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Xbox's move from 'edgy' to 'everyone' | This Week in Business

How a brand that leaned into exclusionary gamer stereotypes overhauled its image over three console generations

I know this column is supposed to be about what's happening this week in the industry, but to be honest, it's been a pretty slow news week for games. It turns out the post-E3 news lull happens even when you technically don't have an E3.

So instead, let's talk about something that's been going on for a while, and hang the entire thing off an observation someone happened to make about that thing this week. That still counts, right?

QUOTE | "Been thinking lately about how when I was growing up, I perceived Xbox as this really edgy, masculine, aggressively GAMER brand. Never, ever felt it was for me. It is *wild* how they've managed to 180 their messaging so thoroughly to become the 'gaming's for everyone' folks." - IGN (and formerly reporter Rebekah Valentine pointing out on Twitter this week that Microsoft has undergone a significant rebranding over the years.

Rebekah's absolutely right, and if we go back and look at the evolution of the Xbox brand, we can see it shifting that messaging clearly. First, let's go back and establish what Xbox's original brand strategy actually was: an attempt to appeal specifically to the stereotypical capital-G "Gamer" identity.

QUOTE | "Our energetic brand personality mirrors the edgy Xbox brand, which is already resonating with our customers." - Taco Bell exec Debbie Myers in April of 2001, making it clear that even seven months before the first Xbox console hit shelves, the brand identity was "edgy."

QUOTE | "When you're new, you have to be clear about what you stand for as a brand. And I think that particular idea really encapsulated everything that we were trying to represent as a new brand in the video games industry." - Harvey Eagle, who had been Xbox's European advertising manager for the system's 2001 launch, laid out Microsoft's Xbox marketing strategy to us in a 2016 interview about one particularly memorable ad.

QUOTE | "They basically described to me that: 'There's a baby who catapults through the hospital window at birth, it ages from cradle to grave as it flies through the air, and then it crashes into the grave as an old man. Then words come up that say: Life is Short Play More.' At that moment I knew that that was the one, because of its brilliant simplicity." - Eagle, recalling the pitch for an Xbox launch ad that was broadcast on TV but banned over viewer complaints, much to his apparent delight.

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The US strategy wasn't much classier, as the "She kicks high" ad for key launch game Dead or Alive 3 mocked the idea that people would play it for any other reason than to ogle scantily clad women fighters.

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The original Xbox online community wasn't exactly focused on approachability, either.

QUOTE | "Obviously trash talking becomes a part of playing Xbox Live games." - DarkMaster, Microsoft's original guide for the Xbox Live online service, setting the tone for new users in one of multiple cringe-worthy introductory videos highlighting the wide variety of personal interactions one can expect to have online, from malicious verbal abuse all the way to playful verbal abuse.

By the time the Xbox 360 rolled around, Microsoft realized that some people wouldn't want to join a giant undistinguished pool of online players if a bunch of them insisted on peeing in that pool, so it introduced "Gamer Zones," allowing players to set their gaming style as Recreation, Pro, Family, or the nebulous Underground.

QUOTE | "The Underground is where anything goes -- and usually does." -'s official description of "the Underground" zone, accompanied by a radioactive warning symbol.

It's great that Microsoft let players signal their desired playstyle (and presumably used this information in matchmaking), but you can't publicly reserve a section of your service for radioactively bad behavior without communicating to people that radioactively bad behavior has a place on your service.

Obviously, Underground's definition of "anything goes" wasn't like your average anonymous message board's definition, and there were some things Microsoft would not tolerate on Xbox Live, like gay people.

QUOTE | "In regards to sexual orientation, for gamertags or profiles we do not allow expression of any type of orientation, be that hetero or other." - Microsoft, explaining in 2009 why it banned an Xbox Live user for mentioning she was a lesbian in her player profile. (This policy was later changed.)

While there were earlier efforts to appeal to non-gamer audiences and later exclusionary episodes like the one above -- Microsoft's silence in the face of the GamerGate harassment campaign in 2014 is a shameful stain it shares with most of the industry -- I think we can see the company gradually leaning into the decision to be a more approachable and welcoming brand over the course of the Xbox 360's lifespan.

