…and it’s not because of exclusives
The differences between Sony and Microsoft’s attempts at next-generation consoles are finally important. Yes, the concept of the ‘console wars’ is an exhausted one – a leftover of the late ‘80’s/early ’90’s need to justify your parent’s purchases on the playground, except now it plays out insufferably over Twitter. However, it is important to remember that we’re no longer just talking about hardware, controllers, or even just a handful of exclusive games anymore; both of these console titans want to sell you on an ecosystem, and it is critical to understand both before you plop down the mysterious amount of money for your next game console.
A direct 1:1 comparison is difficult. Both Sony and Microsoft are keeping certain cards close to their chest, but we know now enough of both companies’ mentality, seeing them both in first and third place in the span of two decades, that a general comparison can be gleaned and put up against each other. It seems that the main difference is Sony’s fully sold on being the peak of console gaming whereas Microsoft seems to be more interested in creating a larger environment for players in general. This is not too dissimilar a position held by either from the beginning of the 7th console generation as the PS3 and Xbox 360.
However, these two strategies stand out in stark contrast when looking at their launch plans for the PS5 and Xbox Series X.
Last week, Microsoft outlined some expectations of what the first couple of years of the Series X’s life will be like, and at first glance, you might think they weren’t trying to sell the thing. Instead of the sure-fire success that an exclusive launch of a new Halo game would bring, Microsoft is opting to release Halo Infinite on both the new Series X and existing Xbox One machines at the same time. Furthermore, this will apply for all of Microsoft’s first-party titles for “the next couple of years.” On top of that, Microsoft is claiming that from launch, the Series X will be able to play games dating all the way back to the original Xbox era (presumably beyond the titles already accessible on the Xbox One) and their Smart Delivery tech will give late adopters the ability to carry the games they get in those “couple of years” over to the Series X era.
If all of that seems like a strange tactic, the missing piece is Game Pass. Microsoft’s pretty successful on-demand game service seems to be the key to this plan’s success. The service was rolled into Xbox Live in the middle of last year, and will also include Microsoft’s impending game streaming service xCloud without a price increase. The company is banking on this “Ultimate” option being the way a majority of players will be interacting with them – to the point that a full year of Xbox Live can already no longer be purchased at once. The addition of xCloud is essential to this. If the service can be proven reliable enough, even Game Pass users who only play on PC could potentially be getting access to the Xbox exclusive library in full without ever buying the hardware. Additionally, people who game mostly from mobile devices (from your mom to Gen Z’ers playing Fortnite on their iPhones) could also have the same access.
In contrast, Sony’s plan for the PlayStation 5 is entirely focused on what the hardware can do for the game playing experience. Even before we got a look at anything the console would have or could do, Sony was hyping up the system’s very welcome custom SSD and working with Epic Games to ensure Unreal Engine 5 would be perfectly compatible with their build. Now we have gotten a look at what their admittedly promising slate of early titles will be, but their messaging on the games themselves has been messy compared to all the excitement and marketing they have put into the console’s controller.
This messaging extends to older games as well. Lead architect Mark Cerny indicated early on the company’s testing to get the PS4’s vast library running on the new hardware, going as far as to say that “almost all” of the 100 most played PS4 titles will be playable at launch on the hardware – though there’s no real indication of which games those will be beyond the obvious expectation that Sony’s first-party titles will likely see the jump. The SSD tech is being cited for the need for testing. It has the potential to increase the performance of PS4 games as well, and Cerny says that testing has already happened for “hundreds of titles.” Furthermore, Sony Entertainment CEO Jim Ryan has indicated multiple times that they aren’t interested in general compatibility with new hardware and that no PS5 game will be available on the PS4, which lines up with some third party publishers offering their own nebulous upgrade paths such as Square Enix’s plans for folks buying Marvel’s Avengers later this year.
