After what seems like an eternity, we finally have a relatively clear launch picture for the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series consoles. With that in mind, I felt it was time to provide analysis and insight into the contrasting strategies of the two companies, and why I believe the combination will not only result in record revenue for both divisions, but will also offer the greatest gaming generation we’ve ever had. Let me state my case.
Xbox : The Long Road to Redemption
I’ve written about Xbox extensively, so it’s no surprise I’ve commented on the 2013 launch of the Xbox One many times over. We all know what happened: to put it succinctly Xbox got punched in the mouth. Since that time, the Xbox team has been on a long journey of redemption, and I would argue they’ve accomplished it more successfully than nearly any other company in the history of the gaming industry (in that vein the Wii U to Switch transition would be an interesting case to write about but that’s for another time). So, as we approach the launch of the new Xbox consoles, where does Xbox sit today? In a very powerful position.
Let’s begin with Xbox’s approach to new hardware. Early in 2019 I wrote an article titled “The State of Xbox” in which I wrote this:
At this moment in time pre-E3, all I can share is that Microsoft is taking a two unit approach to next-generation and they aim to maintain the console power crown. Presumably, they will aim both high and low in an attempt to capture both sides of the coin; those who want to upgrade into next-gen at a “reasonable” cost, and those who want the most powerful console hardware on the market. This approach would not only be unique, but given what we know of Sony’s PS5, it begs the question of “How is Microsoft ensuring they have the most powerful hardware?”.
The answer lies with AMD as they are building the chip sets for both the next PlayStation and Xbox(s). And so the question more accurately becomes “Where then does Microsoft hold the advantage with AMD?”. The question is a fantastic segue into what is likely the most important aspect of the future of Xbox as a brand: cloud services.
Now, as I said, I write and speak extensively about the potential market factors impacted by the decisions Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, make so it’s nice to see this specific prediction come to fruition as anticipated. I’ll come back to the cloud service piece shortly, but as noted, Xbox comes into next-generation offering two different consoles in the Series X and S. The former is, quite simply, the most powerful console ever developed. It’s a remarkable box for a number of reasons, so when you’ve been a gaming console collector/enthusiast for over 35 years as I have, you get excited about such things. Meanwhile the Series S is an almost equally impressive console, but for different reasons. Regardless, this allows Xbox to sit at both the entry-point level and premiere levels of hardware offerings at the start of the generation; something we’ve never seen before in the industry.
This approach will allow Xbox a key advantage in what is no doubt a key area: pricing. For generations, we’ve seen pricing have a substantial impact on the success of consoles, and the Xbox division’s approach with the Series S allows them to enter next-generation with a highly attractive $299 entry-point console. While social media zealots will debate endlessly on specs, the simple fact is that, on the mass market, a $299 next-generation console is a very appealing option. If it allows families to play Fortnite, Minecraft, Roblox, Call of Duty, etc. instantly at 60fps while also playing all of the new games, then the simple requirements have been met. And keep in mind, that’s before even mentioning it as a secondary option to gamers who primarily play on the PS5 or Switch, or for families who run multiple consoles in the household.
Meanwhile the Xbox Series X is aiming to achieve the same goals attained by the Xbox One X since 2017. Being the most powerful will presumably allow it to run the vast majority of third-party titles in the best possible manner in the console space. And remember that third-party titles are far and away the most played games on PlayStation and Xbox platforms. However, while that is a very important detail to me, and I’ll assume some of you, we have to look at the bigger picture. Statistically the ability of “console power” to move units is minor in the grand scope of the industry. So, while I will act like a 42-year-old kid at Christmas when I get my hands on the Series X, it is the Series S which will likely have the larger, long-term impact for Xbox.
A Staggering First-Party Portfolio
Now, I actually began writing this piece before the Bethesda acquisition. So, as you can imagine, I had to take a step back, let the dust settle, and now come back to it so I could discuss the new reality of Xbox’s first-party development potential.
Prior to the Bethesda acquisition, Xbox’s first-party output was already primed to be a huge step forward from what we saw from Xbox over the last several years due to having fifteen studios that were each expanding in meaningful ways. Keep in mind, many of the studios are working on multiple titles, and the growth in talent has been phenomenal over the past 18-24 months.
