For gamers who started playing back during the 8-bit and even the 16-bit eras, surface expectations often led to deeper disappointment. Rarely would a game live up to the promises of its box art. It wasn't truthfully developers' faults—the hardware was severely limited. Time has passed and, now, we're in the… What is it? The seventh generation of hardware? It really depends on where you're counting from and how you're counting. That said, the technology has finally caught up, for the most part, with artists' aspirations.
It's a shame, then, when we're still disappointed. And, sure, it happens with games, and that's unfortunate, but it's downright galling when the hardware simply doesn't work as it's supposed to. Enter Microsoft and the Xbox 360, stage left. Enter the Red Ring of Death. Exeunt.
That's how thing's should have gone, no? But, if there's one thing we've gone over so far, it's that expectations can be misleading, and, amazingly, shockingly, staggeringly… What should have been the end of the Xbox 360 as a viable platform, a PR nightmare, did so very little. It leads its most direct competitor, the PlayStation 3, in both unit sales and game sales, multi-platform games seeing 50-100% increases on the 360 over their PS3 counterparts. Just look at Modern Warfare 3's presale numbers to get an idea. The PS3? A bit under 300,000, which is very respectable. The 360? Over 650,000. Furthermore, a 360 exclusive, Gears of War 3, is leading the pre-order pack at over 1.2 million. Sony's next big exclusive, Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception, is barely breaking 150,000.
What happened? How did this abject disaster have so few discernable negative repercussions? More importantly, how would things have gone if the Red Ring of Death had never occurred?
There's an obvious answer that jumps to mind. "Microsoft would be even more dominant. The Xbox 360 would be the über-console by which all future generations of high-definition hardware would be judged." There's some further stuff one could throw in there about Sony Computer Entertainment shutting down and Nintendo staying out of the hardware arms race, rather than attempting to push the envelope with the Wii U. The thing is, like I said, that's the obvious answer, and the obvious answer isn't always the best answer, and is rarely the most interesting. Furthermore, the obvious answer ignores the glaring question of where the effect of the RROD really hit.
A major issue, such as almost a third of one's retail product being doomed to failure, is going to have noticeable effects. When the press catches on and blows the story up into a huge ordeal, it only feeds the fire. How do you keep from getting burned? The same way you deal with attacks in a martial art: rather than take it full on, you redirect it. You use it against the issue.
Microsoft's PR department jumped on the RROD issue with incredible speed. As soon as it became obvious that it wasn't an isolated issue with a few units, affected systems were replaced at the company's expense. A three-year extended warranty, specific to the Red Ring issue and its E74 little brother, was issued to all Xbox 360s from that point forward, retroactively effective as far back as launch. Microsoft's Xbox division set up an easy to use framework for identifying whether one's system was experiencing the specific error, if it was covered, and gave directions on how to send the console in (again, at the company's expense). I don't know about other customers, but when my console experienced the E74, I even got a free month of Xbox Live Gold.
This sort of reaction, putting the customers first and foremost, builds up a tremendous sense of goodwill. Microsoft came out of this event as the good guys. Without it, they would still be the big, bad corporation trying to muscle in on the console industry that they were last generation. More importantly, a big issue like this, even when remedied, draws attention away from a lot of smaller, more insidious issues.
For example: The 360 can't play Blu-rays. It's limited, for games, to dual-layer DVDs (under ten gigabytes, as opposed to a dual-layer Blu-ray disc's 50 GB). Blu-ray isn't as prevalent a format as DVD has become, but it's undeniable that, in this era of high-definition graphics, storage space is at a premium. That the PS3 doubles as a second media device and has still undersold the 360 is certainly, in part, price. It's also a matter of need. And, in some cases, the PS3 edition of a multiplatform game has outsold its 360 counterpart (Final Fantasy XIII comes to mind), but it's telling that the 360 has had games sell over 10 million units, a barrier that only Nintendo had previously broken (and shattered, with some titles selling over 20 million units on the Wii). The Blu-ray is a non-issue. As is the online service.
Microsoft offers a lot in its online service. A party system that allows gamers to chat across games, easy access to games one's friends are playing in and, of course, a persistent online identity. That said, at launch, the service cost $50 a year. That was if one paid for the whole year at once, the price jumping up by $30 if one bought the service in three month blocks. Last year, though, they decided to further bump the cost of Xbox Live Gold, which now offers a large selection of streaming services available on the PlayStation 3's free online system, to $60 for a year. There was a brief period of outrage at the price hike, and then word of it simply disappeared from the news. Gamers had accepted it and moved on.
My thinking is that, without the Red Ring of Death, these minor and forgivable issues would be neither minor nor forgivable. Potential customers would be far more tentative about trusting a product from a behemoth such as Microsoft, afraid that the company would view them as mere walking wallets, to be entertained only so long as they provide a healthy profit and then churned up and spit out. The thing is, Microsoft's brass probably do see things this way, to a certain extent. The business is too big to be intensely personalized, but Microsoft has, through its active response to a critical situation, made customers feel secure and, most importantly, acknowledged.
Without the Red Ring of Death, Microsoft might still be trying to prove itself.
Of course, I could be wrong. It might be that, without it, the Xbox 360 would be even more of a force than it already is, that developers who are PlayStation exclusive would have flocked to the console and sent the PlayStation 3 to an early grave. Maybe that initial period of worry about the 360's technical failures was key in clearing a space for the PlayStation 3 to plant itself so it could grow into a viable power in the console race.
I don't think so, though.
CCC Contributing Writer
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*