There was a time when console wars were a relatively simple matter. Gaming giants made iterative improvements on technology that defined the last generation with new experiences and a flashy new box. The latest engagement in the ongoing campaign was quite different. As war analogies go, this one was fought with cloak and dagger, deception, and a good old game of price chicken – The Console Cold War. And that’s before we mention COVID.
COVID-19 has uprooted many of the norms the entire world takes for granted. Ushering in a new console generation wasn’t an exception. It forced Microsoft and Sony to think on their feet as they forcibly threw the rule book out the window. How their different strategies played out during 2020 was, at times, frustrating, understandable, but fascinating.
Interestingly, Microsoft looked to shake things up with the next Xbox. Leveraging Microsoft’s far-reaching capabilities, they want to create a whole gaming ecosystem, not put all of their eggs in the console basket. Microsoft wants to steer gamers to one of their devices and, seemingly, don’t mind which. Microsoft aims for accessibility – play on the new Xbox series X, play on the Xbox One, play on a PC, and eventually play on our phone with Project X cloud.
The problem with this approach was Microsoft struggled to give gamers a reason to own the new Xbox. Why pay $499 for the latest machine when gamers could continue to play the latest games on their seven-year-old Xbox? New games and ‘system sellers’ were lacking at launch. Halo Infinite was supposed to be the game to convince gamers to upgrade to the new machine. However, following a disastrous gameplay demo, the game got delayed into this year at some point, without a confirmed release date (our bet is holiday 2021). 343 industries also brought one of the original Halo campaign writers back into the fold, suggesting some quite thorough rework.
What Microsoft lacks in new games, it makes up for with Game Pass. Effectively the Netflix for games that Stadia wishes it was, Game Pass is often called ‘the best deal in gaming.’ It’s hard to disagree with over 10 million subscribers. Especially as the Ultimate subscription works on PC, the sheer amount of games you get access to is incredible.
On top of this, Microsoft has started to address the lack of first party-games – acknowledging that having few exclusive titles hurt them in the last generation. Their recent purchase of ZeniMax media (and therefore Bethesda and all other ZeniMax studios) for $7.5bn will surely bolster their offering in the coming years. Already, rumours are circulating that all future Bethesda games will be exclusive.
Doubling down on what made the PS4 such a success, Sony would be more than happy if their trajectory carried on into the new generation. The PS5’s major draws are unique controllers, a load-time-eliminating custom-built SSD, and a commitment to carry on pumping out great first-party games – at an even faster rate. One criticism of the PS4 era was long gaps between exclusives (something Microsoft experiences too). Sony has said they’re open to acquiring new studios to ensure they’re not in the same position again. It will still take time for this strategy to bear fruit, however, as a AAA game typically takes 3-5 years to make, so they better get buying soon.
Another way Sony has taken a different stance to Microsoft is emphasizing the need to have the latest machine to play the latest titles – giving gamers a much clearer proposition. Sony is betting big on their exclusive titles’ (despite some being cross-generation) and their superior market position, having outsold the Xbox One by more than two to one in the last generation. Sony will want as many of the 111 million PS4 owners to come with them to PS5.
Traditionally during a next-generation launch year, consumers would get all the vital information in June at E3 – price, release date, and pre-order date. Instead, consumers had to wait for the information until September, which forced hype and speculation to be at a fever pitch. Neither company wanted to go first.
At E3 2013, when the Xbox One and PS4 were unveiled, we found out that the Xbox would be over $100 more expensive and less powerful than Sony’s machine. Arguably, Microsoft lost the generation war then and there. It was coupled with confusing marketing about it being a home entertainment unit and Sony replying with sarcastic videos and clearer marketing messaging ‘for the players’, leaving no doubts. Microsoft was always fighting an uphill battle.
Learning from that experience, both companies were cagey about being the first to reveal their consoles’ finer details, for fear of being undercut by the other. In the porous world we now live in, Xbox’s hand was forced by a leak, which confirmed the heavily rumored Xbox series S, Xbox’s cheaper entrant into the next generation at $299. Once confirmed by Microsoft, they also announced the Xbox Series X’s price and release date ($499 and 10 November). Microsoft had blinked first.
Playstation replied with their showcase a week later and announced the same price of $499 for the PS5 (with a disc drive) – further heating up the console war. It was rumored for months before that the Playstation couldn’t meet this price point due to the cost of components. It’s been confirmed that Sony is selling the PS5 at a loss, despite banking record profits in 2020.
Ultimately, the winner of any console war are gamers. Having such an intense rivalry between two technology titans is excellent for gamers, driving innovation and keeping costs down for consumers. The PS4, Xbox One generation saw incredible advances – the first time we’ve seen a mid-generation console – the rise of streaming and eSports has become more prevalent and continues to gain popularity. And then there are the games. The last generation is arguably the best we’ve seen for innovative, creative expression in this fantastic art form.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 has impacted the rollout of the new consoles like nothing before it. Intense stock shortages have seen scalpers demand (and get) four times the asking price of consoles and exposed the lack of a way to deal with them. As 2021 progresses, these stock shortages will iron out and Microsoft and Sony are expecting big things.
Whether Sony or Microsoft come out as winners in the new generation, don’t forget that we all win, really.