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Edge Magazine #161 April 2006

Gone to launch

Edge #161, April 2006

By the time you read this, the Xbox 360 will have been out about five months, and I bet there are still stock shortages. Retailers are taking orders as supplies start to filter down, but deliveries are sporadic. None of the retailers I've spoken to seem to know exactly when consoles will arrive. Consequently, the next generation of gaming hasn't arrived with a bang, but a sort of polite cough.

It never ceases to amaze me how console manufacturers seem to stumble into obvious problems. A small bowl of amoebic dysentery could've predicted that the Gizmondo and N-Gage would be end up as nothing more than footnotes in the history of gaming. Likewise, long before the Xbox 360 had launched, anyone could see that a simultaneous worldwide launch was an ill-fated strategy.

You'd have thought that a successful multinational corporation like Microsoft would have the experience to avoid a balls-up, but no. In fact, it strode proudly towards disaster, spending the last half of 2005 warning people that it wouldn't have enough 360s to go around. It's like being in a car driven by a lunatic, who shrieks that he's "Going to crash the car, ha ha!" in the minutes prior to veering off into a wall.

Just call me Daddy Hindsight, but if I were Microsoft I'd have stockpiled 360s, waited until Halo 3 was ready, and launched with a massive, PS3-scuppering showcase in the US, six months before anywhere else. The European hardcore - the same hardcore who preordered a 360 midway through last year - would've bought a machine on import anyway, but at least every Stateside punter would've been able to get his hands on one. Then, six months on, Microsoft could've orchestrated a rollout in Europe which would've got 360s into the hands of everyone who wanted one at launch, rather than upsetting many preorderees. Finally, another few months later they could've focused their attentions on making the Japanese launch less of a limp fart than it has been.

But no, Microsoft decided to go with a different strategy. The sort of strategy that's up there with stapling bacon to the roof of your house, Sellotaping a couple of wires to it and hoping that maybe, somehow, it might provide an unlimited source of energy for your home.

It's difficult to know who Microsoft intended to benefit from the global instant-o-launch. Perhaps on the surface all that's happened is that a few people have had to wait a bit longer for their 360, but beneath the surface Microsoft has doubtless sowed seeds of distrust and resentment, and probably finished off any chance of its Xbox brand ever succeeding in Japan. The debacle has made the company look stupid and amateurish, and it all has the faint whiff of 32X about it.

It's unlikely to mark the end of Microsoft's console dream. Microsoft is never going to give up on making the Xbox a market-leading brand, not while it still has an evil design to monopolise the way we're entertained. Nevertheless, the 360 launch will prove a setback to the system's longterm success.

Sony has been remarkably reserved regarding its PS3 plans - no doubt in part because it's been waiting to see what the competition did, and Microsoft played right into its hands by acting like an excitable seven-year-old - one who couldn't resist bringing his new birthday present to school, only to have it snapped in half by the class bully.

Don't get me wrong; the 360 is actually rather lovely. It's powerful, it's solid, there are a couple of OK games on there. And coupled to Xbox Live it's the machine that has finally lured me online in a way that the PC never could, slothful sofa-junkie that I am. Given my previous resistance to online gaming this is quite an achievement (my Xbox Live name is 'bront', incidentally, seeing as you pitiful skanks have already taken every alternative of 'Mr Biffo' there is). But I'm one of the lucky (stupid) few who managed to get one around launch day (admittedly only after cancelling my delayed Amazon preorder, and paying through the nose on eBay). Lord knows what everyone who missed out on their Christmas present thinks.

Let's face it, much as I love the purity of Nintendo's Revolution plans - blah blah forget about graphics blah it's all about gameplay blah - it's never going to gel with what the masses want. Sony has the brand and the marketing nous, and any headway the Xbox 360 might've gained has been crapped on by Microsoft launching too soon. And as for the "We're NEVER releasing a separate hard drive/Yes we are releasing a separate hard drive" announcements... what the hell were they thinking? Way to make your console look obsolete before it's even begun, sap-heads!

Unless Sony does something monumentally absurd between now and whenever it decides to release the PS3 - such as reveal the innards are constructed from the bones of orphans - it's going to clean up. Though if it wants to maintain goodwill, a few less prerendered demos passed off as in-game wouldn't go amiss.

Mr Biffo co-founded Digitiser, Channel 4's Teletext-based videogames section, and now writes mainly for television

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