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    Xbox Series X|S

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    The fourth Xbox console from Microsoft launched on November 10, 2020 with two distinct models; Series X and Series S.

    Does Microsoft need characters to represent Xbox?

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    bigsocrates

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    Edited By bigsocrates

    Everyone knows we are long past the days of the mascot platformer being the standard bearer for a platform. Sonic, Crash, and Mario had their day in the sun, but these days Crash is a minor character who is platform agnostic, Sonic games are few and far between, and while Mario is still one of the top characters in the world, platforming is a relatively small part of his game portfolio.

    That doesn't mean that game characters don't matter anymore, though. Nintendo's whole market position is built around characters, from Mario and Link to Samus and the Animal Crossing crew. Their biggest IPs are built around characters, and virtually all of their games star some recognizable frontman/woman/creature.

    Sony's portfolio of games may be more mature oriented, but it is also largely character driven. The Uncharted series leveraged people's love for Nathan Drake and his friends to soar to new heights. The Spider-Man games are a fresh spin on one of the most popular characters out there. Ratchet & Clank. Sackboy. The Astro games. God of War. Horizon Zero Dawn. Sony does have some franchises that aren't particularly character driven (like Gran Turismo and Demon's Souls) but much of Sony's IP is focused around strong and recognizable characters.

    Then we get to Microsoft. Their most famous franchise is arguably still Halo, and from that Master Chief has become a kind of unofficial mascot for the system, but he's almost a non-character in many ways. Over the course of the games he's built a personality and backstory, but they've never taken center stage, and the fact that you play Halo from the first person perspective means that he fades much more into the background of those games than Nintendo or Sony's characters tend to. Halo is also at least in part a multiplayer driven series where Master Chief isn't even involved, with players instead taking on the role of nameless Spartans.

    There's also Gears of War and Marcus Fenix, but he's rarely trotted out as a representative of Xbox these days, and he's even been de-emphasized in his own series, which is more multiplayer focused. Microsoft's other big franchises don't tend to have any consistent characters at all. The Forza games obviously don't. Minecraft has Steve, but again it's first person and Steve is a non-character. The Fable games started you fresh each time, free to built your own avatar and spec him how you liked. In Crackdown you make your own agent. Killer Instinct has characters but Microsoft has never pushed them as brand representatives. The Ori series is well regarded, but I never see anyone talking about Ori itself.

    Even the studios Microsoft bought don't tend to create persistent characters from one game to another. Bethesda games are famous for making you create your own character from a variety of choices. Obsidian games do that too. B.J. Blaskowitz and The Doom Slayer are iconic characters in their own way, but in the context of their franchises rather than any particular platform. Doublefine does create memorable characters, but they also make more niche, smaller, games that don't make for good standard bearers.

    Microsoft tried to make characters in the early days of its console business, churning out platformers and fighting games that nobody really cared about, which is why Master Chief ended up as the mascot despite Microsoft's best effort to make Blinx or Voodoo Vince or Tao Feng happen. Since then it seems to have given up. Obviously it hasn't stopped Microsoft from having success in the video game business, but I do think that there are advantages to having characters that people care about. Nintendo leverages Mario and Pokemon to push people into all kinds of games they might not otherwise be interested in. How many people bought Pokemon Snap because it was a Pokemon game rather than because they wanted a photography rail shooter? Sony uses its characters to keep people loyal to their platform, because you need a PlayStation if you want to see the continued adventures of Kratos or play the latest Spider-Man title. Characters give a platform an instantly recognizable face and emotional investment in games and a platform. They make people forgive flawed games and wait through release droughts because they are fans of a specific thing, and that's a thing they can only get from that particular character. A Spider-Man fan wants to play a Spider-Man game, not some generic open world or superhero game. Fans of Forza are likely to be much more fickle, going to wherever they think the licensed cars they want and the best racing engine are.

    Does Microsoft need characters? No. But it might be wise to think about building some of them up. Other than the guy in the green helmet who you never actually see outside reflections and cut scenes.

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    nateandrews

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    Is it cheating or misguided to say that Phil Spencer has almost taken on that role in my mind? I never want to put too much emotional stock in a company executive, even one as affable as Spencer, but I genuinely think he has done a better job representing the Xbox brand than any character could. I still tend to associate Xbox with Halo and Forza of course, but Microsoft has made a lot of good moves over the last several years to turn the Xbox platform around and it’s always been accompanied by a Phil Spencer interview, or stage appearance, or blog post. He’s like a never-ending good news deliverer.

