How Xbox Can Still Win in India
Assuming Microsoft still cares.
In my first issue of 0451 Games newsletter I reported on how the Xbox Series X|S sales in India were dismal, outpaced by the PS5 10:1. While the reasons for this are plenty and systemic, this issue of the newsletter isn't going to retread old ground. Instead, I'm going to explain how Xbox can still win in India, assuming Microsoft still cares.
Microsoft India needs to hire the right people
In my years of covering the games space, I'm yet to meet a Microsoft employee in India with any real grasp of the games business. By and large, the company tends to hire MBA-toting suits that have no interest or inclination on how Indians purchase and play games. This has led to some amusing decisions in the past such as:
Cancelling the India release of timed Xbox One exclusive Dead Rising 4 at retail for the fear of competing with Battlefield 1 and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare. Now, I have no clue how two shooters clash with a horror action open-world game that released well after them but apparently the move made sense to Microsoft India.
Putting all its eggs into Amazon India: by keeping the Xbox One exclusive to the retailer for a year, effectively killing reach and distribution.
This is before I get to Microsoft India employees thinking Xbox Live Gold subscriptions were selling well in the country because they assumed PS4 owners could use them on Sony's console (I'm not kidding). The reality was enterprising retailers were bulk re-exporting Xbox Live Gold subscriptions and making more money on the difference in currency.
Right now the company doesn't have a single Microsoft India employee on Xbox full-time. Hopefully it's deciding its next set of hires judiciously.
Take Xbox Series X|S India distribution seriously
Right now the entire Xbox Series X|S distribution pipeline in India is a broken mess. Unless a retailer is favoured by Microsoft's India distributor Redington, like Bengaluru-based PrepaidGamerCard, it's near impossible to get information on upcoming releases let alone actual access to product.
The major reason why Sony is able to sell more consoles, games, and accessories is because it has a footprint in more stores. Redington is more interested in playing favourites and in doing so, is effectively limiting Xbox's potential in India.
Enforce strict Xbox pricing policies
There should be no reason for official Xbox Series X|S consoles or controllers to be sold at a markup but it keeps happening as we saw with both Halo Infinite Xbox Series X consoles and standard Xbox Series X consoles. More often than not, the offending party just so happens to be a retailer that has a cozy relationship with Redington.
One of them, a Mumbai-based wholesaler was offering up the Halo Infinite Elite Controller 2 in bulk at a 20% price hike over MRP stating it's a collector's item. Meanwhile, Sony has straight up banned stores for scalping. The difference in approach suggests that Microsoft doesn't quite really care for its end users and is more than happy to take short term profit over long term gains.
Stop forced Xbox Series X|S bundles
Of late, Redington and Microsoft have taken to bundling Xbox Series X|S consoles with accessories and games no one wants. For example: if you want to buy an Xbox Series X you'll most likely have to buy it with a game (usually Gears Tactics or Halo Infinite) and a wired headset. Retailers are under strict instructions to bundle and sell.
"They saw Sony do it, woke up six months late and are forcing us to do the same," says one Delhi-based store owner on condition of anonymity fearing retribution. "Difference is the Xbox buyers don't want any of this. They keep saying they have Game Pass. Redington doesn't really understand or care about how big a problem this is right now."
His assessment is accurate. Most Xbox Series X|S Indian buyers I speak to are hostile about having to spend more than they should.
"I'm already paying Rs. 50,000 for the console, I have Xbox Game Pass, I don't need this crap," says Arun Shah, a financier from Mumbai. "The sales guy at the store forced me to take Halo Infinite along with it, saying it was a part of the scheme. Since it's next to impossible to buy a Series X I had no choice."
I won't be surprised to see used game stores flooded with unwanted copies of Halo Infinite, Gears Tactics, and Forza Horizon 5 to name a few. What's worse is, these physical copies have little to no value given how Microsoft refuses to put entire, complete games on disc, forcing you to rely on downloading large chunks of data from the Microsoft Store before you can even play them. When you consider India is still largely a physical media market this is redundant.
