To say that Microsoft is facing a challenging time with its Xbox One console in Singapore is probably somewhat of an understatement. The bungling of the Xbox One messaging at E3 2013 and nearly one-year delay launch in Singapore created plenty of resentment among the local gaming fraternity. But crucially, and in my point of view, it also ceded its ‘leadership’ to eternal rival Sony. But what exactly is ‘leadership’? And how has it come to this?
It’s definitely a compelling narrative; this Xbox One’s Illiad-styled tragic fall from grace and its attempt at redemption. But it didn’t used to be like this.
A Lost Leadership
This month would have marked the 12th anniversary of the original Xbox console launch, at a mega-party at mega-club Zouk. Go further back 12 years and beyond, and the local gaming landscape wasn’t quite like the one today: Sim Lim Square was a piracy haven, console games were terribly overpriced, un-localised, and even the consoles in those days were imported units without local warranty support.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that when Microsoft launched its first Xbox console in Singapore, they also brought about sweeping changes to the industry. All of which made videogames just a lot more accessible, especially for a mainstream audience that still viewed gaming as a childish past time at that time. I did a quick summary of the key ones here – which I felt defined Microsoft’s leadership role:
- Bringing English content to the NTSC/J region coding:
Singapore’s geographical position in Asia meant that we fall under the NTSC/J region coding, which also includes Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, and Hong Kong. The problem with this is that games tied to the NTSC/J code are more often than not (actually 99%) made in Japanese language only. To play games with English language support, one will have to buy NTSC/UC (for North America) region-coded games that only work on a NTSC/UC console. With the Xbox, Microsoft led and paved the way for localized language support (English, Traditional Chinese, and Korean) being a standard support for our region. Sony followed suit with the PlayStation 3, and today the NTSC/J comes standard with localized language support (except for Japan).
- Making console games affordable: The problem with purchasing NTSC/UC region-coded games back in the 90’s and early Y2K years, was that they are usually imported. That also meant they were pegged to the US Dollars, and so unsurprisingly, expensive. With a proper support and local distribution of the NTSC/J games for Xbox and then Xbox 360, Microsoft ensured that pricing for console games were pressed southwards. Older gamers would also recall that PlayStation 2 NTSC/UC games and even those in the early years of the PlayStation 3, would ranged anywhere between S$79-$99 depending on the popularity of the game. These days an Xbox One and PlayStation 4 games cost an average $70 tops, thanks to Microsoft’s ground work in those years.
- Making video games purchase more accessible: It wasn’t just about ensuring that video games became affordable. Microsoft also made it the de facto form of digital entertainment for the majority of youths and young adults. The company changed the way games were sold and purchased here, and using best practices adopted from its counterpart in the US (with its vast experience working with gaming retail giants such as GameStop, Walmart, etc.), made games available at non-traditional gaming retail outlets such as HMV, Challenger, Comics Connection…just to name a few. This has the added effect of putting Xbox (and then other platforms) games in places where non-hardcore gamers would go.
- Grassroots and community-based events:
If there was one last good thing that Microsoft did for gaming in this part of the world, it was that it made video games really cool. From big and loud consoles and Xbox games launches, to small but intimate exclusive fans screenings, Microsoft showed that it meant business with a robust community support for Xbox and Xbox 360. Ostensibly, over the years economical judgement meant austerity measures cut back on big-scaled event launches not just for Microsoft but practically everywhere else too. But man, who can forget that awesome Xbox launch at Singapore’s Zouk 12 years ago?
So say what you want about the Xbox One, but it’s impossible to deny that over the past decade, Microsoft had truly lead the market and redefined the local gaming landscape with the Xbox and Xbox 360. Perhaps it was a tinge of arrogance from recent successes that caused them to trip up so rather spectacularly with the Xbox One, which ironically, is also reminiscent of Sony’s own successes with the PlayStation One and Two, and then eventual difficulties with the PlayStation 3.
It’s not to say that Sony has gained the leadership role as much as Microsoft has stopped acting like one now. But where once Microsoft would lead the industry, the company now seems content to be labelled the underdog – as new head honcho Phil Spencer told Game Informer. As it stands, PlayStation 4 games are already outselling Xbox One’s 5 to 1 on the average (according to key retailers I spoke to) but that is unsurprising, given the former console had a good 10 month head start. There is still time for the Xbox One to succeed in Singapore of course, with the console outselling PlayStation 4 in Singapore by more than 60% for two consecutive months since launch in GfK data provided by Microsoft. That surely is a positive sign, but it can only be a longer and harder road for Microsoft from here on.