    Outside of that, I don’t know that Xbox really needs one or two platform-defining characters if only because Game Pass allows them to leverage dozens and dozens of characters from all sorts of games. The Xbox platform these days is less about “You can play the latest Master Chief adventure” and more about “You can play an absurd number of games for a single monthly price, many of which are part of existing franchises with characters you’ll recognize.”

    That approach has certainly worked for me; I’m not buying a PS5 anytime soon because for as much as I want to see the latest chapter in Aloy’s and Kratos’ story, I cannot justify buying an entire console and then $70 a piece for those exclusives. I love those characters but my wallet doesn’t care quite that much.

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    Justin258

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    I mean if they need a mascot they've got one, and his games being in first person doesn't seem to matter all that much. For that matter, there are only three Halo games solely belonging to the Chief - 1, 3, and 4 - and that doesn't seem to hurt his mascot power either. He's less a character and more a towering mythological icon anyway.

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    Y2Ken

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    I'd say Master Chief (and arguably Marcus Fenix) are more iconically "Xbox" figures than anyone PS has had in a long time, with the possible exception of Astro Bot. That said I don't think they really need a specific mascot either.

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    GTxForza

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    I'd personally say Xbox and PlayStation don't really need a character as their mascot.

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    NameRedacted

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    No. When you're a global mega corp who wants to consolidate / monopolize the video game market like Disney has for TV and movies, mascots are pointless. Soon everything will be Microsoft; branding is pointless when customers have no other options.

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    apewins

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    #6  Edited By apewins

    Microsoft kind of stopped making games there, it's as if they looked at Halo, Gears and Forza and said "we're good" with what they have, in addition to some one-off games that never took off like Ryse or Sunset Overdrive. And they've suffered the consequences, their recent purchasing spree the evidence of that. I don't think they necessarily need a mascot, but they sure would like to have one.

    And I'll say that Master Chief is the most boring protagonist ever, with an equally boring Cortana as his sidekick. I've been playing the series and 4 games in, I don't even know if MC is a human who occasionally takes the helmet off or not (if this is explained in some of the novels, don't tell me). He has absolutely zero personality, no interests beyond fighting at all. He is basically a Jesus figure who can go into whatever desperate situation and somehow everything always goes his way. At least Gordon Freeman kept his mouth shut. And Cortana is an AI, you can always just download another one.

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    j_unit2008

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    I don't think they need characters as much as they need people to associate the Xbox name with franchises. If certain characters become popular, that's more of an added bonus. I think Pokémon and Animal Crossing are great examples of this for Nintendo because everyone knows Nintendo is the only place to play those games. Pikachu became a mascot eventually but Pokémon is not "The Pikachu Game."

    I think Microsoft is very much approaching gaming from this angle. Hence, the 'prestige' purchases of Bethesda et al. It'll be interesting to see if we see the fruits of that work this generation and whether people think of Xbox as the "Starfield" console or whatever.

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    Mezmero

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    #8  Edited By Mezmero

    Even though they've had the crummiest naming for their console SKUs I feel like merely having an "X" in their name over the course of several years is already powerful enough branding. It's so evocative that it sort of supersedes the need for mascot characters. Since Gamepass is becoming their biggest selling point then maybe they could brand that with some sort character. Maybe have the Sunset Overdrive dude stylishly grinding from game to game...

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    bigsocrates

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    #9  Edited By bigsocrates

    @nateandrews:I don't think that there's "cheating" in answering a question like this, but I also don't think Phil Spencer really fills that role. Nobody is going to buy a console that's otherwise unappealing because Phil Spencer is involved with it. Also Phil Spencer is not owned by Microsoft. Even if you trust his vision, he can quit at any time in a way that an IP character cannot. Also I think most people don't necessarily know who he is or recognize him, since only a small portion of players pay attention to those kinds of things.

    @justin258: I actually agree that Master Chief is less a character and more an icon...but I'm not sure that's an entirely good thing. You saw in the initial reaction to Halo Infinite that people just don't really care about the storyline or characters, which means that the games have to stand alone if they want to be a pull. You see Nintendo get a lot of mileage out of releasing stuff with their characters attached even if people don't love the games (like New Super Mario Bros. U, or Link's Crossbow Training and Skyward Sword.)