Announce Xbox Series X|S restocks effectively
You never quite know when an Xbox Series X|S is in stock until it actually is, and by then its way too late to even buy one. This is because Redington and Microsoft aren't interested in letting game stores know what their quantities are or when exactly they'd be getting stock.
"It's irregular," says an executive for a large electronics chain. "Sometimes we don't even get a tracking number from Redington until after consoles reach our warehouse and the quantity we end up with is usually 30 to 40 percent less than what was originally committed. I can't run any banners or take pre-orders because of no clarity from Xbox."
Comparatively, Sony's been able to effectively communicate every PS5 restock. You know when it's coming, you know what time pre-orders open, and you know which stores are selling it. In Microsoft's case, outside the initial launch sale for the Xbox Series X|S on November 10,2020, knowing when you can buy one in India has you at the mercy of Twitter bots the moment they're available for order.
Focussed Xbox marketing
Microsoft's attempts at Xbox marketing in India have ranged from creative to off message faff and more recently, tone deaf. It chose to focus on Age of Empires 4 two months after launch with a pointless ad featuring a Bollywood actor instead of well, bothering with Halo Infinite. And this is before recollecting the time it wanted you to believe you had zero interest in an Xbox 360 or talking up Scalebound months after it was cancelled.
Make Xbox Game Pass accessible in India
If you don't have a credit or debit card that works on the Microsoft Store, you're out of luck. The payment options are restricted to these two and you can't buy an Xbox Game Pass subscription at retail like you can with PlayStation Plus and PS Store top up cards.
With Netflix's slowing growth due to lack of uptake in markets like India, it's just a matter of time before Xbox Game Pass suffers a similar fate. And while Microsoft tends to be opaque about its Xbox Game Pass numbers per country, it's pretty obvious that its purchase of Activision is to ensure the service continues to grow. But what's the point when there are no meaningful ways for customers to buy a subscription either at game stores or through the Microsoft Store via browser or Xbox consoles?
This has been a problem for a while now and doesn't seem to be something the company appears to be interested in fixing this despite suggesting otherwise in the past after cancelling Xbox Live Gold subscriptions at retail. And it's not like there isn't any merit to this — the sale of digital subscriptions, top ups, and currencies (PS Store top ups, COD Points, and Apex Legends Coins to name a few) average between Rs. 8 to 12 crore (aka Rs. 80 to 120 million) per quarter since the pandemic.
All of this might sound obvious to many, but that's how far gone things are with Xbox in India. In fact it speaks volumes of the market depth (or lack thereof). Sure, India's PlayStation nation right now, but it doesn't have to be if Microsoft cared to do the basics and build an ecosystem in-line with its US and Europe presence from there.
Other interesting insights from the Indian games market:
Sony finally let Indian retailers list the Horizon Forbidden West Special Edition for pre-order. From most accounts, it appears to have gone smoothly, with some stores like Games The Shop announcing and scheduling pre-orders in an organised manner while also taking care to ensure those that pre-ordered the standard edition could upgrade. It's a far cry from the retailer's previous transgressions that saw it favour Bollywood elites over normal customers.
Dying Light 2 had a solid opening week in India with most retailers selling out of their initial shipment. What's interesting is that it has done well on PC and Xbox consoles too. This is likely due to a generous pre-order bonus, strong positive reviews, and a community of eager gamers that have played the first game. In fact, there's been a bump in Dying Light 1 sales too.
PS5 console restocks in India continue to have a September 2021 import sticker suggesting that Sony India is either stockpiling and rationing out its inventory to make it seem like there’s a steady supply, or that newer batch PS5 consoles are hard to come by due to supply chain and manufacturing issues mentioned in the company’s recent earnings calls. It will be interesting to see if this remains the case with the next restock due around the Horizon Forbidden West release date of February 18.