At last night’s Game Awards, Phil Spencer, the head of Microsoft’s Xbox brand, made the surprise announcement of their next-generation console. That the console exists wasn’t the surprise, of course; we’ve known another Xbox would come out next year for quite a while. But it was a shock to me to see it unveiled at the Game Awards.
I don’t mean to be too disrespectful, but the Game Awards are very much a second-tier event in the industry, definitely not on par with E3, and probably behind Europe’s biggest event Gamescom when it comes to the gaming calendar. While the event is somewhat unique – though practically every outlet and organisation in games media makes a list of their favourite titles of the year – it just isn’t quite on the same level as some others. Which makes it an unusual choice of venue to premiere a new console. Just in terms of raw numbers, the audience for the Game Awards is much lower than for something like E3, and with it being so close to Christmas a lot of people who don’t follow the games industry religiously have tuned out.
That’s not to say that unveiling the console at a big event like E3 would be the best idea, with so many other news stories coming out of that event you might be headline news for a day, only to be overshadowed the next day by another announcement. These kind of announcements are best suited to a dedicated event, where the brand can control all aspects of the presentation. At least in my opinion (as someone who did work for a time in games marketing, I should add) that seems like the best route to go down for something this significant.
As a result of announcing the device here, the immediate reaction hasn’t been one of triumph for the Xbox brand. Instead it’s been confused. At first I wasn’t sure whether the Xbox Series X was a new console, another Xbox One variant, or a different device entirely. And a significant part of that is down to the choice of name – one which is, frankly, crap.
Xbox has struggled with names since its second generation. And it was an understandably difficult conundrum for the brand to overcome. In 2005, the original Xbox came to the end of its life and was phased out. PlayStation, having launched its brand a whole generation ahead of Xbox, was already onto the PlayStation 2 – so logically, their next console would be the PlayStation 3. From Xbox’s point of view, having the Xbox 2 compete with the PlayStation 3 wouldn’t work. In the opinion of marketing professionals, they would surely have argued that running a “2” console against a “3” would look like it was a step behind, and would cost them sales, especially among consumers who didn’t know much about gaming. So the decision was made to name the new console something with a 3 – to match PlayStation 3. And as Xbox 360 essentially won that generation’s console war, it seems like it wasn’t a terrible name after all.
But after Xbox 360 came Xbox One, though that console’s rough launch can’t really be attributed to its odd name. Midway through this generation we’ve also seen the Xbox One S and the Xbox One X – one a lower end system, one a more advanced system. Not that you’d know the difference from the names. Xbox One X is already a complicated name, with no simple short form way to say it. PS3, PS4, PS5; those short nicknames just work well and roll off the tongue. XBX doesn’t, not that anyone’s ever called it that.
And so after the Xbox One X, we arrive at the Xbox Series X. I fear it risks making the mistake Nintendo made with the Wii and Wii U – those consoles’ names were so similar that a lot of people were confused as to what exactly a Wii U was. Was it a tablet? An accessory for the Wii? A handheld? That confusion among consumers – especially casual consumers who aren’t hardcore gamers and who don’t follow any gaming news – hurt Nintendo and contributed to Wii U’s underperformance. And Xbox Series X just sounds so similar to Xbox One X and Xbox One S that I fear they haven’t learned from Nintendo’s issues in 2012/13.
If I already own – or have just recently bought – an Xbox One X or Xbox One S, if I’ve even heard of Xbox Series X I’m going to be seriously wondering whether it’s something I need to buy. Is it a new console? Is it just another variant of what I’ve already got? A lot of people won’t know – and won’t take the time to find out, especially if PlayStation 5 comes in with slick marketing. Now that’s clearly a brand new console, and even if I’m not normally a PlayStation consumer I still know – instantly – that it’s their next generation machine.
I think Xbox had a couple of good naming options – one was simple: Xbox. Just plain Xbox. Everyone would know what it is, and that would be that. Alternatively, the name I really thought they would’ve gone with was Xbox Five. Why five, if it’s only the fourth generation Xbox? Because you’d number them like this: 1) Original Xbox, 2) Xbox 360, 3) Xbox One, 4) Xbox One X, 5) Xbox Five. Then they’d have the Xbox Five up against the PlayStation 5. There’d be no confusion as consumers would know both consoles represented the same generation.
Even while writing this article I had to go back and double-check that Xbox Series X was definitely, 100%, their next-generation offering. The confusing name is a potential problem – one that the brand is all too familiar with. Time will tell whether the choice of name will be damaging, and to be fair to Xbox they have a solid ten or eleven months to get the word out and get Xbox Series X firmly locked into the minds of consumers. But even if they can overcome the confusion with their current-gen offerings, let’s be honest – the name is still crap.
Xbox, Xbox Series X, Xbox One X, and other consoles mentioned above are the copyright of Microsoft. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.
Post edited (to correct an image alignment error) 23rd Nov. 2020.