It would be fair to say from the get go, I am a PlayStation fanboy. Owning a PS4 this generation has been an utter delight. It has torn me from my gaming PC more successfully than any other console has in my gaming lifetime, due in no small part, to the incredible roster of PlayStation exclusives we’ve been treated to. I say this because it is all too easy to read an opinion piece about potential successes of a once doomed console (Xbox One) rising above and beyond its arch nemesis, the PlayStation 4, in the following generation and suggest the rest of the article is little more than minority fanboy wishes. So please know that I am speaking from the PlayStation end of the spectrum.
For a while, near the start of this generation, I thought Microsoft would be bowing out of the console race altogether, given its abysmal performance this time around. Its heavy hitter that everyone was waiting for, Scalebound, was suddenly cancelled which was tantamount to PlayStation owners being told Uncharted 4 was getting cancelled. For first party titles like this to get cancelled after so much public exposure… Not a good look. Of course, over the course of the generation, Xbox proved time and again, it was not the coolest kid in the playground. Its console exclusives were simply sequels of existing franchises suffering from fan fatigue (Halo, Gears of War) and the ones that were original IPs (State of Decay, ReCore) released to little more than a shrug of the shoulders from critics. Phil Spencer has a lot of work to do to return the Xbox brand to the glory days of the 360.
The Xbox problem would appear to snowball, as games like Nier: Automata would be available to PlayStation owners for a year first, devs knowing that was where the majority audience and the money lay. Moves of desperation from Microsoft, like buying console exclusivity from Crystal Dynamics for Shadow of The Tomb Raider for a year, coupled with the neverending delay announcements for Crackdown 3 meant the PlayStation 4 had officially won the console race of the eighth generation. After all this, they still had a whole suite of PC based enterprises to keep them more than afloat as a corporation. Yet, I was a fool to think that Microsoft would bow out of videogames altogether. It would seem they are not ignorant to the fact that gaming is now doubly profitable than movies and you can bet your bottom dollar they will not lose their now loosened grip on things.
Accepting defeat this generation, it’s becoming clearer to see that Phil Spencer and Microsoft have used this time to lie in wait to prepare properly for the next generation and while the Xbox One has proven a failure in the eyes of some, it has also been a convenient testing ground for Microsoft.
Xbox Two Will Offer Different Pricing Plans For The Same Entry To 9th Gen
A big stumbling block for Microsoft was the price of its Xbox One console on release. While much earlier generations of consoles pushed their luck and asked for a lot, we’d all gotten used to console pricing in later years that was just right. Although, the Xbox One pushed a little too hard, asking consumers to fork out $499. A full $100 more than the PS4 on release, because it had a giant Kinect camera that nobody asked for or used. A later model would release without the Kinect camera at a lower price but perhaps the damage was already done. The PlayStation 4 would convert many an Xbox gamer (myself included) by winning the price war.
Rumours are now circulating about the start of the next generation, with Xbox releasing different models of console at different price points. The 8th generation has played around with the idea of premium hardware (cough cough just get a PC if you’re a graphics nut) with the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X. We’ve also had the lower end of things with the PS4 Slim and the Xbox One S. If Microsoft were to introduce this staggered pricing model from the get go on generational release (as opposed to staggered throughout the generation as was the case this time around), it would be an undeniable value proposition… Especially if Sony didn’t mirror the tactic.
What started this line of thinking was Phil Spencer discussing the next generation at E3 of 2018. The keen listeners among us noted that he referred to the next generation’s “consoles”, suggesting this tiered hardware idea would be a part of the Xbox Two’s release plan. Sure enough, a report from Windows Central emerged just two weeks ago, talking about prototype models “Anaconda” and “Lockhart” with the codename for the unannounced 9th generation family of Xbox Two models currently being “Scarlett”.
Buying The Potential
The cynics among us can easily say that if Microsoft are lacking the talent to make amazing first party exclusives, buying that talent to keep for themselves is a cheap shot at the competition. That may be true but it doesn’t change the fact that it will have a positive impact on Microsoft’s exclusives in the next generation. PlayStation has the likes of Quantic Dream, Naughty Dog and Sony Santa Monica; teams that have proven masterclass levels of skill in marrying gameplay and story. Yet, so far, Microsoft has 343 Industries and well… Microsoft Studios (among others, seen in the image below but let's be honest – Rare didn't exactly blow our skirts up with Sea of Thieves). Teams that certainly know what they’re doing but haven’t really blown it out of the park in terms of gameplay or storytelling innovation.