Part of that was just the console cycle for a successful system, a thing Microsoft had not had before. It's not uncommon for platform holders to start producing games for wider audiences once the hardcore early adopters have already bought their systems, there's a significant installed base of users to target, and a price cut or two has made the initial investment in a console a bit easier for the general public to swallow. But the Microsoft of the mid-Xbox 360 era was doubtlessly also looking at the Wii, the iPhone, the overwhelming popularity of rhythm games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, and other clear signs that the audience for games extended far beyond the people thought of as gamers.

That realization is most readily seen in the 2010 arrival of the Kinect motion-sensing camera, but it was also reflected in the pioneering quiz show / battle royale 1 vs 100, family pack discounts for Xbox Live memberships (only about eight years into the service's lifespan!), and the introduction of Xbox Avatars.

QUOTE | "I really think that we've kind of changed the face of the Xbox. It's gone from something that was always perceived as a hardcore gamer's console... It's just that little bit more inviting, you know, and I think it broadens it to a whole new demographic of people. It's a really great console, and there's so many great things on it to play that everybody should be involved." - Rare head of animation Louise Ridgeway talked in 2009 about what impact the studio's work on Avatars had for the console's overall accessibility.

Some of the games aiming for approachability even incorporated Avatars directly into gameplay:

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The emphasis on reaching out to more casual and non-traditional audiences no doubt helped the Xbox 360 last as long as it did -- eight years from its launch to the debut of its successor, compared to the original Xbox's four -- but Microsoft arguably focused too much on new audiences when it came time to sell people on a new console.

The Xbox One launch in 2013 was a debacle, with a disastrous unveiling emphasizing sports and TV more than gaming. Unfortunately, that focus turned off the early adopter gamer crowd, the only group that doesn't really care about price and would be willing to fork over $499 for the hardware at launch. But the only reason the system cost $499 was because Microsoft was packing in a pricey Kinect peripheral that had already lost what little favor it ever had with the core gamer crowd and been dismissed as a gimmick.

The Xbox One was unappealing enough all on its own, but the real kicker was Sony launching the PS4 one week earlier and $100 cheaper.

Since then, Microsoft has been involved in a long slog to rebuild its console business to the heights it once enjoyed and repair its reputation with the core gamer audience. That's a tall enough order as it is, but to its credit, Microsoft has done it while simultaneously pushing a more inclusive vision for the Xbox brand, as seen with its Gaming for Everyone program, the Adaptive Controller, and the launch of accessibility guidelines, testing, and tools for developers.

The acquisition of Mojang also bears mentioning here, as it was framed from day one as a way to expand the company's appeal beyond the core gamer demographic.

QUOTE | "Minecraft adds diversity to our game portfolio and helps us reach new gamers across multiple platforms." - Phil Spencer explains in 2014 why Microsoft spent $2.5 billion to acquire a studio with one game (albeit one with a massive and broad audience no homegrown Xbox IP could match).

Safe to say Minecraft is more inclusive now than it would have been under its original owner

There have been also been mistakes and backslides, for certain. A Killer Instinct on-stage demo at Microsoft's 2013 E3 media briefing got justifiably criticized for rape jokes, and as if that weren't bad enough, the company followed that up by hiring a YouTuber known for the same kind of jokes to star at its UK Xbox One launch party. Repeated accusations of gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and misconduct also raise questions about Microsoft's actual commitment to equality and inclusivity beyond its public image.

Still, there are other signs suggesting the push to outgrow the juvenile and exclusionary adpects of traditional gamer culture isn't entirely for show.

Take the game Postal, for instance. Originally launched in 1997, Postal was among the earlier deliberately offensive edgelord PC games, taking its name from the phrase "going postal," a reference to a mass shooting at a post office in Edmond, Oklahoma in which 14 people were killed and six more injured.

A remake of that game, Postal Redux, launched in 2016, and was approved for release on Switch in 2020 and PS4 last year, perhaps surprisingly as I thought Nintendo and Sony would have frowned upon game titles referencing mass shootings.

One place you can't find Postal Redux is on Xbox consoles. The official Twitter account of Running With Scissors has tweeted at various Microsoft-owned accounts several times over the past year-plus about an Xbox version, saying Microsoft has twice turned it down with no explanation given.

