Yesterday, when Microsoft finally announced the successor to its Xbox 360, Don Mattrick took the stage with a giddy grin. "Today, we're thrilled to unveil the ultimate all-in-one home entertainment system," the Microsoft executive said. "The one with the power to create experiences that look and feel like nothing else.
The one that makes your TV more intelligent. The one system for a new generation. Ladies and gentlemen: introducing Xbox One."
One. One. One. The rhetoric has a nice rhythm, doesn't it? And indeed, when I first heard the name, I thought it was kind of neat. Xbox One: the one device you need in your living room. The Power of One.
Then I started talking to friends about it. Not hardcore gamer friends — the friends who play Call of Duty and Madden and occasionally Skyrim, and who don't read websites like Kotaku unless one of our articles happens to pop up on their Facebook feeds. Here's an example of what these conversations have looked like:
Jason: "So have you heard anything about Xbox One?"
Friend: "Nope. What's that?"
Jason: "The new Xbox. It was just announced yesterday."
Friend: "Oh. Wasn't Xbox One the first Xbox?"
Now I'm worried. I'm worried because Microsoft's press conference yesterday was not designed for the hardcore gamer, yet the hardcore gamer is the person who needs to explain to his or her friends just what an Xbox One is. I suspect that a lot of us will be calling it "the new Xbox," which strikes me as a recipe for disaster. Just ask the Wii U.
Granted, the Wii U was its own kind of disaster: I'll always remember sitting in the audience and watching the looks of confusion during Nintendo's E3 press conference in 2011, when the Mario makers announced a new console that looked and sounded like a Wii accessory. The name "Wii U" still confuses people today, to the point where Nintendo needed to write up special marketing materials just to explain that it's a new machine. (Seriously, why couldn't they just go with "Wii 2"?)
But the situation might be similar. This is the year of the prequel, and the name "Xbox One" sounds like it will fit nicely alongside Batman: Arkham Origins and Assassin's Creed IV. When your average video game fan hears the name "Xbox One," he or she will not think, "Oh, that's the one device I need in my living room." He/she will think, "Why did they go back 359?"
Average people might not see Xbox One as an accessory, but they sure could think it's a remake of the first Xbox. Or a lesser version of the Xbox 360. And while this sort of brand confusion may not destroy Microsoft's new console, it could very well hurt Xbox One in the single market Microsoft is pursuing hardest: casual TV watchers and video game fans.
CNET asked Microsoft program manager Jeff Henshaw about this confusion, and his answer was not comforting:
I think after today, there's just no question about it. I think there was a few minutes of "hmm" but then as soon as people realise what it's all about and understand the experience, the One brand immediately gets applied to this new generation of experience.
The thing you have to bear in mind, is that if you look at the original Xbox, the experiences have grown to become so dramatically rich and different. There's no resemblance anymore between the two. You can't confuse them in any way. So when people say "Xbox One," it's going to be reflective of this new generation of experiences. I really don't think there's going to be any confusion.
Hubris! There might not be much of a resemblance between the old Xbox and the Xbox One, but can "Xbox One" really dig its claws into pop culture the way "Xbox 360" did? Or will we all just casually refer to it as "the new Xbox" when talking to our friends and family members, for fear of confusing the heck out of people who don't religiously keep up on gaming news?
As Microsoft touts the futuristic new features that really could be game-changers, like cloud computing and an overhauled version of the Kinect body sensor, they have saddled their system with a name that evokes the past. "Xbox One" does not say next-gen; it says "we're starting over." And I think it will confuse more than it clarifies.