To help combat their difficulty in dealing with storytelling, Ninja Theory will no doubt be of great assistance. The team that brought you Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice managed to sell millions of copies of their game through mostly word of mouth as the indie studio didn’t have the funding for a massive marketing campaign. That was done by not only telling a great story but also by handling the sensitive issue of mental health with impressive grace and respect. Microsoft now owns them. With the resurgence of single player story-based games in the year of 2018, this buyout in particular could turn out to be a very smart move.
On top of this, they have bought Playground Games (Forza) , Undead Labs (State of Decay) and Compulsion Games (We Happy Few). The latter two may have made headlines with their buggy releases but at the very least, this is Microsoft ensuring any of their future titles will not be risked to audiences other than those with Xbox consoles in their living rooms.
The Initiative is also a development studio quietly set up by Microsoft with the goal of making console exclusives. What really matters here is the people behind the project. The Initiative is led by former Crystal Dynamics' Head of Studio, Darrell Gallagher. Other confirmed members of the team are Brian Westergaard (Lead Producer of God of War 2018) and Christian Cantamessa (Lead Designer / Writer of Red Dead Redemption) returning to a familiar role as Narrative Consultant.
Pre-empting The Digital Takeover
It’s no secret by now that a fully digital takeover is coming. As Netflix culture continues to grow so too does the digital marketplace for games. As the years go on, physical discs are becoming an increasing inconvenience for their owners. Microsoft appears to be acutely aware of this. After all, it is almost confirmed that the next generation of consoles will finally follow suit, arriving without disc trays.
As I mentioned earlier, this generation has been vibrant testing ground for the Xbox while Sony basks in their own success. A strong arm in this preparation is the Xbox Game Pass. Not only does it give access to Xbox exclusives upon their release but a whole range of games for a monthly subscription. While not all that tantalising now, you can be sure that if Xbox gears up their exclusives approach (as they certainly seem to be doing) this will turn out to be yet another smart move on Microsoft’s part. Coupled with the tiered pricing system, things are starting to look a lot more consumer friendly.
On top of this, no matter how much you take advantage of Xbox Game Pass in the future, there’s very little chance of clogging up your hard drive. Xbox Xcloud will also carry Xbox ahead of the competition at the start of the impending digital takeover. Focussing on streaming games, Netflix style, Xbox hopes to bring the first truly serviceable cloud gaming service to gamers. The industry has dabbled with it in the past but Microsoft is aiming to bring it to fully functional level on a commercial scale with every console it ships. Cross platform play with other Microsoft products will only bolster this further.
Where Sony Stands In All of This
The PlayStation 4 drove home further successes by launching the most affordable gaming VR headset on the market. While Microsoft seemed not to bother, it is fairly safe to assume all of the above is why. Phil Spencer has ensured resources have gone into investing in the future.
During 2018’s Sony / Fortnite controversy, it became clear that, for one reason or another, Sony didn’t want its PS4 players to enjoy games anywhere else. Almost as if drunk on its own success, Sony wouldn’t break on this rule of thumb until the media coverage and gamer outrage became too much. In the end, Sony allowed Fortnite players to log into their Epic account on other consoles. Although, their unwillingness to do so is a worrying sign of their arrogance and lack of foresight. Fully digital platform sharing is the future. Heck, it’s already here in large part. While Xbox have clearly been planning for this, PlayStation appear to believe the strength of their exclusives come first and preparing for a digital future, second.
This will serve to their detriment.
Microsoft have always had the cloud based connections waiting for their moment, along with a larger server clout as a result of having originated in the PC market. PlayStation have shown no signs of preparing to compete against this aspect of future gaming. It may well be the case, in the shadow of Microsoft, a console without game-streaming services as a primary function will be looked on as inferior. Unless Sony does something about ramping up PlayStation Now and its own servers it may find itself on the back foot on release of the PlayStation 5.
There’s every chance Sony are also waiting for their moment. Waiting for the right time to counter-announce against Microsoft. With the next generation tipped to arrive 2020, time is running out for them and PlayStation faithfuls better hope Sony has a few nuggets of their own cooking that we just don’t know about.
Is there anything Xbox is doing in preparation for the next generation we haven't mentioned? Perhaps you know of PlayStation's plans to counteract all of this? Comment below with your thoughts. Since this can be a divisive subject, we ask commenters to be respectful.