As has been the topic since it was announced, the Bethesda acquisition has taken that to an unmatched level both in terms of development staff and IP strength. As they begin to assimilate into the Xbox Game Studios organization, they’ll slowly begin to benefit in several key areas. The benefits will include knowledge transfer, shared development resources in all areas of game development, engine and cloud technology, and a lot more. And don’t forget, of course, the funding conversation has now completely changed, though we won’t be privy to those details. But, as we’ve learned from studio heads such as Tim Schafer (Double Fine) and Brian Fargo (inXile), the freedom they now have to focus purely on creating their vision has been a top priority for Microsoft/Xbox for their studios.
In the end, it’s the final product that matters, and the games will need to speak for themselves. But if you weren’t already convinced that Microsoft and Xbox were very serious about broadening their content portfolio, there shouldn’t be any doubt now. And add to that the fact that Microsoft CEO Nadella himself has made their intentions in the gaming space very clear.
Industry Leading Services
Perhaps the largest part of Xbox’s turn-around in the eighth console generation was their shift to focusing on a long-term service plan. When you take a step back and look at the Xbox ecosystem as it exists today, it’s a very different picture than just a few years ago. When Phil Spencer was promoted to Head of Xbox and EVP of Gaming for Microsoft, he instituted a long-term vision that would take years to take shape. Now, as we approach the next-generation, it’s all coming together.
We have to begin with Game Pass; unequivocally the best deal in gaming. There is no debate to be had here. Game Pass has quite literally changed the conversation across the industry due to Xbox’s substantial investment into the service. It has seen rapid, continued growth, and due to the incredible first-party portfolio Xbox now possesses, and those titles launching into Game Pass, the service becomes nearly indispensable.
The value of game pass and the breadth of experiences it offers will be a key selling point for the Xbox Series S. It becomes a perfect complimentary system for families, travel, secondary gaming areas, and, in particular, those who may primarily game on PlayStation or Nintendo. In the future you’ll be able to purchase a Series S and play hundreds of titles, including AAA console exclusives, for less than $300. It’s a value proposition of the likes we’ve never seen before in the industry.
As part of a Game Pass Ultimate subscription, you also now receive access to Xbox Cloud Streaming (formally xCloud). I’m not going to touch on all aspects of the service, but rather just call out this additional value add for consumers. At this moment in time, particularly in the North American and UK markets, this is a very nice additional feature to have as part of your Xbox profile. However, as with much of what Xbox has been doing, this is a longer-term play at a broader market, particularly in Asia. This is a topic I’ve spoken about extensively and I’ll certainly be writing about more in the future.
While it’s easy to call out specific features of Xbox’s offering, it’s the ecosystem itself that is perhaps the most impressive. For years now Xbox has been building the foundation for the future of the platform, and players are beginning to realize the benefits. Your Xbox Live profile is unified across the entire platform, be it Xbox One, Xbox Series consoles, or PC. You can access your friends, party chat, achievements, and captures from your console, phone, or PC. You can download and/or play games remotely. You can play on PC while your friends play on console. The list of benefits to unifying your player profile across the entire ecosystem is vast. And yes, it is also the reason why when you migrate to the Xbox Series X or S, you’ll be able to simply plug it in and play with all of your data and saves available to you.
Launch Window Lineup
Now up to this point I’ve been offering a lot of praise to Xbox’s direction, and in my opinion, rightfully so. However, depending upon your outlook and the games you prefer to play, the launch window lineup for the new Series consoles is likely their weakest aspect.
It’s readily apparent that Halo Infinite was meant to be the blockbuster launch title alongside the new consoles. That’s been known since Spencer said it on stage during last year’s E3 press conference. When its delay was announced, it became clear that Xbox was likely leaning a little too heavily on Halo from a first-party perspective. As I said above, their first-party talent is now unmatched, but quality games take time, and despite it feeling as though it’s been a long time since Xbox acquired several studios, in reality it’s only been two years; a relatively short time when it comes to game development.
Thus what we’re left with is a range of smaller-scale titles, timed exclusives, and third-party marketing deals. To be clear, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, Cyberpunk 2077 and Assassin’s Creed Valhalla alone will consume my life for months, and the Series X will very likely be the best place to play those games on console (and compared to most PCs). But the point remains that those games can be played on other platforms. This is not to take away from titles like The Medium and Falconeer, both of which I’m very excited for, but their significance on the market is certainly limited when compared to a game like Halo Infinite.
