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Interview: Stephen McGill on marketing the Xbox 360

Sitting in an Xbox 360 festooned lounge in the trendy Seven Dials area in central London, Stephen McGill is obviously busy, but remarkably comfortable for a man who's just about to see years of hard work being put to the test by the toughest judges of all - the public.

With Xbox 360 rolling out across the UK, his marketing of the device and its games may be in the background compared to hardware and software, but nonetheless will be one of the key aspects which is subject to scrutiny as the success of the console is analysed.

McGill took the time to speak to about his plans for getting the Xbox 360 message across to European consumers - and how he hopes they'll respond in the weeks and months to come. Xbox 360 is the first next-generation system to arrive in Europe; what do you expect from it in the coming weeks and months?

Stephen McGill: I think we're expecting to see some really healthy sales both of the console and of the software. I think we've got an unprecedentedly strong launch line-up of titles - 15 in total, covering a great range of different genres. Coming out of the US, where we've had great success, lots of great demand, I think it's going to be a great week.

The thing we've really got to focus on is just working really hard to make sure we get stock out to people as quickly as possible. We're trying to do something really different with this launch in the sense of not only redefining what entertainment means from a product perspective and a service perspective, but the way we launch it.

So, typically consumers would have to wait say six to twelve months in Europe to get the latest technology. We said no to that - it was clear that consumers didn't want to be treated unfairly in Europe, and typically, they are. Normally things launch in Japan, then the US, then here many months later. What we wanted to do was launch everywhere, in those three territories, within a few days of each other.

That puts a different spin on how we launch - I think if people go out this week and have not pre-ordered, then they'll probably be a little bit disappointed. There is stock available in certain retailers who haven't done pre-orders, but what I would say is that we are working as fast as we can - teams in both manufacturing plants in China are working 24 hours, seven days a week, we're flying planes over to get stock out there, and we're going to have weekly replenishments.

I think that's the key thing for our retailers to understand - that we've got weekly stock coming in to those guys - and from a consumer point of view, if they can't find one this week, to have a bit of patience and try next week and the week after. We're going to have more stock coming in every week, and I think consumers would prefer to wait for maybe a few days or a couple of weeks to get theirs, rather having to wait six to twelve months, which is what they've typically had to do. I hope they like what we're doing.

Do you think you're going to be more limited by how much stock you can get into shops than by how much demand exists, between now and Christmas?

I think the demand that we're seeing coming out of the States, seeing the demand we have here and the amount of pre-orders that retailers have taken, is just amazing. I hope we're going to supply enough to fulfil all that demand as quickly as possible. It's just a case of how quickly we can actually do that - so it's just a matter of getting noses to the grindstone and getting as much product out there as quickly as we can.

Looking at the picture across Europe, the UK has been the most successful territory for Xbox; can we expect that the UK will get the lion's share of the European allocation over the coming weeks?

We're seeing our fair share. We've been quite fair about the allocations across all the regional territories - I think, given the sleek design of the console, given the marketing campaign, given the incredibly strong portfolio, both from a games point of view but also what it does beyond gaming... More into the entertainment space, like being able to plug your media device in, your music device, and listen to that, or watch your photos - that will help us broaden the audience.

That means that I think we'll see great success in all regional territories around Europe. We've got our fair share, with more to come every week.

In terms of marketing this device in Europe, what key strategies are you using to communicate with European consumers what exactly that it is that you're selling?

Well, first of all, you don't launch a console quietly. You have to go out there and say what exactly it is that you stand for. We're doing that - from a brand perspective, we've got a TV advertising and cinema advertising campaign that's kicked off already and will carry on for the next few months. We've got loads of games advertising happening for each of our titles, and so have the third parties.

So you don't launch quietly - but I think the thing to remember is that this isn't just a one-day launch campaign. This is a long-term business, it's a long term-campaign, it's a long-term bet for us - so the campaign has to suit as well. We've got a three month campaign currently planned that will see us into early 2006, and it'll just grow from there.

In terms of what you're communicating with that three month campaign, where's your focus? Are you focusing on the games, the multimedia functions... Which aspects of the system are you really pushing to the European audience?

Well it depends - it depends on the mix of the marketing campaign that you look at. If you look at PR, we're talking about the range of what this entertainment device can do - both from a range of games, the games capabilities and the services around Xbox Live, but also the broader digital entertainment lifestyle experiences that you can have. Playing your movies, plugging in your devices, watching your photos, listening to your music and so on.

From an advertising point of view, it's very much about the brand - telling people what we stand for, as a company and as a product. There's a variety of different stories around that. We're focusing on gaming immersion with our TV campaign, about sociability, about competitiveness, about competition. It depends on the different parts of the marketing mix, but we've definitely got a very healthy advertising campaign specifically around the titles, for each of the core games - certainly, Microsoft Game Studios' games - Kameo, Project Gotham Racing 3 and Perfect Dark Zero.

One of the things we'll be looking at in that campaign is also explaining what Xbox Live is about. What does the promising of online gaming mean? What is the promise of high definition? High definition is a term that's bandied around; what does it really mean? How big is it? Does it make a difference? We're explaining that a little bit. That's all part of our advertising campaign, which we'll be running over the next few months.

Is that a different mix to what's being used to market the system in the United States?

Yeah, a little bit. They have a different emphasis - consumers over there are very different to Europeans, particularly us Brits, and we want to make sure we've got a campaign that appeals and is very much local. They'll focus a little bit more on the social and competitive side, we'll focus a little bit more on the immersion side to start with, and then we'll broaden that campaign out a little bit as we go.

