The console wars aren’t simple, but it’s always tempting for critics to call the contest before it even begins. But we saw the folly of trying to call the presidential election in the first few hours after the polls closed. If I were just looking at games, I would call this console launch in favor of Sony’s PlayStation 5 over Microsoft’s Xbox Series X/S machines.
Sony’s game advantage is obvious, but it’s too early to say if it will create insurmountable momentum in Sony’s favor, especially at a time when the hardware is in such short supply on both sides. Both machines went on sale this week, just two days apart, for the same $500 price (with an asterisk, as we’ll see below). They’re going to give us 4K graphics, 120Hz gameplay, and fast-loading SSDs (solid-state drives).
Microsoft’s big game, Halo: Infinite, is nowhere in sight, delayed into 2021. That game was supposed to be its system-seller, like The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was for the Nintendo Switch. It’s sad and a bit of bad development luck, as Microsoft hasn’t launched a new console with a new Halo since 2001.
By contrast, Sony hit some home runs with its lineup. The free Astro’s Playroom calls attention to its new haptic feedback in the DualSense controller. Insomniac’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales is a beautiful and engrossing game that will do for Sony what first-party studios like Insomniac Games are supposed to do: sell the system. The game’s colors are dazzling and the SSD finally relieves us from having to wait for cutscene/gameplay transitions.
Also coming out are Demon’s Souls and Sackboy: A Big Adventure. These titles prompted GamesBeat’s Mike Minotti to say Sony has the best console lineup of the century. The PS5 also has cool console exclusives like Bugsnax, The Pathless, and Godfall. I’d love to argue with Mike, but he’s right.
If console wars were decided in the first few weeks, Sony could easily be declared the winner. Certainly, Sony has the buzz. It’s no secret that Sony went into this battle with the advantage, as it has sold around 114 million PlayStation 4s to Microsoft’s 48.5 million Xbox Ones. Those gamers just aren’t going to switch allegiances just like that.
Spiketrap, which uses AI and market research techniques to digest social media sentiment about games, has sensed this. In a report for GamesBeat, Spiketrap said that its research from August 11 to November 11 showed that PS5 fan engagement is about three times higher than the fan engagement for the Xbox Series X. That means that when it comes to substantive content that drove the conversations, Sony won.
That advantage has narrowed in the past two weeks. Much of the PS5 conversation is about its exclusive games, while Microsoft’s buzz is about its acquisition of Bethesda, its Fridge gimmick where it dressed up refrigerators to look like the Xbox Series X, and its quick resume feature, Spiketrap said.
Still, if we declared Sony to be the winner at this point, that would be like using Spiketrap’s data to declare a presidential winner before the votes were counted. And we know this: Judging the console war by first-party exclusives is folly, like saying Iowa is the state that should decide who goes to the White House.
We explored some of this discussion in a panel yesterday on Next Generation Games, with TQ Jefferson of Survios, Ed Boon of NetherRealm Studios (Mortal Kombat), and Mat Piscatella, a game analyst at NPD. Check out the video below for the full conversation, which focused on what we hope this generation will deliver. Piscatella pointed out that new intellectual properties will shine early in this console generation, but things like backward compatibility of game titles from the previous generation could very well change play patterns.
Reality is more complex
Of course, the reality is that it may take a year before we know who really wins this generation.
Oh, wait, I forgot that I’m supposed to conclude that gamers will win this generation. That’s right, gamers will win. (Can you tell I’ve written about console launches before, as I have my tropes lined up?)
Still, assuming that we won’t have a dead heat with consoles that are pretty much the same, we have to consider a lot of things. While Sony has clearly executed on games, Microsoft has built out the ecosystem of its console, with things like Project xCloud cloud gaming, which lets you play your console games on mobile devices or other machines. It has a better story than Sony on backward compatibility, which will let players take the plunge into next-generation play with their older games that they already love.
While sooner is better, it may be good for Halo: Infinite to launch later in the generation because the installed base of the new consoles will be higher, and that game will generate a lot more revenue for Microsoft in the long run.
Meanwhile, the third-party game publishers can supply some really big games that fans can enjoy on the Xbox Series X while they wait for Microsoft’s big titles. We know those big titles are cooking, because Microsoft has gone on an acquisition binge to catch up with and surpass Sony’s first-party studio strength. Certainly, the addition of Bethesda is like Microsoft winding up a big punch.
