360 feedback

Well, my whole ‘bumper crop of Christmas posts’ thing didn’t work out so well, what with going to a wedding in Cambridge with no internet access. Still, the posts are waiting…

As most people know, Microsoft launched the Xbox 360 worldwide in November last year. There was a lot of fanfare, and lots of people gushing over the wonderful graphics – and it’s true, the Xbox 360 really does have wonderful graphics. I watched a kid playing Project Gotham Racing 3 at HMV this weekend on an HDTV, and it looked incredible, despite the fact that he was an awful player. The problem is that that’s the only place I can see an Xbox 360 in action; of my many friends who are console gamers, only one of them owns an Xbox 360, and that’s because he queued up for a couple of hours on the launch day.

In short, Xbox 360s are extremely rare on the ground. I have never seen a console for sale in any store I’ve been to. In fact, since the beginning of December, the usual suspects such as HMV, Game and Virgin aren’t even offering the console for pre-order. That’s how bad the stock problems are – it’s not just that the consoles are out of stock. It’s that the retailers don’t even know when they’ll be getting more stock in volume, and so they’re very reluctant to offer pre-orders given the serious difficulties they had honouring them on launch day.

I have heard it said in the past that the stock shortage was a deliberate ploy to drive up sales for Christmas. Given that you still can’t pre-order an Xbox 360 in January, let alone pick one up from a store, I find this hard to believe. I have heard others suggest that while it might not have been a deliberate move on Microsoft’s part, it’s still benefitting them because it’s creating the image of a premium product in high demand, which will serve them well when stock is finally available. I disagree with that as well.

Microsoft have basically squandered the Xbox 360 launch publicity, particularly in the UK. Regardless of the quality of the games or console, the launch put them in the public’s eye and it caused games retailers to aggressively push the console to consumers, by putting up posters and cardboard cut-outs of Joanna Dark in shop windows. Unfortunately, none of this does any good if you can’t actually buy it, and while consumers might be fine waiting for a few weeks, they’re now growing apathetic. Even worse, the Playstation 3 is looming ominously on the horizon, and if Sony names a launch date soon, they’ll have effectively stolen the thunder from Microsoft, rather than vice versa.

Something else Microsoft has to consider now is how much they’ve annoyed UK games retailers, who suffered the full brunt of consumers’ frustration when they couldn’t get their pre-ordered consoles, or buy consoles for Christmas. When I went to HMV, I saw that the Xbox 360 had shelf space comparable to that of the Sony PSP or Nintendo DS. However, I strongly suspect they’re not actually selling any Xbox 360 games, for the simple reason that no-one owns any consoles. Basically, that shelf space is just bleeding money.

I don’t doubt that Microsoft will sort out the stock problems within two or three months and you’ll be able to buy an Xbox 360 with ease. However, the damage has been done, and the vital 6-9 months lead that Microsoft aimed to establish over Sony has been significantly eroded by their incompetent supply problems. Instead of gamers talking about the advantages of the 360, such as the great Xbox Live experience, they just aren’t talking about the Xbox 360 at all.

NB: I see that Microsoft has abandoned its own ‘3 million consoles in 3 months’ target, primarily due to stock problems.