One of the key points I’ll be watching over the next 4-6 months is what is announced from a first-party perspective. I personally believe we’ll see Halo Infinite in the Spring along with a few other titles to quickly bolster the lineup and thus improve the product offering for the Series X and S in the post-launch period.
Transparency in Messaging
During the lead up to a new console generation, messaging is vastly important. Just ask Xbox about 2013, Nintendo about 2012, or PlayStation about 2005. There’s an ebb and flow to the way these companies message their new products, and if you’ve followed the industry as long as I have, you simply have a sense for how well it’s going. Of course, with today’s social media, it’s also a lot easier to gauge. One thing is certain. On the whole, Xbox is crushing it.
The Xbox team has been incredibly transparent with the Series console hardware, feature sets, and compatibility for several months now. Allowing Digital Foundry to tear down the Series X in March demonstrated a wealth of confidence in the box, and since then we’ve learned every single detail about both the Series X and S from a hardware perspective.
As I touched on, Xbox has built a very complete and user-friendly ecosystem, and they haven’t been shy about discussing it. From transferring game saves, to the evolving UI, and how players will access their game libraries built up over three generations, the team(s) at Xbox have been open and forthcoming. They’ve led the way in this regard, and I hope this is what we can expect not just from Xbox, but other gaming companies in the future.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention their social media teams at this point. Their messaging has been funny, positive, and in my opinion, right on target for their demographic. This has broader reach from a market perspective than some may realize, and those teams have done a tremendous job.
Games that will have you on the brink of tears and then singing karaoke a few minutes later.
— Xbox (@Xbox) October 2, 2020
PlayStation : Don’t Fix What Isn’t Broken
The PlayStation division has experienced a wildly successful generation with the PS4, and, to cap it off, instead of a single swan song we were graced with three of the most critically acclaimed titles of the year in The Last of Us 2, Ghost of Tsushima, and Final Fantasy 7 Remake. The PlayStation division’s revenue has continued to grow throughout the generation, and in fiscal year 2018 they recorded a record $20.8 billion.
Despite the historic success, however, all signs point to an internal power struggle within leadership which led to former CEO Shaun Layden’s departure in late 2019. Since then, the PlayStation team has had a different air about them while also being very guarded on details of the PS5; a stark contrast to the transparency and confidence we saw with the introduction of the PS4.
That leaves PlayStation in a very interesting position at this point in time. PlayStation as a global brand is a juggernaut. In fact, it’s one of the most recognizable brands in the world. They also have a powerhouse of a global distribution and localization model which ensures sell-through in markets other companies (such as Xbox) cannot compete with. Because of this, it seems PlayStation leadership has decided to double down on a more traditional approach to next-generation despite changing market conditions. It’s impossible to predict what the result of that will be, but let’s examine each aspect individually.
We now know that the PlayStation 5 will launch November 12th for $399 (all digital) and $499 (with UHD disc-drive). Just like the Xbox Series X and S, it continues to amaze me the value we get as consumers on both of these platforms given their hardware, but that’s neither here nor there. PlayStation has a chosen a single hardware configuration approach which means the two SKUs are identical save for the disc-drive; a stark contrast to Xbox’s approach. What impacts the two approaches will have on the market will be an interesting study in time, though I do firmly believe that the Series S will be a monumental success regardless of how the PS5 and Series X perform.
The PS5 hardware itself is more customized and unique than the Series consoles, and while not often talked about, I find it one of the more interesting aspects going into next-generation. Time will tell, of course, but based on the conversations I’ve had with engineers and people with vastly more technical knowledge than me, we are likely going to see a situation where developers who have to work solely on the PS5 will find ways to uniquely optimize. However, cross-platform development (the majority of game development), particularly with PC, will be more of a challenge than with the Xbox consoles and thus many expect the major third-party titles to run the best on the Series X.
