Microsoft effort for Xbox begins

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A fully loaded box capable of delivering larger-than-life thrills waits at the starting gate, ready to roll onto retail shelves Nov. 15. The debut of that box- Microsoft Corp.'s much-ballyhooed Xbox video-game console-marks the culmination of more than two years of strategic planning and development, as well as the software giant's entry into the console-gaming category and its high-stakes creation of a new consumer brand.

Microsoft pulled the trigger on the sprawling ad campaign Nov. 4 on News Corp.'s Fox with the debut of six teaser TV spots designed to showcase the brand's attitude and confidence. The campaign, which unfurls in North America first before launching in Japan on Feb. 22 and in Europe on March 14, represents slightly more than half the $500 million in global marketing earmarked to launch Xbox.

Created by Interpublic Group of Cos.' McCann-Erickson Worldwide, New York, the Xbox campaign showcases a product that delivers exhilarating and intense gaming experiences. Targeting males ages 16 to 26, TV and print ads adopt an ironic and humorous tone while showing hyper-realistic game play.

The effort comes at the same time as the crucial $200 million U.S. launch of Microsoft's Windows XP, which it's counting on to create excitement in the slumping PC market.

Microsoft is going full bore on Xbox despite the economy, terrorism and war; many analysts believe it could provide a form of escapism that will fare well during the downturn. The software giant's entry into the video-game console category has retailers, gamers and gaming enthusiasts stoked.

Microsoft projects it will sell 1 million to 1.5 million of the $299 consoles by early January. It will have 100,000 units each week from launch day, available at retail with 15 to 20 games selling for roughly $50 apiece, said John O'Rourke, VP-sales and marketing, Xbox.

North America is the most important market for Xbox, and Microsoft must have a flawless launch if it's to be successful against Sony Computer Entertainment, which has sold 5 million PlayStation 2 consoles, and Nintendo Corp., whose less expensive ($199) GameCube rolls out Nov. 12.

Xbox teasers feature the brand's iconic green "jewel" logo. The green mark is an integral part of the start of each game; it appears when the console is turned on, speedily segueing to the games. Voice-over in one teaser: "It's 10 p.m., and I know where your children are." Voice-over in another: "When you're a kid, you want to play like an adult. When you're an adult, you want to play like a kid. Reality's screwing with you."

"We want to really communicate the epic nature of the games and the passion of game play," said Mr. O'Rourke. Teasers are buttressed by a slew of print ads in November through March issues of gaming and male magazines such as Dennis Publishing's Maxim and Stuff, and Vibe/Spin Ventures' Spin and five 30-second TV spots breaking Nov. 11, each highlighting a different flagship game including "Halo," a combat game, "Dead Or Alive 3," an action/fighting title, and "NFL Fever 2002."

The spots have the style and tone of movie trailers, much like the games themselves. A spot for "Project Gotham Racing" has the feel of a commercial for a high-end car brand complete with sensual female voice-over. Gamers get to choose among racing 25 different car models, including Porsche, Aston and Ferrari; they also must make decisions about racing style and strategy.

Last year, Sony stumbled in its debut of its PS2 by not meeting demand due to manufacturing issues. Mr. O'Rourke believes Microsoft has an advantage since Flextronics, which is assembling the Xbox, is shipping the units from its operations in Mexico, rather than from the Asia-Pacific region.

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