On Eve of Xbox 360 Launch, Doubts Emerge

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In the News
- On Eve of Xbox 360 Launch, Doubts Emerge

==== In the News ====
by Paul Thurrott, thurrott@windowsitpro.com

On Eve of Xbox 360 Launch, Doubts Emerge

At midnight tonight, several thousand consumer electronics retailers will open their doors to eager customers around the United States, offering them a chance to purchase the new Xbox 360 video game console. As a result, the Xbox 360 launch event should prove the most successful Microsoft product launch since the introduction of Windows 95, as potential customers queue up in the cold for their chance to spend hundreds of dollars on an untested and unproven entertainment device. Is this a result of consumer insanity or brilliant marketing? Early looks at the Xbox 360 console suggest it might just be both: Reviews indicate that Microsoft's new video game system is good but not great, with no gotta-have-it game titles. If consumers agree, is Xbox 360 poised for a disastrous 2006?

The prelaunch news about the Xbox 360 isn't encouraging. Of the 18 launch game titles, the majority are sequels to existing games on other systems that offer similar game play and graphics. The lack of new graphics in the Xbox 360 games is surprising because the Xbox 360 is often touted for its HDTV-level graphics capabilities, which should far outstrip the graphics on current systems. Game titles from the PC world, such as "Quake 4" and "Call of Duty 2," have been ported successfully to Xbox 360, on which the graphics of these games are faithful to the PC originals, though brighter looking. However, the Xbox 360 controller has proven less well adapted to the precise action of these first-person shooter games than the mouse and keyboard controls PC gamers use.

According to many reviews, what we're left with is a capable but unexciting console that is far too expensive for most consumers. The Xbox 360 package with the so-called Premium Chrome Finish console costs $399, whereas the stripped-down basic $299 Core System model can't even save games or access certain online services without expensive add-ons such as a hard drive. And although the Xbox 360 can play about a quarter of the first-generation Xbox titles out of the box, the Xbox 360 lacks any truly compelling original content of its own, and what original content there is doesn't visually differentiate this system from previous-generation systems enough to get typical gamers very excited.

So where are the killer games that show off the graphical prowess of the Xbox 360? First-tier games such as Final Fantasy XI, Gears of War, and Unreal Tournament 2007 won't ship until next year. And the most eagerly awaited title of all, Halo 3, is still a mystery: Microsoft and game maker Bungie refuse to discuss the future of the lucrative Halo franchise at this time, noting only that the next Halo title will ship when it's ready. It should have been ready in time for the Xbox 360 launch, methinks. A Halo release in mid-2006 isn't going to excite that many people.

After the euphoria of the Xbox 360 launch and holiday 2005 buying season dies down, Microsoft will find that it no longer has the next-generation game market to itself. Sony and Nintendo are gearing up for the release of their PlayStation 3 and Revolution systems, respectively, and both are trying to carve out market niches where they can beat Microsoft. Sony is the better positioned of the two because of its video game–system dominance over the past decade and the wealth of third-party support it attracts. If Sony is able to outperform the Xbox 360 lineup at the launch of PlayStation 3--a real possibility--Microsoft will have trouble maintaining its lead next year.

Ultimately, video gaming, like any form of entertainment, is about the content. Xbox 360 features the technical chops to outperform the competition, but that was true of its also-ran predecessor as well. It's unclear whether the current crop of content available for Xbox 360 is good enough to turn the console's technical superiority into market leadership. I'll have a lot more to say about this in my exhaustive review of Xbox 360, available by tomorrow on the SuperSite for Windows. http://www.winsupersite.com

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