PlayStation has also taken the route of bringing new technology to their controller this time around with the DualSense. While I still firmly believe that the majority of its features will go unused as the generation matures, I still want to applaud PlayStation for trying new things. At the very least, it should create some unique experiences and will be supplementary to titles like Gran Turismo 7 in a positive way. And while it’s of course personal preference, I feel I have to call out the stubborn insistence on sticking with parallel sticks; now the only company out of Xbox, Nintendo, Amazon, Google, and most third-parties (even on their own platform) to do so. Come on, PlayStation, bite the bullet already!
First Party IP Power
After the PS4 generation, it goes without saying that Sony has fostered the growth of an incredible collection of first-party studios. The large-scale investment into first-party began during the PS3 generation, and over the course of several years, it has resulted in some of the most acclaimed titles released in the last few years. Thanks to titles like Horizon Zero Dawn, Ghost of Tsushima, and of course the fabulous God of War reboot, PlayStation emboldened its reputation of offering experiences that no other platform can offer.
Earlier this year they bolstered that talent further by acquiring the talented Insomniac Games for what seems like an absolute bargain at $229 million. With Insomniac now in-house and sequels to some of their most popular titles already announced in Horizon Forbidden West, Gran Turismo 7, and God of War Ragnarok, it’s quite clear that PlayStation is doubling down on what has worked for them in the past.
What I will find interesting to watch, though, is how Sony intends to balance capitalizing on the popularity of the PS4 titles while still introducing new IPs. After all, development on these major titles takes years, and there are only so many developers. If their biggest studios are focused on sequels for the next few years, will they begin to feel too repetitive; a criticism that was levied at Xbox first-party in the past? Or will they find ways to keep the experiences fresh? Time will tell. But, for now, there’s certainly no reason to doubt PlayStation delivering meaningful experiences from their internal studios.
Launch Window Lineup
Looking at the launch window for the PS5, you can definitely tell they spread their bets more than Xbox, and now with Halo Infinite’s delay, it’s going to pay off more than they likely anticipated. Spider-Man was the best-selling exclusive on the PlayStation 4, and so creating a follow-up, even if it’s more of an off-shoot similar to Lost Legacy, is a very smart move as it re-engages that audience and plays to the strength of the IP. Of course, we’ve now learned that it will also be playable on the PS4, but I’ll touch on that more shortly.
Demon’s Souls and Ratchet and Clank, both of which have impressed greatly, are only playable on the PS5. With Demon’s Souls arriving at launch, and having a hardcore fanbase behind it, it becomes a meaningful reason to own a PS5. While it’s technically a remake, the original released over a decade ago, was played by few people, and held nowhere near the significance the Souls franchise does today. Make no mistake, this is a big title for the PS5. Meanwhile, Rachet and Clank, while not necessarily a “system seller” is still a popular, beloved IP. Given how well it has shown to date, again, it’s simply strengthening the experience you can get on PS5 during the launch window.
Similar to Xbox, PlayStation has also focused on timed exclusives and marketing deals. They continue their relationship with Call of Duty for this year’s Cold War, and have titles like Returnal and Kena : Bridge of Spirits on deck for likely early in 2021. Thus, just like on Xbox when you add in cross-platform titles, there will certainly be no lack of games to play, and we’ll likely hear the overused term “backlog” more than we care to.
Services and Infrastructure
When you take a step back and look at the PlayStation eco-system, it becomes apparent that they are doubling down on what has worked for them in the past. That is, launching a console with games and asking their player base to make the transition. In my opinion, this is where I really want to see them begin to progress sooner rather than later. And in fact, I’m surprised they’ve been so slow to adapt in this regard.
PS Now, in theory, should be an incredible offering from PlayStation. After their purchase of Gaikai in 2012, PlayStation was positioned well to lead in this area for years to come. Yet here we are, over six years after PS Now officially launched, and it has only recently broken the two million subscriber mark. And that’s after cutting the subscription price in half.
As we’ve seen in the data from Game Pass, players will try more games, buy more content, and generally play more once subscribed to the service. However, PS Now is missing the key component: a reason to subscribe in the first place. This is where their lack of newer titles and investment into launching titles on the service from partners has stagnated growth. I, for one, am shocked that PS Now hasn’t received more of a focus from PlayStation as we lead into the launch of the PS5. It would have been a tremendous way to grow and promote the service. As it stands, I’m left scratching my head as to what they see for the future of PS Now.
