Xbox’s marketing evolution

Opinions around Microsoft’s 90 minute Xbox & Bethesda E3 showcase are positive, a highlight alongside Nintendo’s outing in an otherwise quiet E3 year. But there have been pockets of criticism around the show’s lack of depth and “wow factor.” VG247 argued there were not enough “next-gen show stoppers”. Threads on Resetera, social media, and Digital Foundry knocked the Xbox presentation for having too many CGI trailers.

I’m sympathetic to missing more hands on time with Microsoft’s upcoming lineup. However, much of this “depth” criticism is myopic, relevant to an earlier era where Microsoft’s core focus was on the number of games and consoles sold. Thirty trailers in ninety minutes may not be an optimal pitch for $70 games and $500 consoles. However, it is a very sound approach to push Game Pass.

E3 2021 has made it abundantly clear that Microsoft has bet Xbox’s future on subscriptions. Keeping gamers hooked on Game Pass is a different, tricker pitch than buying high profile games. Variety is a must, with enough titles and genres to attract a wide variety of subscribers. Quantity can also help. Not every game will interest a potential subscriber, but the feeling that many more games are coming to the service over time adds to its sense of value.

Variety and quantity were large factors in Microsoft’s E3 press blitz. An exec opened the official showcase by noting “27 out of 30” games in the show will be coming day one to Game Pass. Official media accounts tweeted out a screenshot of packed in box art from 29 titles heading to Game Pass before the end of 2021. And while big budget games from popular genres opened and closed the show (Starfield, Redfall) sandwiched in between we got trailers for sci fi adventure (Sable), throwback snowboarding (Shredders), and a small scale domestic thriller (12 Minutes).

Paradoxically, in depth deep dives help Game Pass comparatively little. The barrier of entry to play a game on the service is low: a “free” download for a subscriber, anywhere from $1 to $15 for a month to try out for those not already on the service. You don’t even need an Xbox console or PC. If you’ve got a modern Android or (soon) iOS mobile device, you can play on Game Pass through the cloud.

Considering Game Pass titles are so readily available, it makes sense that instead of burning ten extra minutes of their main press event on Halo, Microsoft instead split that time among more titles that might draw in a fresh audience.

I expect Microsoft’s shotgun marketing approach to proliferate as Game Pass grows in popularity. Their new TV spot hypes six widely different games coming to Game Pass over the rest of the year. This sort of ad template – loads of games, all on Game Pass – should be the norm for the future.

Conversely, Xbox will rarely invest in large ad spends that only focus on a single game at a time. Taken to an extreme, I could see Microsoft abandoning traditional big budget game marketing cycles altogether. Early preview and review events, deep dive “state of plays,” paid ad blitzes before a release date all disappear.

Microsoft’s marketing change up will frustrate some. It’s logic that runs counter to more traditional gaming ad pushes favored by Sony and Nintendo. It also clouds the proverbial horse race where we pit Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo against each other to decide who “won E3” or who’s capturing gamer mindshare. But recent differences in marketing illustrate Sony’s and Microsoft’s split when it comes to long term goals and positioning.

Sony shows no signs of deviating from worked in the PS4 era: sell hardware at a loss, and make up for it with high margin, high quality software that you can only play on that hardware. Hence in 2021 Sony markets a small, tightly curated set of offerings with every first party exclusive in an extremely polished state. Microsoft’s highlighted lineup is comparatively sprawling and diverse. Not every game has to work, just enough to keep Game Pass subscribers happy. An expansive game lineup begets an expansive, “big tent” approach to marketing.

Back in E3 2019, pitches by Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony could feel at times indistinguishable, using similar marketing boilerplate we’ve seen in the industry since the early 2000s. Merely two years later the situation, at least comparing Sony and Microsoft, couldn’t be more different. It’s fascinating to watch both companies’ marketing evolve over time.