wrong, and its users were considered the most loyal.
With the Xbox One stumbling badly out of the gate—the firm badly mishandled the console launch last summer and has never really recovered—it's starting to appear that Xbox is suffering from the same disconnect with customers that is dogging the rest of Microsoft. Windows 8 got off to a terrible start as well, and has not resonated with customers despite recent improvements. Its Surface tablets, though well-made and expertly designed, have generated little to no interest or sales. And Windows Phone, though lauded by reviewers, has sold poorly, so poorly that Microsoft was forced to buy the part of Nokia that makes 90 percent of the Windows Phone handsets sold worldwide.
Between the Windows 8-based Surface tablets, Windows Phone-powered Nokia handsets, and Xbox One, Microsoft could be on the cusp of device-related defeats on multiple fronts. For a firm that has pinned its future hopes on "devices and services," that's an inauspicious start.