Xbox One's unexpected pitch: It's the Dad Box
Microsoft takes a narrow demographic view of its new game console, which may be a smart move.
For years we've heard about the ever-widening appeal of video games and game-playing devices. Women gamers, senior gamers, casual gamers, and even the kind of social/mobile gamers who would never refer to themselves with the dreaded G word.
But, when it was time to reveal its first major gaming hardware of the post-iPhone era (the first-gen iPhone was released in 2007, the Xbox 360 in 2005), what did Microsoft do? It narrowcast the launch presentation of the Xbox One to a very targeted demographic group. And no, it wasn't the cliched teenage or twentysomething twitch gamer, it was the graying dad demographic that the original Atari 2600/Nintendo Entertainment System generation grew up to be (and some would say they grew up to be grups).
The evidence is clear. The first images of the Xbox One presentation were not of young, overly excited gamer-types straight out of a television commercial casting call, but of graying establishment figures, from Bill Gates to game designer Cliff Bleszinski to J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg (an observation first made by a former EA employee and games writer here).
Next came the physical product itself. The actual Xbox One hardware has been described many ways, but I think it's most accurate to call it retro-modernist. The boxy black rectangle with its chrome accents and glossy finish looks more like an '80s/'90s stereo rack component than a modern game console. It might be the type of thing you'd see in the background of Patrick Bateman's apartment.
While nearly everyone uses some combination of iPhone, Jambox, and Spotify for music these days, there's an entire generation (or two) of Gen X-ers who still dream of big, shiny, rack-style stereo components, the sort of thing one of my college roommates blew much of his student loan on.
After the introduction of the Xbox One console came the features. Not new games or social media tie-ins, but instead the most basic of all home entertainment functions -- watching television. Is there any group besides the 35-to-45-year-old dad demographic that would really look forward to making their passive on-the-couch viewing experience require even less effort than rooting around for a remote control and pushing a few buttons?
That the onstage example then morphed into sports, ESPN, and overlaying fantasy football content merely sealed the deal, as did a quick hit of online sports video chatting (using Skype, just like at the office!)
From there, we heard about made-for-Xbox video content, with an onscreen cameo from Steven Spielberg and talk about a Halo live-action series (based on a game franchise that started 12 years ago).
By the time we got to actual games, we saw a Forza driving game -- clearly aimed at the same demographic that flips past BBC America hoping to catch a "Top Gear" rerun; and the latest Call of Duty game, certainly a series with cross-generational appeal, but also one that has been pumping out sequels since 2003. In fact, after the Xbox One launch event, these was much grumbling from the gamerati about how they had been essentially ignored by Microsoft (although Microsoft's upcoming E3 video game trade show presentation will no doubt lean more heavily on the games).
But, as brilliant as this dad-first strategy may appear to be, it's still disappointing to see the Xbox One ignore the broadening base of interactive-entertainment consumers. There was essentially nothing for female gamers, nor for social-media gamers, nor the growing demographic of consumers who are slowly eating away at EA, Activision, and the like by spending their time on free-to-play games such as Candy Crush Saga or Fast & Furious 6 on their phones and tablets -- leaving the living-room TV -- and any big, black, glossy boxes attached to it -- free for dad to enjoy.