With a one-year head start, Microsoft's Xbox 360 console will be in plentiful supply, while Sony PlayStation and Nintendo Wii get mired in gotta-have-it fever. Sony's continuing manufacturing delays have pushed the number of PlayStation 3 consoles at launch to just 400,000 in North America, with 1 million total targeted for year's end-not nearly enough to satisfy demand, according to industry watchers.
Nintendo will have more units; executives there predict about 4 million Wiis by the end of the year. But heavy anticipation and extreme buzz may still create a Wii shortage in more tech-centric urban areas, according to some analysts.
Add to the equation Microsoft's boatload of fresh software titles and an aggressive new marketing chief-former DaimlerChrysler marketing whiz Jeff Bell-and a happy holiday outcome for Xbox seems even more certain.
"This holiday season you're going to see an awful lot of customers walk into a store for a Wii or PlayStation and walk out with a 360," said analyst Mike Goodman of the Yankee Group. "A lot of gamers aren't going to want to wait."
Mr. Bell and Xbox agency McCann Worldgroup, San Francisco, have created a strategy to help that happen. One of the messages centers on the Xbox 360's brilliant-green color and pushes the idea that the next generation of gaming is now. Other preholiday Xbox 360 marketing targets a variety of interests held together by the overall theme "Jump In."
A TV commercial, along with a three-minute film called "Cops and Robbers" that will run online and possibly in other venues, carries the umbrella message with a clever pursuit story that seems real but is later revealed to be a game. Other messages highlight launching titles such as the alien-invasion shooter game "Gears of War" and the casual, younger-focused "Viva Pinata," which is tied to an animated TV show.
Media will play a starring role in the strategy, with ideas ranging from Xbox games sold at Burger King to 360-branded green fruit roll-ups from Kellogg Co.
"Jeff is an alternate-media visionary," said Mike Harris, senior VP-group strategy director for Xbox at McCann. "We've come up with all kinds of different media stuff, and while some will get made and some won't, we're really getting the chance to experiment."
The "Gears of War" media plan, for instance, takes into account the game's storyline of evil creatures coming up from inside the Earth's core. It includes creative stencils and sounds that rumble up from street manhole covers, subway tunnels and cracks in the ground.
Mr. Bell, who characterized Sony as the "longtime market leader" and Nintendo as "the consistent and competitive" player, said while Xbox is sensitive to the console launches, his goal was to touch "all our bases as we move from Xbox to the next generation.
'the "it" thing'
"We felt we needed to expand our appeal," he said. "Last year's launch was driven by hard-core gamers. It was the 'it' thing to have [for the holiday season] but still was driven by that core gaming audience and their high influence on the overall audience."
Microsoft will also do co-op advertising with partner retailers including Target, Wal-Mart and Sears Roebuck & Co. A Sears TV spot that has already begun running features a young boy dreaming about an Xbox 360 and its games.
However, NPD Group analyst David Riley said some of the firm's initial research shows that gamers who really want one particular console will be willing to wait.
"[While] I tend to think that consumers, especially parents looking for a console to give as a holiday gift, might very well take whatever they can get their hands on ... it appears that the recipients of these gifts, while I'm sure they'd appreciate it, would prefer to have what they asked for," he wrote in an e-mail.
Mr. Goodman said he believes Sony's PlayStation will retain its leading market share, around 65%, in the long run, although not by much. He predicted PS3 will have about 44% of the market by 2011, followed by Xbox 360 with 40% and Wii with 16%.
"I hate the term 'console wars,"' Mr. Riley said. "There will always be a short-term winner, but there's definitely room in the long run for all three."