    @y2ken: I think Master Chief is more associated with Xbox than any character is with PlayStation just because he's basically all Xbox has. But Kratos and Ratchet & Clank have been around almost as long. And obviously Mario is more associated with Nintendo than just about any character with any other company.

    @nameredacted: Disney's entire business model is built around leveraging IP and characters. That's like...their whole business model.

    @apewins: Microsoft never stopped making games. They just made the wrong games for a long time. They made a lot of Kinect games, they tried a lot of things that didn't work (Recore, Quantum Break, etc...) and they just generally went through a period with more misses than hits.

    @j_unit2008: Characters and franchises can be related, of course, but I actually think that the characters are key to the appeal of things like Pokemon and Animal Crossing. Elder Scrolls has a massive following, it's true, but you can't really repurpose Elder Scrolls to repackage as other properties. They have tried this several times and nobody cared. The Elder Scrolls MMO is maybe an exception, but it's very close to what the Elder Scrolls is. Nobody would play Elder Scrolls Tennis, unless it was a good game.

    Pokemon has been repackaged into basically every kind of game imaginable, and that's possible because the key to the franchise is the characters. The Pokemon. People want to see them doing different things in different contexts.

    Even Warcraft spawning WOW used characters to sell the spin off game.

    @mezmero: Sony owns Sunset Overdrive. There's even an SO reference in the latest Ratchet & Clank game.

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    MindBullet

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    I think you could argue that Game Pass is as much a mascot for Xbox now as any character they've ever had. The rise of indie games and the shifting nature of exclusivity has put characters as a focus behind making specific games or franchises being available on your platform a bigger selling point.

    I'm sure Microsoft would love it if everyone really fell in love with the Starfield protag or w/e and began associating them with Microsoft instead of Bethesda, but they'd likely slap a Game Pass sticker on their face as soon as possible. Master Chief has kind of been grandfathered in as the Xbox mascot, but it feels like with every game that comes out the more distance they want from him.

    Really, I'd say that Nintendo is the only one of the "Big Three" that cares about mascot characters, and that's only because they've built their entire brand around them. Sony may try to go down that path, but it'd be more about The Uncharted Series Available Only On Playstation and less about bringing out Nathan Drake for another adventure.

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    jagerxbomb

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    I think the success of Smash Bros propels a lot of Nintendo characters to fame. Vinny always says that Smash is how his kids learn about characters from other games.

    Sony's contemporary characters (Nathan Drake, Ellie, etc.) are part of epic stories, which resonates differently than say, that plumber you jumped on the turtles with 30 years ago. I think they are all equally popular but in different ways.

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    elwaldorf

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    I don't think they need characters as much as they need people to associate the Xbox name with franchises. If certain characters become popular, that's more of an added bonus. I think Pokémon and Animal Crossing are great examples of this for Nintendo because everyone knows Nintendo is the only place to play those games. Pikachu became a mascot eventually but Pokémon is not "The Pikachu Game."

    I think Microsoft is very much approaching gaming from this angle. Hence, the 'prestige' purchases of Bethesda et al. It'll be interesting to see if we see the fruits of that work this generation and whether people think of Xbox as the "Starfield" console or whatever.

    Yeah, this is the thing that Microsoft has been missing for quite sometime. The idea is if you can go to a rando to a street and ask them what's the first thing to come to mind when you mention a entertainment company, it should be a name of a franchise at the very least. Halo is the closest to that right now, but it hasn't had the same spark for awhile.

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    cikame

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    I don't think Master Chief is a bad mascot for the brand, i'm not personally a fan but i think most people still associate Xbox with Halo, even if its shine has faded a bit, he's not the deepest character in the world but non of the mascots are.
    It might just be because i'm old but the main things people talk about with consoles now is technical details, PS5's mascot is fast loading and trigger resistance, Xbox is Game Pass and... games being in development? These aren't the carefree days of the PS1 and N64, now it's all about serious business.

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    AV_Gamer

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    They already have characters, Master Chief and Marcus Fenix. If you're talking about a Mario, Sonic, type of character, they tried that with Blinx and failed.