Meanwhile, it’s been known for years that, from an infrastructure perspective, PSN is simply behind in a number of ways. I won’t bore you with all of the details as to why, and the ways in which it impacts players, but the lack of a centralized storage location for game captures, and now, most notably, game saves transferring to the PS5, is shining a light on the gaps. My hope is that PlayStation is investing in the backbone of PSN to prepare it more readily for the future, and that pieces of that begin with the PS5. But as, with most speculation, time will tell.
Issues with Messaging
I’ve mentioned multiple times now how it feels as though PlayStation is approaching this generation like something from the past. That is no more clear than with the way they’ve handled messaging the PS5, its features, and what it will mean to players.
Without going on a rant here, as of this writing we are less than six weeks from launch and, despite that, we haven’t been provided the full details on the system’s architectural features (items like the Geometry Engine). In fact, neither the system nor the UI has been shown to the public in any manner at all. They’ve offered no clarity on what backwards compatibility will look like at launch. They haven’t addressed game save states not carrying over in those titles. And they’ve offered no insight at all into additional storage options. In fact, many continue to believe that the 825gb figure stated by Sony for the PS5 is what’s usable on the system out of the box (for awareness, it’s not). As of this writing, we’re supposed to see some hands-on coverage of the PS5 from Japanese YouTubers next week though we’re not sure exactly what that means.
Now when you look back at past generations, some of this doesn’t seem as egregious. But it’s not 2006, it’s 2020. We live in an age now where communication happens instantly all across the globe. And when your main competitor is being completely forthcoming in all areas of hardware, compatibility, and services, it does raise flags when your team is near silent and refusing to answer key questions that will impact players at launch.
When you look at their communication style, you see the same thing: a dated methodology. Their leadership rarely communicates with their fanbase, and the PlayStation social media accounts might as well be robots. In fact, it’s so rare to see something with personality or transparency from their accounts that when they apologized for the PS5 pre-order debacle, fans applauded it.
And keep in mind, all of this is before tackling some of Jim Ryan’s comments directly, such as the now infamous “we believe in generations“, while leading people to believe experiences like Miles Morales and Horizon Forbidden West would only be available on the PS5. When you add it all together, it feels as though the narrative is shifting in the industry. While PlayStation could almost do no wrong for the past few years, they seem to be stumbling into next-gen when given the console, games, and fanbase, that should be anything but the case.
The Golden Age of Gaming
As someone who has been an avid gamer for over 35 years and involved in this industry in countless ways, there are few things more exciting to me than new console launches. I already have both consoles and a wealth of games on order and through my vacation time and the holidays, I’ll be spending as much time as I can with all of them. Yet when you examine the approaches by Xbox and PlayStation as we approach the ninth generation, you see drastically different mindsets.
Xbox is playing the long-game and has been building towards it for some time. They see the future of gaming as a service; one that will be shared globally among the three billion gamers. And their aim is to reach as many of them as possible while providing options as to the how and where. Fortunately for the old heads like me, however, they’re also providing some incredible hardware options, and it feels like we’re getting the best of both worlds. Now it needs the experiences to match. There’s no doubt they’re coming, but the point remains they have to be delivered to be counted.
PlayStation, meanwhile, is evolving at a slower rate but capitalizing on what they know: brand power and IP strength. They’ve proven they know how to deliver memorable experiences to players and, to be perfectly blunt, when the games are as good as The Last of Us and God of War, they know gamers will show up. How long they can stick with that model in a rapidly changing industry is the million-dollar question. But for now, I say we enjoy it.
What we do know is this. The gaming industry is now approximately a $160 billion a year industry which is growing exponentially year over year. And during the current generation, both Xbox and PlayStation (and Nintendo for that matter) have experienced record revenue generation. These companies and their platforms will continue to expand and look for new, compelling reasons for players to engage with them. As consumers, we should be focused on enjoying the hell out of it.
At the end of the day, that’s the only point. Enjoyment. Both platforms offer unique, compelling experiences. Both have positives and negatives. Both offer a great time whether playing solo or with friends. So, as I always recommend, if you have the means to enjoy both then by all accounts do. But even if you can’t, you can’t go wrong with either. A few years ago I wrote about how we had reached a new golden age of gaming. As we approach the new generation and all that it will offer, it seems I might have jumped the gun.