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Softly, softly: The Xbox One X Launch

The most powerful console ever built has an understated launch week - but Microsoft's strategy makes sense, and signals that it's in this game for the long haul

It's quiet, as the hackneyed old horror movie cliché goes; too quiet.

Perhaps I'm biased as a consequence of being in a country where the Xbox has close to zero market share, but even talking to friends and colleagues overseas, this doesn't feel like the launch week for a major new console - let alone the most powerful and technologically impressive one ever created.

While those unpacking new hardware are undoubtedly excited, by and large the Xbox One X feels like it has landed very softly indeed. The lack of major new titles to sell the system are part of the reason, of course; but even Microsoft's messaging for and promotion of the One X feel muted.

"With a tough launch window - Apple's biggest iPhone launch, Nintendo's biggest Mario title and the winter software avalanche - it's to be expected that Xbox One X doesn't grab as much attention"

Of course, Xbox One X isn't an entirely new console launch - it's an update to the Xbox One, albeit a pretty enormous leap ahead of its older sibling in terms of graphical prowess. The closest point of comparison is PS4 Pro, which also boosted the internals of an existing platform to permit higher quality graphics (most notably 4K, for those who have the display hardware to enjoy it).

PS4 Pro had less heavy lifting to do in some senses; the PS4 was a well-designed and well-liked console from the outset, so the Pro really just boosted the specs and made minor design tweaks. Xbox One X is a bigger accomplishment in hardware terms; not just a more powerful system, but a dramatic design improvement over the original Xbox One, building on the progress made with last year's One S.

Yet PS4 Pro's launch, despite having many of the same challenges as the One X launch, felt like a bigger event; perhaps this was down to the PS4 ecosystem overall being larger, but it was also likely attributable in part to PS4 Pro being the first console to update hardware specs mid-generation, and the first to enable 4K play. Xbox One X does it better, but it's not doing anything remarkably new.

Combined with a tough launch window, going almost head to head with Apple's biggest iPhone launch in years, Nintendo's biggest Mario title in years and the impending start of the winter software avalanche, it's to be expected that the Xbox hardware update doesn't grab quite as much attention as might have been expected.

Even in launch week, the One X's presence in UK stores is understated

Rather than being a criticism, that's a slightly raised eyebrow in the direction of Microsoft's strategy. The company now finds itself with an immensely powerful and accomplished console, head and shoulders ahead of the competition in graphical terms; yet it has chosen a very soft launch strategy for that device.

"Chosen" is the operative word here; the decisions which led to One X being a relatively understated launch seem to have been quite deliberate. The console has launched with relatively little marketing support, no major software titles (and no particularly notable promises of software to come) and during a distinctly tough and competitive release window. All of that points to Microsoft being quite happy with a soft launch for its latest and greatest.

After all, the decisions which culminate in a hardware launch are made a long way back down the pike. Phil Spencer told Bloomberg this week that the company is aware of its weakness in first-party development and implied that they are considering acquisitions to help remedy the situation; but this isn't something that has crept up on Microsoft. If a massive One X launch was their goal, those acquisitions would have happened a year or more ago; the lack of major titles for launch (and indeed for holiday 2017 overall) is something the company will have been aware of for quite some time.

At a guess, the strategy for Xbox One X was relatively well nailed down shortly after the initial unveiling of Scorpio a year and a half ago; while that initial reveal suggested that the device would be a fairly major overhaul and relaunch of the underperforming Xbox One, the messaging and positioning of the console was dialled in significantly by E3 this year to the point where this is distinctly a "half-generation" speed bump rather than being a genuine relaunch for the platform.

"The one thing the Xbox brand couldn't handle right now is another weak hardware launch; that would kill off consumer confidence in the brand outright"

There are a number of good reasons for Microsoft to take this approach. A very practical one is supply; Xbox One X is the most ambitious system the company has ever built on quite a number of fronts, and while its hardware is being reviewed extremely favourably, there was always a significant risk that it would be tough to get the supply chain in place for a major launch.

Moreover, the difficulty of getting high-profile software in place for launch (regardless of how deep the company's budget for studio acquisitions went) would have been apparent at least a year ago, while the intensely competitive nature of the November launch window would have been clear from early this year, when the Switch launch went well and Apple's year-end plans started to take shape.

Ultimately, Microsoft faced a decision; push the boat out with Xbox One X as a full relaunch of its console ambitions, or a soft, PS4 Pro-style launch that would leave the company with plenty of options to grow and promote the new platform over the following months.

The downsides and risks of the former are significant; it would risk alienating and annoying existing Xbox One customers (a sizeable group even if not on the same scale as PS4's installed base), and would expose the new console to extremely tough comparisons with Switch and PS4's winter holiday sales, neither of which it is in a position to match given potentially limited supply and an audience restricted by the size of the 4K TV installed base.

Xbox One X is the most ambitious system the company has ever built. There was always a risk it would be tough to get the supply chain in place for a major launch

The challenges facing Microsoft remain the same. It has fallen a long way behind Sony in this generation and has in essence ceded every major territory outside the United States to its rival. More so than simple installed base, it has lost a huge amount of ground in terms of its software line-up; both of these will be tough to claw back, especially off Microsoft's home turf.

Nintendo's success also makes the playing field look more inhospitable, since the Switch, not the Xbox One, will now likely take on the "second console" mantle for many consumers.

Yet in taking a soft launch approach with Xbox One X, Microsoft seems to be demonstrating an ability to play a long, sensible and strategic game, rather than panicking over how far out in front Sony is right now. The one thing the Xbox brand couldn't handle right now is another weak hardware launch; that would kill off consumer confidence in the brand outright.

If Phil Spencer is serious about the company building back up its first-party software arsenal, that will be a time-consuming process; the task of Xbox One X is not to fly out of the stable at full gallop, but rather to support that process, giving the company a best-in-breed console upon which to rebuild its gaming brand.

It's a far cry from the bombast of the Scorpio launch, but Microsoft is signalling that it's in this for the long haul, and willing to do what it takes to get back on top of the game.

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Rob Fahey avatar

Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

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

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