Cheer up, Microsoft. Your gloomy Xbox marketing is a massive turn-off

People all too often respond emotionally before they respond critically. How people feel in their gut about a product, however well founded or not, matters. Thus, marketing is not just about portraying the concrete pros of your product. Whatever the objective qualities of any material object or service, the abstract personality of the thing, the mental relationship that the consumer forms with it, is always just as important in its appeal.

Right now, the Xbox One feels like a lug-headed, angsty teenager, all chest-puffing indignance and not much to say. They say a picture paints a thousand words, so in explanation, have nearly a million words by way of the many, many frames of this trailer, currently running at Microsoft’s primary TV ad.

It’s all a rather marked contrast to the way that Sony is orchestrating the PS4’s persona at the moment, isn’t it? When I see a PlayStation ad these days, I see – as I have since launch – fun, exciting game footage. I see light, sparky idents. I hear enthusiastic voiceovers. Sometimes, as was the case when Sony was communicating the online wizardry of new features such as Share Play, I even get knowingly goofy comedy sketches masquerading as advertising spots. And since day one, all of this has been wrapped around a very deliberately eclectic bunch of game experiences, catering for every disparate element of the gaming populace you can think of. It’s been an upbeat, breezy, and just plain healthy depiction of gaming in 2015.

Microsoft’s version of our hobby though? 'Pain! Woe! Ceaseless struggle! All is conflict! Sad men in sad helmets being as dramatic about sadness as is feasible while still remaining fundamentally, pointlessly sad!’

I do not find that appealing. I find it banal. I find it to be an intellectual and emotional cul-de-sac. There’s nothing for me there. There’s nothing that speaks of the variety, and creativity, and sheer, zingy, eclectic, progressive joy of gaming in the modern day.

Please don’t think that I’m objecting to all of the shooters. To varying degrees I’ve played all of the FPS in that ad, and I’ve had a big giddy hoot with every single one. Evolve is brilliant, hectic fun when it all comes together in co-op. Halo 5’s Breakout mode is endlessly compulsive, hilariously tense, slapstick SWAT action. Battlefield Hardline can be spectacular and ridiculous in equal measure.

But here they’re presented as none of that. Here they’re presented with the most tedious earnestness, the most po-faced, weighty pomp, and the most tiresomely serious lack of wit, as if the fate of the free world, a million starving orphans, and a sad, helmeted man’s very soul depends on the achievement of a good K/D rating. It’s the antithesis of what gaming really is today. It does the medium and the community a great disservice.

And beyond that, it does Microsoft a disservice, diminishing the Xbox One’s true value, as well as delivering a potentially worrying insight into how the company may actually see itself. We’re long past that Richter scale-shaky start now. The Xbox One, despite a few Mjolnir-booted slip-ups along the way, has quietly accrued a respectable catalogue of genuinely interesting, often downright delightful games. There’s Ori and the Blind Forest. There’s Kalimba. There’s Forza Horizon 2. There’s bloody Minecraft. Microsoft-owned Minecraft.

But where are all of these games in the identity Microsoft has chosen to assemble? Simply, they aren’t. Instead, MS has elected to fall back into its last-gen comfort zone. It feels as if the company, perhaps still shaken from having the legs unceremoniously kicked out from under its confident new-gen vision, is retreating to its nostalgic happy place, the good old days of Xbox 360 dominance. Remember that? That golden land, filled with gruff dude-bro shooters from here to the horizon, where all was ruled over by the just wisdom of Billy-Joe Baseballcap, mightiest king of all demographics? Yeah, it was a great place for Microsoft. A place of confidence and clarity, where strategy, opportunity and branding came together like a triple-threat lightning strike, and everything just worked. But we don’t live there any more.

We’ve seen new things since then. We’ve, on both sides of the industry, had new ideas. We’ve played those new ideas, and brought new people into the fold with them. People who have yet more ideas, and reactions to ideas, and Things They Get Excited About. Games are broader, brighter, and better than they were last-gen. Or at least they have the vision to be. While new-gen might not yet be delivering on the volume, its identity has much bigger plans.

But Microsoft isn't currently behaving like it wants to join that party. Despite owning the biggest, most expansive, most versatile, creative, all-ages sandbox in video games (and I use the term in relation to both what you can do in Minecraft, and what Minecraft as a platform has the potential to grow into), despite being the sole custodian of a game that enjoys player popularity and parent-approval not seen since – in fact probably exceeding – the glory days of Nintendo, Microsoft isn’t publicly flexing that, or in fact any part of its personality that resonates with it.

Instead, it seems it would rather be outside the party, out around the back, smoking with its edgy, ‘dangerous’ buddies. That’s quite depressing. And it’s also rather worrying. What’s Microsoft’s plan as its Minecraft audience gets older? Get them through the brick stage, then graduate them to ‘proper’, grown-up, sad man gun games? I certainly hope not. Because if so, that’s desperately short-sighted and more than a bit backward.

Microsoft was great at being a teenager. Where its peers got cocky, or distant, or weird, or stunted, MS revelled in adolescence, and excelled throughout that entire period. But games have grown up, and broadened their horizons, and moved on. That old attitude won’t cut it any more. It’s amusing now only to particular section of Microsoft’s old friends. The rest of us are grown up enough to know that you’re only really cool when you’re not trying to be.

David Houghton
Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.