In terms of Xbox Live, in Europe the uptake of that on Xbox wasn't as fast as in the USA and never reached the same kind of levels. Are you going to be pushing that harder this time around? Is it a core part of the message here?

It's an integral part of the whole Xbox 360 service. When you look at what Xbox Live on the 360 platform is all about, it's about online gaming for sure, but it's more than that. It's about connecting friends, it's about chatting, it's about sending messages, it's about downloading content to extend your gaming experience - extra levels, extra cars, that sort of stuff.

It's also about downloading other forms of entertainment, just to whet your appetite - demos, trailers of games you might want to play. More casual games through the Live Arcade service - you can get a taste of that when you buy Xbox 360, you get Hexic HD, an amazing puzzle game. There's a variety more on Xbox Live and that list will grow.

They'll really appeal to people who want just a five, ten, fifteen minute fix before their mates come online to come and play Perfect Dark Zero, or when you've had enough of a driving game, you just want a break, you want to do something very very different. Then you maybe go to a retro arcade game that you useed to play many years ago and have a go at that. Or just broader appeal - having card games, board games with your friends, and actually being able to chat with them at the same time. That's part of what Xbox Live is going to deliver.

I think one of the big differences as well is that Xbox Live comes in two varieties, Silver and Gold. At a Silver level you get access to all the downloadable content, all the chatting facilities - and all that's free. You just need to have broadband - you just plug it in, and you're in. You're connected into that universe. It's only if you want to play multiplayer gaming, getting into tournaments, that you actually need to think about actually paying for membership. And that's incredible great value - it's forty quid a year.

When you're devising marketing for Xbox 360, both now at launch and beyond, what do you see as being the key rivals out there - the other products competing for the money in consumers' pockets?

I think there is nothing else in this particular space from a gaming perspective, because this is the first of the next-generation consoles - it's redefining entertainment. From a gaming point of view, there really isn't anything directly competing with it - I think it's then about what the consumer is going to spend their money on this Christmas, or even beyond that.

Mobile phones are going great, they're really going strong; portable music devices are going really strong... So is in-car navigation. So are trainers! We're really competing with that kind of broad appeal - you know, what do consumers want? What is part of their lifestyle?

That's part of what Xbox is all about. The sleek, iconic design with the double concavity curves just adds to the sense of this being a lifestyle choice as much as a games machine that'll just sit under the television. It's much more than that - it's about how you control your entertainment experiences.

It also adds value to all your other devices. Lots of people are buying PCs - we see this helping sell PCs. You'll connect it to your PC and stream your music and your photos from your PC. It'll help validate your purchases of a digital camera or a portable music player by giving you the ability to plug it in and listen to your music while playing Project Gotham Racing 3 at home. Having that kind of extra added value back to some of your other devices, your other purchases, I think is great.

HDTV is a pretty important technology for Xbox 360; have you been following how that's been selling here in the UK and across Europe so far? Is it going to be a big Christmas for HDTV?

You can't walk into a retailer and have a conversation about televisions, and not have a conversation about high definition. Every manufacturer of TVs, from their basic low end entry TV all the way up, are now putting high definition into it. So we're seeing that grow really, really fast - and we're right at the forefront. We're ready to deliver gaming content in high definition right now.

So, it looks great, it looks fantastic if you haven't got a high definition TV - but in the next year, two years, three years, so many people are going to buy new televisions, and if they do, they're going to want a great device under their television to give them great content. Xbox 360 is that.

So you see Xbox 360 driving the uptake of HDTV, and vice versa - a complementary pair of products, in essence?

I think they're very complementary. I think if you talk to the manufacturers of high definition TVs, they definitely see Xbox 360 as a great vehicle to demonstrate the great value and great experiences that high definition televisions can have.

For us, high definition is not just about graphics. The HD Era, as we call it, is about great graphics for sure, and that's the thing that you're going to see the most, and going to go "wow, oh my god, that looks so realistic". But it's about having amazing audio experiences, it's about having great social experiences on Xbox Live. It's about having new styles of games that you haven't seen before, it's about being able to jump from one game to another and still keep your mates together and carry on playing games with those guys.

That's kind of what the HD Era is all about - it's about you being in control, playing the games how you want to. One of the things, for example, is that when I play first-person shooters I play it normally, so you push up, and you look up. Friends of mine, they push the stick down to look up - they play it inverted, it's really weird. The console will remember that. When they come over, the console will remember when they sign in, that that's how they want to play. You set it once, you don't have to set it again - so you're in control of your gaming experiences. That's part of what the HD Era is all about.

Looking at your launch software line-up, what are the big stand-out titles for you in the opening weeks of the console's life? What are people really going to be going out there and buying and playing a lot of?

We'll see this week, as consumers actually get to decide - they'll be the ones to make the choice! I have some personal favourites - I have games that have really surprised me as well. You know, I'm not such a big driving game fan, because I'm really poor at playing them, but the graphics on Project Gotham Racing 3 are absolutely stunning. I'm more of a first person shooter type guy, so Perfect Dark Zero is a blinding game, absolutely brilliant. I think the one that has surprised me the most is Kameo - that's not my style of game, it's a kind of an adventure, kind of an RPG type game, slightly younger audience. That's a game that has surprised me, because it's just so compelling and so beautiful, and the gameplay is so fresh and original. It's absolutely amazing, I just love that one.

Stephen, thanks for taking the time to speak to us.

Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.