Clearly, these are two very different strategies: with Microsoft opening its doors wide, it seems to be embracing the service based model the rest of its company has used to make itself the tech monolith it is in other industries, as much as Sony is leaning more on its hardware legacy and ability to cut deals. Neither are necessarily perfect or better than each other, after all the Xbox Series X is still also pushing itself as an incredibly powerful machine but if it can’t offer much beyond another Halo and Sony can keep performance paces, what does any of its services matter to the audience?
That said, the existing success of both Game Pass and Xbox’s Backwards Compatibility initiative does indicate that Microsoft is indeed on to something, and that could put Sony on the back foot early on in the PS5’s lifetime. Microsoft would have to stick the landing of course, but if it could indeed launch the Series X and xCloud with a bustling library of new and old titles alike, it could overshadow the PS5’s handful of exclusives and “100 top played games.” Legacy content matters, ask any Nintendo Switch owner who’s paying a subscription for a smaller collection of SNES titles than a mini-console the company sold separately, or any Steam user period. Sony’s history with legacy content is spotty, and that’s being kind.
Both the Vita and PS4 were promised releases of older PlayStation titles only for the library available to quickly trickle down to nearly nothing at all. At the time of this writing, the Playstation Store only has 52 titles out of the PS2’s infamously deep library, and at least one of those titles is just a bundle of three of the other available titles, such as the Grand Theft Auto Trilogy. Additionally, the less said about Sony’s disastrous attempt at their own classic mini console the better. There is one way of having some backwards compatibility on the PlayStation in PlayStation Now: Sony’s own game streaming service. However, at this time we’ve not heard any plans to roll that service into PlayStation Plus at all, which would mean an extra charge beyond your subscription; a difficult case to make compared to Microsoft’s planned offering.
But Microsoft’s offering is on pretty thin ice itself when put under the microscope. Currently, Game Pass is an undeniable success, with games being added to it almost as exciting as traditional game announcements. The flip side to that is games also leave the service fairly regularly, though not as quickly and quietly as your favorite movies dropping from Netflix. Notices are given, and players get the option to buy the game at a slight discount, it doesn’t really keep games available long term in a way one might think at first glance. Games coming down the pipeline are also a concern, Microsoft’s game division has spent most of this generation floundering, though they seem to be seeing the end of that tunnel with expansions into new platforms and investments in new studios. We’ll finally get to see the fruits of that very soon, but there are concerns the plan to have games playable on Xbox One and Series X (and possibly other platforms) will restrict the developer’s ability to capitalize on new technologies. With all the features the PS5 is pushing – plus that Epic Games investment towards Unreal 5 – players will be taking this into account.
Microsoft pointed out in interviews that while new technology should be celebrated, it should not be the end of that conversation; going so far as to point out that, generally speaking, third party games are the most powerful and feature-rich without console players feeling like they’re missing out. These points are pretty true, but make the case that neither console is worth investing in compared to the lush environment PC gaming has to offer. Well, save for quality exclusives, which brings the conversation right back around to the question of Microsoft’s slate of games.
Knowing this, there’s also the case to be made for keeping games available to more people. This is a much more convincing argument, especially in a COVID ravaged United States where dropping hundreds on new hardware may prove to be untenable for a lot of people. That noble goal is still, ultimately, up to developers and publishers. If developers want to make use of the DualSense’s features, they need to do that on the PlayStation. If Unreal Engine 5 performs significantly better on the PS5 versus juggling compatibility on the various Xbox consoles, there’s a chance they’ll opt for that over accessibility for more people. A service is only good as the service it actually provides, and Microsoft is still facing an uphill climb.
While both of these strategies are different, their goals are the same: to convince you to spend your hard-earned money buying into their increasingly large ecosystem. To that end, both companies care about the medium ultimately as much as it can profit them. Games as an art form and medium survive in spite of this reality, and it’ll be up to us to help that happen – which means we cannot ignore these different long term goals from both sides as we march ever onward to the nebulous next generation.