On May 7th, Microsoft began a pilot program at Microsoft Stores in the United States to offer the Xbox 360 Slim with a 4 gig HDD, a Kinect, and a two-year subscription to Xbox Live Gold for $100 down and a two-year service contract at $15 a month. I think this program is brilliant, but there were rumblings to the contrary almost immediately. The complaints were twofold: first, the service contract would jack up the overall price of the console, and second, rumors of Xbox 720 development kits implied the program might leave customers with obsolete hardware that wasn't even paid for yet.
Let's tackle that price gripe first. Anyone signing up for this deal winds up paying $40 more in total for the hardware and the services combined. The hardware bought up front would cost $300, and two years' worth of Xbox Live Gold runs $120, for $420 total. By the terms of this new purchase option, the customer pays $100 up front but pays $360 over the life of the service contract, for a total of $460. To quibble over $40 not only seems ridiculous to me, but also a complaint that comes from the perspective of those who can afford to plunk down $360 in one go for the hardware and the Gold subscription. Anyone in that position is not the audience for this offer. Hardcore gamers and members of the press who are used to being ensconced in all the new games and consoles and hardware we want can easily forget how fortunate we are to be in that position.
When I was a student, and for my first few years out of college working full time, coming up with $100 would have been a hell of a lot easier than drumming up $360. But looking at the raw numbers out of context isn't the best way to judge what's on offer here. Let's say Joe wants to play Call of Duty with his gaggle of buddies who are already doing so. Joe either pays start-up costs of $160 for an Xbox via this new offer and a copy of the latest CoD iteration, or he pays $300 for the console, $60 for a year of Gold, and $60 for the game at $420.
Concerns over tying customers via contract to a piece of hardware that may be obsolete in the near future feel unwarranted. As As Michael Pachter told me in January when we discussed the Xbox 720, Microsoft is still selling 10 million units annually. They could be making as much as $150 per console. They have absolutely no reason to undercut that success by announcing their next generation while the Xbox 360 is selling well and profitable, not when the risk is giving customers a reason to sit out purchasing a 360 while waiting for the next-gen console. It stands to reason that the Xbox 360 is going to remain Microsoft's primary console for the immediate future.
Concerns over obsolescence also depend on the idea that a previous-gen console ceases to be attractive as soon as the next generation is available. That certainly isn't what we saw with the PlayStation 2 and the PlayStation 3, and the Xbox 360 has a huge library of games and an enormous online community that isn't going to instantly jump ship to the next gen. Look at how long original Xbox users were playing Halo 2.
I also think the suggestion that this is a move by Microsoft to compete with Apple TV is an exciting one. This is a move to turn the Xbox into a household name, and a widely-recognized brand whose appeal extends way beyond the core gamer demographic by making an Xbox 360 more affordable than ever. This purchase program is about increased accessibility.
Increased accessibility leads to increased visibility, and that's why anyone who cares about videogames has cause to be excited about this new purchase plan. Ownership of a game console has been the exclusive province of the gamer for decades, a mysterious little box whose function was unfamiliar, or unknown, or uninteresting to the eyes of the unconverted. Our console hardware marked us as belonging to the gamer club. While game consoles are no longer the mysterious objects they were to outsiders in the 1980's and 1990's they're still not entirely familiar to mainstream culture, either.
This continues to slowly change. We're buying Kinect for our children. We're buying consoles for the media functionality. And the more videogame hardware proliferates in our homes, the less they remain objects of mystery, and the more gaming as a whole is mainstreamed. The day is coming when a game console is as much a known and accepted piece of hardware as a smartphone or a DVD player. When that finally happens, the way our culture talks about videogames across the board is going to change, the same way it did with film and rock music and comic books and as it always does with any new form of media which has to be digested and accepted by the mainstream. Mainstream media outlets might actually start showing some respect for videogames and cover them from angles other than. Acceptance and respect for the videogame form will put an end to the idea that interactive entertainment can't be allowed to discuss serious themes in our lives because it's just a game, which will result in a wider range of gaming experiences.
Microsoft's new Xbox 360 purchase plan isn't the end-all, be-all solution to these issues but it's a step in the right direction, and a sign that the old way of doing things is going to change, potentially radically, in the very near future. For anyone who grew up being ostracized or otherwise judged for their love of video games, seeing the end of that state of affairs on the horizon is exciting. This is a time we've been waiting decades for.