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On Eve of Xbox 360 Launch, Doubts Emerge - 21 Nov 2005

At midnight this evening, several thousand consumer electronics retailers will open their doors to eager customers around the United States, offering them a chance to purchase the first Xbox 360 video game consoles. As a result, the Xbox 360 launch event will be the most successful product launch Microsoft has undertaken since Windows 95, with lines of potential customers queuing up in the cold for their chance to spend hundreds of dollars on an untested and unproven entertainment device. Is this consumer insanity or brilliant marketing? Early looks at the Xbox 360 console suggest it might just be both: Reviews suggest that Microsoft's new video game system is good but not great, with no gotta-have-it game titles. Is Xbox 360 poised for a disastrous 2006?

The early evidence isn't encouraging. Of the 18 launch titles, the majority are sequels to existing games on other systems that offer similar game play and graphics. The latter is surprising, since the Xbox 360 is often touted for its HDTV-level graphics capabilities, which should far outstrip the graphics on current systems. In some cases, PC titles such as "Quake 4" and "Call of Duty 2" have been ported successfully to Xbox 360, and while the graphics of these games are faithful to the PC originals, though brighter looking, the Xbox 360 controller has proven to be less well adapted to the precise action of these first person shooters than i the case with the mice and keyboards PC gamers use.

According to many reviews, what we're left with is a capable but unexciting console that is far tooexpensive for most consumers. The so-called premium Xbox 360 package costs $400, while the stripper Core System model can't even save games or access certain online services without expensive add-ons. And while they can play about a quarter of the first generation Xbox titles out of the box, these consoles lack any truly compelling content of their own. What content there is doesn't visually differentiate itself enough from previous generation systems to get typical gamers very excited.

So where are these killer games that show off the graphical prowess of the Xbox 360? First tier games such as Final Fantasy XI, Gears of War, and Unreal Tournament 2007 won't ship until next year. And the most eagerly awaited title of all, Halo 360, is still a mystery: Microsoft and game maker Bungie refuse to the discuss the future of the lucrative Halo franchise at this time, noting only that the next title will ship when its ready. It should have been ready in time for the Xbox 360 launch, methinks. A Halo release in mid-2006 isn't going to excite that many people.

After the euphoria of the Xbox 360 launch and holiday 2005 buying season dies down, Microsoft will find that it no longer has the next generation game market to itself. Sony and Nintendo are gearing up for the release of their PlayStation 3 and Revolution systems, respectively, and each of those companies is trying to carve out market niches in which they can beat Microsoft. Sony is the best positioned because of its video game system dominance over the past decade and the wealth of third party support it attracts. If Sony is able to out-perform the Xbox 360 lineup at the launch of the PlayStation 3, a real possibility, Microsoft will have trouble maintaining its lead next year.

Ultimately, video gaming, like any form of entertainment, is about the content. Xbox 360 features the technical chops to outperform the competition, but that was true of its also-ran predecessor as well. It's unclear whether the current crop of content available for Xbox 360 is good enough to turn the console's technical superiority into market leadership. I have a lot more to say about this, but my exhaustive review of Xbox 360 will be available on the SuperSite for Window by tomorrow.

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