A Microsoft representative did not return a request for comment, but the repeated refusals and lack of outreach to Running With Scissors suggests to me that Postal Redux is just a game that Xbox has no interest in hosting on its platform.

We are at the point where Microsoft is a more strict steward of acceptable content on its platform than Nintendo

Just to underscore how unexpected this is, we are at the point where Microsoft is a more strict steward of acceptable content on its platform than Nintendo, the company that took the "Mortal" out of Mortal Kombat.

The fact that Microsoft has denied Postal Redux for over a year now -- despite nobody paying attention to it and the game launching on competing platforms to roughly zero pushback -- further suggests to me that the game isn't being denied to bolster public perception of the Xbox brand.

The simple explanation is that giving Postal Redux a platform would run counter to the values of the decision makers at Xbox. And those decision makers understand that welcoming everyone means paradoxically turning away those whose primary goal is alienation. Otherwise you end up like Steam, arguably the most welcoming games platform in terms of content and the least welcoming in terms of community.

It's encouraging to see one of the major players in the console gaming space move away from the edgy aggressive Gamer tone to an inclusive Gaming for Everyone approach, but it's even more encouraging to see some evidence it's more than just a calculated brand strategy.

The rest of the week in review

QUOTE | "The problem with a few IPs is that the world has moved on. Expectations of sequels are quite enormous, and it could be game styles that are very expensive to make nowadays in the modern world." - Embracer Group CEO Lars Wingefors acknowledges that the company has a nice trove of franchises after the purchase of Crystal Dynamics, Eidos Montreal and Square Enix Montreal, but cautions that it will be difficult to find a business case to bring some of them back.

QUOTE | "We were fortunate enough to carve out a special niche, and I'm thankful that we've been able to occupy it and survive in it, but it also kept us locked into doing something we didn't feel like doing forever." - Zachtronics founder Zach Barth explains why the studio is shutting down after launching next month's Last Call and a solitaire game later on this year.

QUOTE | "So the industry never really was 'recession-proof', and the one remaining piece of armour it may have against economic downturns -- the value for money offered by its products -- could be undermined both by its own recent business practices and by the problem of inflation" - Our own Rob Fahey lays out a number of reasons why the games industry may be hurt more by a recession today than it had been in past economic downturns.

QUOTE | "There were definitely a lot of things I had heard and thought, 'Yeah, that makes perfect sense.' And just like every life experience ever, you live it, then you come out the other side like, 'Oh, that's what they meant by that.' - Little Hellions developer Jace Boechler on what they've learned after working on the soon-to-be-released game for seven years.

QUOTE | "As a community manager you need to get good at knowing when to use the word 'no' and practice using it." - Safe in Our World's Sarah Sorrell offers a number of self-care tips for community managers and their bosses.

QUOTE | "We are only focusing on Battlefield 2042. There is no time for anything else and this is what we want to do. In three years, we want to be the first-person shooter powerhouse that DICE deserves to be, and that is what we're going for." - EA DICE head Rebecka Coutaz talks about the disappointing launch of Battlefield 2042, and how the studio is now exclusively focused on the shooter franchise rather than side projects it has done in the past like the Mirror's Edge series.

STAT | 67% - The portion of Activision Blizzard shareholders who voted in favor of the company preparing a public annual report about sexual harassment claims and how it's handling them. The publisher did say it would do so, only pledging that "we will carefully consider the proposal to enhance our future disclosures."

STAT | 91% - The amount of Activision Blizzard shareholders who saw how the company responded to numerous workplace scandals and the Raven Software unionization push and thought, "The people in charge are doing an excellent job and we should keep them around."

QUOTE | "We know it may be hard finding Xbox Wireless Controllers right now due to supply disruptions. We're working as fast as possible with our manufacturing and retail partners to improve this." - Microsoft responds to a site's inquiry about controller shortages across Europe.

STAT | 52% - The portion of gamers who hold "very positive" or "positive" attitudes towards the Red Bull brand, according to a recent Newzoo survey. Among non-gamers, only 28% reported positive sentiments for Red Bull.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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