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    wardcleaver

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    @cikame said:

    I don't think Master Chief is a bad mascot for the brand, i'm not personally a fan but i think most people still associate Xbox with Halo, even if its shine has faded a bit, he's not the deepest character in the world but non of the mascots are.

    It might just be because i'm old but the main things people talk about with consoles now is technical details, PS5's mascot is fast loading and trigger resistance, Xbox is Game Pass and... games being in development? These aren't the carefree days of the PS1 and N64, now it's all about serious business.

    This sums up my feeling as well. Although, I would argue it has always been "serious business".

    Video gamers are getting older: I think the 2 largest demographics in the US are 18-34 yrs and 34-54 years. In general, I think people in these age groups are going to purchase a console based on tech specs and games, more so than a character.

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    deckard

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    This gets brought every few years- no, nobody needs mascots anymore. That was a product of a certain time and that time has passed. Like other people have mentioned older gamers are swayed by specs and specific franchises; younger gamers go where their friends are.

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    eukara

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    Justin258

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    #18  Edited By Justin258

    @bigsocrates said:

    @justin258: I actually agree that Master Chief is less a character and more an icon...but I'm not sure that's an entirely good thing. You saw in the initial reaction to Halo Infinite that people just don't really care about the storyline or characters, which means that the games have to stand alone if they want to be a pull. You see Nintendo get a lot of mileage out of releasing stuff with their characters attached even if people don't love the games (like New Super Mario Bros. U, or Link's Crossbow Training and Skyward Sword.)

    On the topic of people "not caring" about Halo's lore/characters/storyline... there are definitely groups out there that do. They may not be posting on forums or commenting on E3 videos all that much, but Microsoft wouldn't publish a vast expanded universe and put out TV shows if they didn't have the market data to prove that people do care. That said, have you played Halo 5? Because that game's story is hot fucking garbage. As a big fan of the Bungie-developed games and someone who enjoyed Halo 4, even its story, I really don't have much faith that 343 can bring enough to the table to make me care about Halo's story again. I don't think I'm alone here.

    But, on to your broader point, I don't think it matters at all that Master Chief isn't necessarily the main draw for his own series. Most people aren't super into Halo lore, they're not keen on seeing what happens to Cortana in Infinite, and many of the people buying Halo Infinite will barely remember Spartan Locke. What matters is the association that Master Chief has with Xbox and that association in the public conscience isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Think about how Solid Snake is tied to Metal Gear Solid even though he's the lead guy in only two of the five main games in the franchise - it's the same story. Master Chief's green helmet means Xbox, Xbox means Halo, and Halo means either epic space opera nonsense or silly arena shooter shenanigans. That's all a mascot really needs to be, or an icon if you think that word fits better.

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    Battlecow2

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    I don't mean for this to come off as a “hot take” but I think the lack of character mascot actually really helps the Xbox brand transition into Game Pass as a service.

    What Sony has done with their characters has always felt like a pale imitation of Nintendo's strategy. Don't get me wrong I enjoy the Astro Bot games and how they have used it to pay homage to their history, but looking back at some of their old ads and some of the games they made ( I'm looking at you Playstation All-Stars) comes off like they are chasing the dragon.

    Xbox on the other hand by not having those character mascots is free to position itself as more of a neutral party and can appeal to whatever brand and marketing efforts they are making at that time. Xbox is able to integrate itself into windows and get to be a tool for playing games as they continue going down the Game Pass route I think it only strengthens the need to be less of a brand and more of a service. In much the same way that Netflix is the de-facto idea of a streaming platform I could see Game Pass over take over the Xbox brand and just get that mindshare as the de facto games as a service term.

    There is no doubt Xbox, Sony and Nintendo have been successful at defining and selling the idea of a console in the past but I only see one of these 3 making a big effort into creating the next step and I am really curious to see where it goes from here

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    ghost_cat

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    Isn't Phil Spencer a character?

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    norm9

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    Joanna Dark and John Halo are more than enough.

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    Onemanarmyy

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    #22  Edited By Onemanarmyy

    I don't think Microsoft necessarily needs a strong character, but it definitly needs something that sets it apart from the competition. When i bought a PS2 it was clear why i wanted that console: Gateway to RPG's, Final Fantasy & Metal Gear Solid.

    Nowadays you might have people that decide to buy an Xbox (or PC) because they want to play Starfield, use Xcloud or because they want Game Pass. That could work just as well as one particular character or franchise being killer.

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