Hyper Mode: Battle of the Brands at E3 2013

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This year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo revealed a new console cycle and thus a new round of console personalities. E3 is no more than a show floor full of demos and a series of press conferences about products, but it often feels like a speed-dating event in which companies compete to win our hearts. It’s where hardware companies brand their consoles and themselves.

Sony and Microsoft announced the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One, respectively. Nintendo, meanwhile, used E3 as an opportunity to rekindle interest in the Wii U, which arrived last November to tepid response and low sales numbers. Consumers do care what games will be released on each system (check this handy chart for that information), but the central narrative of E3 revolves around branding.

The console you choose defines what kind of gamer you are—not just because of the games you will be able to play, but also because console companies so thoroughly inundate consumers with brand messaging that it’s difficult not to let it seep into our social interactions. If I meet a gamer and tell them that I only own a Wii, or that I only own a 360, or that I own all three consoles, each will elicit a different set of assumptions about what kind of person I am.

This identity-based branding technique—and the subsequent “console fanboys/girls” it creates—allows console manufacturers to save on advertising costs. Creating die-hard fans sells consoles for not only the current generation, but ideally, all future generations: Play your cards right, and your fans will look for evidence of “their” brand and overlook product specs. If your customers identify emotionally with what your product represents, they’re more likely to defend you if you make missteps.

People with good memories of the last console generation may recall this fan-made parody of the PS3’s marketing and the Wii’s marketing , designed to emulate Apple’s old comparison commercials, but with a bonus misogynistic bent. The video mocks both the PS3 and the Wii by claiming that the former is clunky and pretentious and the latter is too casual and small-minded. This video’s creator has got to be some 360 fanboy, am I right?

The branding of the previous cycle of consoles worked well, and it’s hardly a new marketing tactic (recall the epic battle of old between the SNES and the Genesis). The initial characterizations of Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo’s past three consoles have remained more or less intact in the new generation, with a few notable tweaks. The Wii U would likely complement its bikini with a pair of fuzzy cat ears and a fresh pixie haircut. The PS4 would don a beret and cappuccino while telling us about its self-publishing model for indie games and its lack of region-locking. The Xbox, meanwhile, has transformed from a sports-loving, Call of Duty-playing bro into a libertarian Men’s Rights Activist.

Rather than redefine the 360’s image, Microsoft has chosen to lean into it. The theme of the Xbox One’s brand can be summed up in one word: exclusivity. Instead of marketing to a dubious “everyone,” as Nintendo has done, or marketing to folks who want to hear that their hobby is artistic and important, as Sony has done, Microsoft’s Xbox One determinedly caters to a very specific audience: rich, white men.

The exclusion begins with the console’s new name. “Xbox One” seems designed to confuse laypeople; most would have no idea this referred to a next-generation console. Presumably, Microsoft focus-tested this name and knew that it would cause confusion among folks who think “One” would refer to an old, former Xbox. The company could have chosen a more forward-thinking name, such as the Next Box or the Xbox 720, but no. Why not?

Perhaps Microsoft hopes the One will suggest a reset of sorts, a regression to a not-so-distant, nostalgic past for folks who remember the boner jokes of their youths (the Xbox One can, and has, been shortened to “X-Bone” by most), a return to the simpler days of Madden and Halo and Call of Duty, a time before all these “casual gamers” and “fake nerd girls” were acknowledged or expected to be accounted for in console marketing or sales numbers.

Diversity doesn’t fit the One’s brand, after all, and Microsoft has made that clear by not showcasing any female videogame characters in their launch day and E3 footage. The Xbox One’s exclusive games have unanimously featured white male protagonists in their advertising and marketing up to this point, aside from Killer Instinct, a remake of a 1994 fighting game that so far has announced one female character out of its roster of seven. In capitalizing on nostalgia, the Xbox One has also capitalized on the regressive gender and racial politics that go with it.

The few Xbox One games that feature playable female characters, such as Mirror’s Edge 2 and Dragon Age: Inquisition, will also be available on other consoles. Meanwhile, trailers for upcoming PS4 and Wii U games included several playable female characters, from Beyond: Two Souls’ Jodie Holmes, to Transistor’s Red, to the young Viking girl in Rayman: Legends, to Dixie Kong to Princess Peach to the two women who fight side by side in Bayonetta 2’s co-op campaign. None of these women will appear on the Xbox One. (Representations of characters of color, meanwhile, have been notably absent on all three consoles, which will doubtless become a talking point for future generations, given the high statistical presence of black and Hispanic gamers.)

In addition to making clear that every Xbox One owner has a broadband connection, thus ensuring that lower-class or less densely populated areas that lack internet will never be able to access the console, Microsoft will also only make the Xbox One available in certain countries at launch. The console’s policy on used games has also shocked the huge demographic of people who can’t afford to buy every game they want at its full price point. As though to seal the deal, Microsoft’s inclusion of a staged sketch in which a woman gets humiliated in a fighting game battle against a man seems designed to articulate what the Xbox One should represent for the next generation: a continuation of an elitist “boys’ club” culture that, in addition to alienating women and people of color in terms of both overall marketing treatment and representation in games, also excludes lower-income players.

Sony, meanwhile, has managed to buck its prior reputation for being the most expensive console of the pack. The latest PlayStation and Xbox price points have switched places this time around. At launch, the 360 cost $300-400 (depending on hard drive size) and the PS3 cost $500-600 (again, due to hard drive differences). This time around, the Xbox One will cost $500 and the PS4 will cost $400. Both prices likely sound unreasonable to recession-throttled gamers, but since the PS4’s price point is a hundred dollars lower, it seems less awful. At the very least, Sony plans to continue the PS3’s less restrictive policies on DRM and used games on the PS4.

It’s not yet clear whether this branding choice will work out for Microsoft in terms of sales. Sony, thus far, seems to have exited E3 with a Lesser of Two Evils tiara, but it remains to be seen whether “we’re not the Xbox One” will be enough of a leg for them to stand on. The Wii U may emerge as a dark horse favorite among gamers who can’t afford either of the other boxes.

Microsoft has made it clear that they cater to the 1%, but their recent announcement about gamers’ ability to share games with ten other “family members” indicates some backpedaling on this point, and thank goodness for that, although it’s still not enough to make up for Microsoft’s lack of acknowledgement of the used games market.

The games industry should not only acknowledge its diverse player base, but also heed the economic recession that still seems to be in full swing. Perhaps developers and publishers should focus on making financially accessible games for a wider audience, rather than selling out their brand image to the minority of players who still have money.

As a former “Xbox fangirl” turned skeptic by my years working in games journalism and criticism, I no longer have a party affiliation. But, I will say this: I don’t believe videogames should be a pastime solely associated with rich elitists or suburban frat boys, and as such, I hope to see Microsoft get left in the dust by other brands this cycle. After all, brand imaging represents what companies believe resonates with consumers, and I’d like nothing more than to see the Xbox One’s assumptions about gamers go out of style.

Maddy Myers writes the biweekly Hyper Mode column for Paste Magazine. Her work has also appeared in the Boston Phoenix, Kill Screen and at the Border House. She also blogs at her personal website Metroidpolitan and tweets @samusclone.

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