But gamers can play titles like Call of Duty: Black Ops — Cold War (Sony is the preferred platform for this game), Watch Dogs: Legion, NBA 2K21, FIFA 21, Fortnite, and Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. You could get through Sony’s launch lineup in a week or so, but these games will keep you playing for weeks or months. And these games and many others will be available on both consoles.
With backward compatibility, players will also be less wary about taking the plunge into the Xbox Series X. If we think of this battle as a Looney Tunes cartoon, Sony just hit Microsoft in the face with the frying pan of Spider-Man: Miles Morales, but Microsoft is checkmating Sony with the mother of all Road Runner tricks with the studios that it has acquired — not to mention that it will eventually finish Halo: Infinite.
Sony and its partners have some giant titles coming like Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart, God of War, Horizon Forbidden West, Deathloop, Gran Turismo 7, and Ghostwire: Tokyo. Some of these games have followings that go back many console generations. That creates a whirlpool effect that keeps fans inside Sony’s ecosystem.
GamesBeat’s Jeff Grubb argued that Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass, its $10 to $15 a month subscription service, is a killer app for the new console. You can get access to hundreds of games for the subscription price and play them on whatever platform you prefer across PC, mobile, and console. Your old games and game history will always be there. As much as I enjoy bantering with Jeff, he’s right about this, too. Game Pass is going to be transformative for Microsoft’s sales pitch for its new console.
And Microsoft has tried to change the playbook for console launches in one respect. The company offered a discounted $300 version called the Series S, without a disk drive and a slower processor. Its purpose is to test whether some price-sensitive gamers will jump in early to buy a new console.
Sony responded with a $400 “digital edition” version, but I’m not so sure how serious it is about that. The Series S could very well snag those players that might otherwise buy a Switch.
For now, the console war is a very civil battle, with good behavior on both sides. Microsoft congratulated Sony on its launch, and Sony did the same. We’re in the stage where everybody wins, especially gamers, and the rising tide lifts all boats (except for the retailers, who can’t seem to get the launch right).
Game consoles on both sides are going to spread a lot of joy soon. Xbox boss Phil Spencer didn’t release details on how many consoles Microsoft shipped on its launch day on November 10. But he tweeted his satisfaction with the records the company broke.
Thank you for supporting the largest launch in Xbox history. In 24 hrs more new consoles sold, in more countries, than ever before. We’re working with retail to resupply as quickly as possible. You continue to show us the connective power of play is more important than ever.
— Phil Spencer (@XboxP3) November 12, 2020
We’ll find out who wins the first holiday season early next year. A lot of it will depend on who lined up the best supply chain and correctly estimated what the demand would be. But we know that Sony and Microsoft will sell everything they can make, and those who can’t find one might just turn to Nintendo. The odds are slim that one side will emerge with unbeatable momentum, but it’s always possible that will happen.
Meanwhile, Nintendo announced that the Nintendo Switch and Nintendo Switch Lite sold a combined 735,926 units in the U.S. in October, up 136% from last year. That was the second-highest October sales of any video game console in history, only outdone by the 807,000 units sold of the Wii system in October 2008. Chances are pretty good that the Switch will be the hottest console of November and December, as Nintendo probably doesn’t have the same supply constraints that Microsoft and Sony will have.
Nintendo, of course, doesn’t need to launch a new console this year because its Switch, which has been out for 23 months, is on a different schedule and still on the upswing, with 63 million units sold.
But the fact that Nintendo announced its sales suggests that it might be worried about the impact that Sony and Microsoft will have, and it is a bit fearful with all of the noise out there, Nintendo might be forgotten. Nintendo doesn’t need to feel insecure at all, but it’s a good to move to say, “Hey, look at me.”
Piscatella tweeted, “The Switch numbers are absolutely bonkers. We’re talking Wii peak numbers here, with little risk of falling off a cliff like the Wii did. It’s a monster of a platform.”
Wouldn’t that be funny if Nintendo won the war between Microsoft and Sony?
Of all these considerations, the fact that Sony went into this console war with a 2-to-1 sales advantage may be the most decisive. Microsoft has to convince players that they should switch, and that’s hard to do without exclusives. Perhaps its greater hope is to do as much as it can to grow the market, so a rising tide lifts all boats and both succeed. We’ll find out who really has the best long-term strategy as they reveal their plans and lineups in the months ahead.
In the meantime, yes indeed, gamers will win.