It’s still crazy to think that we are only a matter of months away from having the next generation of PlayStation and Xbox consoles in our living rooms. Both systems are promising a bright future for the console market, with technical capabilities rivalling high-end PCs, new services in place to be as consumer friendly as possible, and, of course, a plethora of exciting games that look to break new ground in the realm of gaming. Both the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series X are likely to be massive commercial successes for their respective manufacturers, but how much of that success will be linked to the games coming with the systems at launch?
Launch games are as old as gaming consoles themselves – after all, what’s the point of having a big box under your TV if you can’t play any games on it? However, the role of launch games has changed quite a bit over time and their significance behind a system’s success or failure has come into question over the last 10-15 years. While we don’t have a confirmed launch line-up for either the PS5 or Xbox Series X – or even a release date for either system – we can safely suspect there will be some big first and third-party titles being sold next to the systems on release day.
To find out if Halo: Infinite or Spider-Man: Miles Morales will matter much to their respective console’s fortunes, we first have to take a look back through history to see what impact launch titles had on their systems, and why we remember or forget certain examples along the way.
A good place to start would be with the previous generation of consoles (or, I guess, it’s still technically the current generation). Both the PS4 and Xbox One launched in November 2013 with a fairly meh list of launch titles next to their name. Sure, Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag was a fantastic sea-faring adventure, but it already had a perfectly playable version release on the sixth generation consoles a few weeks earlier. In fact, a big chunk of the games were cross-gen ports, some of which were already years old at that point. The exclusives left even more to be desired, as no one mentions Killzone: Shadow Fall or Ryse: Son of Rome when discussing the great PS4 and Xbox One games these days (or ever).
And yet, despite the weak games line-up on launch day, both systems were extremely strong out of the gates in terms of sales. The PS4 smashed previous console launch records, selling over a million units in its first 24 hours simply in the US, while the Xbox One achieved these same numbers, albeit across a global market. Game consoles had never been in such high demand, leading to mass shortages on store shelves that lasted months, and yet the launch games had never felt so inconsequential.
So why was this? It had always seemed like an undisputed truth that a strong console launch needed a strong launch library to go alongside it. Or, at the very least, one defining game that guided the hardware into the public’s interest and living rooms. Well, it’s simply possible that recent launch games haven’t had to carry the same weight as those from past generations. Gaming is now a global phenomenon on a scale never before seen, and the task of selling a new piece of hardware to early adopters is no longer as daunting as it once was. Therefore, back in 2013, Sony and Microsoft already had a larger market to sell to than with their last consoles, and that’s a factor that holds true with their current consumer base in 2020.
However, riding on your current success can’t possibly take all the pressure away from your launch games, can it? After all, Microsoft has been trailing far behind Sony all generation, so it comes as no surprise to see them turn to their most iconic franchise in Halo to be there alongside the Xbox Series X at launch. Enter Nintendo, perhaps the hardware manufacturer whose consoles have lived or died the most by what launch games have been there from the start. Super Mario Bros., Tetris, Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, Wii Sports, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild are all synonymous with their systems and played a huge role in selling hardware units from the word go.
There are, however, 2 main points to bring up with Nintendo’s approach to launch games. For one, Nintendo were pioneers in the industry long before Sony or Microsoft entered the ring. And, secondly, Nintendo like to get weird with their hardware. This is important, because throughout their history of releasing consoles, Nintendo’s launch titles haven’t just had to be good games, they’ve had to be amazing proofs of concept.
Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario World had to show off the potential of 8-bit and 16-bit gaming, respectively, while Super Mario 64 needed to wow gamers with the possibilities of 3D game design. Tetris had to convince consumers on handhelds, Wii Sports did the same with motion controls, while Breath of the Wild had the job of delivering a massive adventure that could work seamlessly on Nintendo’s new console/handheld hybrid. Of course, it helped that these were all fantastic games in their own right, but it was necessary that they fulfilled a secondary purpose of converting people over to whatever new hardware concept Nintendo had been cooking up. One only has to look at the Wii U to see how a lack of a compelling proof of concept tied to an experimental hardware design can lead to disastrous commercial returns.
This is why, historically, Sony and Microsoft haven’t had to be as concerned with launch games, as their hardware concepts follow a relatively linear progression and don’t zigzag all over the place like Nintendo’s. You could argue that the original PlayStation had to overcome the same task of introducing 3D polygonal gaming like the N64, but Sony already had the upper hand with a competitive price point and the allure of CD technology forcing notable developers to defect the way of the PlayStation. Microsoft needed a smash hit game when entering the gaming scene, and Halo: Combat Evolved delivered. But, after that, Microsoft became far more enveloped in marketing the services that came with Xbox systems, which has resulted in varying degrees of success.
So, is strong messaging leading up to a console launch now more important than strong launch games? Well, arguably, it always has been, at least that’s often what Sony has prioritised. Philosophers have spent their entire lives trying to name an iconic PlayStation launch title in the same vein as the Nintendo ones previously mentioned, but any guy on the street can recite to you the famous “More Powerful Than God” catchphrase that accompanied the original PlayStation or Jack Tretton’s E3 2013 epic takedown of Microsoft’s messy campaigning.
The PS5 and Xbox Series X are going to give us some incredible experiences from day one – if the theorised launch games turn out to be true – and the technical leap from the current-gen systems will result in plenty of slack-jawed gamers. But, while the new teraflops and SSDs will have a huge impact on the games themselves, the way we play them won’t be dramatically different. Epic Game’s Unreal Engine 5 Tech Demo from last month may be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen run on a console, but at the end of the day, it still looks like a third-person action adventure game. It didn’t need to prove to us why next-gen is going to be a bold new direction for gaming, it only needed to show us that this wouldn’t be possible on PS4 or Xbox One.
Launch titles are obviously an important factor for Sony and Microsoft in 2020, but both companies are also relying heavily on traditional marketing tactics – catchy slogans, stunning trailers, memorable press conference moments, and powerful third-party partnerships – to make an early impact. And with this generation introducing digital-only systems and forward-thinking services such as Smart Delivery, the messaging needs to strike a careful balance between telling us what we’re going to play and how we’re going to consume those games.
If Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Halo: Infinite end up being great launch games for their systems, then they will surely help drive early sales for Sony and Microsoft. But, as history is showing us, even if they’re disappointing, gamers will likely still be there on day one to try out the “next big thing”, regardless.