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Xbox One exec on rocky launch: 'You have to earn fans'

How a tumultuous year changed a very big company

Xbox One controller close-up Polygon
Owen S. Good is a longtime veteran of video games writing, well known for his coverage of sports and racing games.

In the run-up to the Xbox One's 2013 launch, Yusuf Mehdi, then the chief marketing officer for Xbox, summoned tremendous gamer outrage when he suggested to advertising colleagues that the Kinect sensor could analyze user behavior to help them place ads. In a post published on LinkedIn on Saturday, Mehdi spoke of the lessons he and Microsoft's Xbox division learned in that beleaguered launch year, and the realization that companies might stock showcase events with cheering fans, but they have to earn them in real life.

Mehdi, now the vice president over Microsoft's Windows and Devices group, is giving advice to executives of similar rank at other companies. Still, it reveals how the gamer revolt against the Xbox One didn't simply change a product offering, it altered how Xbox marketers would approach them in the years to come. In video gaming, where any big name's messaging is viewed as monolithic and unaccountable, this is a meaningful deference, however Mehdi is describing it.

"With our initial announcement of Xbox One and our desire to deliver breakthroughs in gaming and entertainment, the team made a few key decisions regarding connectivity requirements and how games would be purchased that didn’t land well with fans," Mehdi writes. "We heard their feedback, and while it required great technical work, we changed Xbox One to work the same way as Xbox 360 for how our customers could play, share, lend, and resell games."

This is accurate but to someone unfamiliar with the issue, it glosses over what may have been 2013's biggest controversy in video gaming: That the Xbox One was initially revealed as an "always-on" console, or at least one requiring regularly online check-ins; and that discs would be bound to the account of the owner who first installed them, severely restricting reselling.

Gamers revolted. A Microsoft employee who tweeted a dismissive reply to their complaints was summarily fired. At the PlayStation E3 2013 keynote, Sony razed Xbox to the ground in a withering video and a barrage of on-stage promises from Jack Tretton, then the president of SCEA. And Mehdi is no doubt correct that changing the Xbox One’s engineering midstream took a lot of effort.

Fast forward to E3 2015, when Xbox announced backward compatibility for the Xbox One. There were other crowd-pleasing announcements in other keynotes at that expo, but none as long-lasting as this one. It generated immediate enthusiasm for beloved Xbox titles and an ongoing interest in which ones would become playable on the newest console.

"You hope to get such cheers from a new release of a game like Halo, but to get this kind of reaction for Xbox Backwards Compatibility reminded me yet again how delivering on the things that your fans really value trumps all," Mehdi wrote. And, it should be mentioned, PlayStation has no such counterpart in place on the PlayStation 4.

"This experience was such a powerful reminder that we must always do the right thing for our customers, and since we’ve made that commitment to our Xbox fans, we’ve never looked back," Mehdi said.

Mehdi's a marketing executive writing in a public space, so a lot of this could be taken to be self-serving. But it at least acknowledges the motivation for Xbox's pivots. Mehdi himself got into trouble, at a national marketing conference a month before the Xbox One's launch, when he suggested that Microsoft could, through Kinect, evaluate how users responded to on-screen ads and help marketers better target their ads. Microsoft spent a couple of days walking back that statement. And then, less than a year later, it unbundled Kinect from Xbox entirely.

"So today, as I go into every meeting to discuss a new product or service, I have that thought in the back of my mind ‘How are our fans going to react?’" Mehdi wrote. To some that may seem like a bland statement, but after what Xbox went through in 2013, I'll grant him sincerity.

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