A video game that depicts a battle between corporate mercenaries and local brigands in far-off space colonies has already won the hearts and minds of Microsoft executives.
Now those Microsoft bosses hope the game, Titanfall, will win over enough consumers to pump up sales of Xbox One, the company’s flagship gaming console. Xbox One sales are trailing those of a machine from Sony, Microsoft’s main rival.
There is reason to be hopeful: Titanfall was created by a well-known game designer and has already received critical acclaim. In an unusual move for a major title created by an independent game maker, Titanfall is being released exclusively for three Microsoft platforms – the Xbox One, the older Xbox 360 console and Windows PCs.
"It’s hard to understate how incredibly important Titanfall is for Xbox," Yusuf Mehdi, chief marketing and strategy officer for devices and studios at Microsoft, said in an interview.
While the Xbox is a relatively small portion of Microsoft’s business, it is crucial to the company’s future as its most prominent hardware success and the linchpin of its strategy to influence the future of entertainment. Microsoft is betting that an exciting game that can be played only on Microsoft products will persuade more people to spend $500 on an Xbox One, $100 more than for Sony’s latest console, the PlayStation 4.
In a sign of how heavily Microsoft is counting on Titanfall to lift the sales of its new console, the company said recently that it would bundle the game with the Xbox One while keeping the price for the two at $500, the same amount it previously charged for the console alone. The move was effectively a $60 price cut for the Xbox One since that it is how much Titanfall will sell for on its own.
Price is the biggest disadvantage Microsoft has against the PS4. Microsoft’s console costs more because it includes the Kinect camera and microphone sensor with every system. The sensor is designed to let people play games without a conventional controller and to operate nongame functions on the console, like changing cable channels with their voices.
Titanfall is due in stores this week after two years of development.
Early reviews have been positive, and its creative chief, Vince Zampella of Respawn Entertainment, has a strong track record. He helped create the wildly successful Call of Duty game series, which has had revenue of more than $9 billion during its 11-year history.
If the game is the hit many people in the industry expect, Titanfall could repeat the success of another big game, Halo. That science-fiction shooter, which is owned and still published by Microsoft, ignited a fire under sales of the original Xbox. Since Halo was released in 2001, more than 60 million copies have been sold.
As another science-fiction shooting game, Titanfall resembles Halo, at least superficially. But Respawn has put a fresh spin on the concept. And as inexpensive mobile games soak up more time from players, the game is also an opportunity for a big-budget console game, with eye-popping effects and a monopoly over the biggest screen in the house, to reassert itself and its genre.
"Titanfall will help propel the idea of high-definition gaming," said Patrick Soderlund, the executive vice president of EA Studios at Electronic Arts, the company that is publishing the game for Respawn.
Titanfall is meant to be played only online with other players, in contrast to other modern games that allow people to play both online and by themselves. This dovetails well with Microsoft’s strategy of giving people more reasons to subscribe to a premium version of Xbox Live, a paid service that is required for people who want to play games against others online. Microsoft is using Xbox Live, which costs $60 a year, to deliver video programming from Netflix, Comcast and a bounty of other media partners.
People can play Titanfall as soldiers on foot, outfitted with a variety of weapons that they use to defend themselves amid the ruins of a ravaged planet.
They can leap across chasms by running on walls, parkour style. The most exciting moments occur when players decide to hop into giant robotic suits, known in the game as titans, which they can pilot around, picking off opponents with heavy weaponry.
"It was a little bit of trying to do something familiar yet different," Zampella of Respawn said.
The high hopes for Titanfall stem partly from the pedigree of Zampella, 44, and Jason West, the co-founders of Infinity Ward, the studio behind Call of Duty, which Activision acquired in 2003. They were forced out of the studio by Activision in 2010 in a dispute over money. Lawsuits between both sides were eventually settled.
Respawn, based in Van Nuys, Calif., has about 70 game developers, about half of whom used to work at Infinity Ward, Zampella said. West, who co-founded Respawn with Zampella, left the studio last year.
In deciding to make Titanfall exclusive for Microsoft systems, Respawn and Electronic Arts are probably forgoing the opportunity to sell millions of copies of the game for PlayStation. The benefits of their deal, whose financial terms Zampella, EA and Microsoft declined to disclose, are widely believed to include hefty financial contributions by Microsoft to develop the game.
"Microsoft is going to push us because they see us as a game for selling their system," Zampella said.
Still, Microsoft has to persuade gamers that the Xbox One is worth the extra cost. The first wave of games after the system went on sale in November did not fully showcase the benefits of the Kinect, and Titanfall will not either, since it does not rely on the sensor for any central elements of the game.
"There are a lot of people who don’t understand what Kinect is all about," said John Taylor, an analyst who follows game industry stocks at Arcadia Investment.
Sony also deftly exploited some marketing missteps Microsoft made when it announced its console last year, including a decision to give game publishers control over whether people could sell Xbox One games on the used market. Microsoft reversed the decision after a huge outcry from gamers. But by then, Sony had used the controversy to portray itself as the more gamer-friendly system.
As of March 2, Sony says consumers have bought more than 6 million PlayStation 4s globally. The most recent Xbox One sales figure Microsoft has provided was 3.9 million through the end of last year, though not all of those systems were bought by consumers since the figure represents Microsoft’s sales to retailers. In January, the PlayStation 4 outsold the Xbox One in the United States almost two to one, Sony said recently, citing data from the NPD Group, a retail sales tracking firm.
"It’s very early in the race, but the danger is if PS4 just keeps building momentum, that could cause them a lot of trouble," David Cole, a game analyst at DFC Intelligence, said of Microsoft. "The next nine months are really critical for Xbox One. Titanfall is huge in that respect."