Games, not hardware, matter most in 2020

Stadia looks like a flop out of the gate, and its meager, overpriced game selection is a significant factor why. Google overestimated the console market’s appetite for experimental moonshots. Most gamers aren’t making purchasing decisions based on streaming quality, teraflops, 4K, or fast SSDs. Instead, as I wrote about earlier this year, it’s the games themselves — both selection and quality — that matter most. It was a crucial differentiator in the battle between PS4 and Xbox One, essential to the Nintendo Switch’s breakout success, and it will continue to be important for next generation hardware.

Games matter more for reasons beyond their historically strong track record. It’s also because across other facets — hardware, marketing, third party integrations — Sony and Microsoft will be on similar footing next generation, at least to your average consumer. I don’t foresee the major stumbles that marked previous console generations. Price and power, two factors that solidified PS4 as the clear victor this generation, I expect to be a moot point in 2020. Microsoft learned its lesson launching a console $100 more expensive and less powerful than Sony’s. Sony hopefully still remembers the $600 launch PS3 debacle and how undercutting on price helped secure their win for the PS4. Speculation from Digital Foundry and other sources posit the PS5 and Xbox Series X will rely on similar internal components. The result for consumers should be two boxes with similar specs and no more than a $50 gap in price differential.

So while it’s fun to speculate over new hardware and our streaming future, here’s where our eyes should be in the lead up to late 2020:

First party exclusives. The right exclusive game can still be a system seller, especially early in a console generation. Microsoft has been on a studio acquisition binge, but how many games will be ready for the Series X launch beyond Halo Infinite and the next Forza? How much is Sony holding back for the PS5?

Backwards compatibility. The next generation of consoles is the first with backwards compatibility out of the gate, but we don’t have the full picture for what that means. The nostalgia of older titles and the ability to still play one’s existing library of PS4 and Xbox One games makes the transition to next gen much more appealing. How much of the current gen library “just works” (insert a disc, play) with these next gen consoles? What about compatibility with older generations like the Xbox 360 and PS3? How can gamers buy older gen titles?

Cross generation transitions. The PS4 and Xbox One combined have a massive install base, and the next generation marks the first where the core PC architecture remains the same. Both factors complicate the transition between generations. Are most new titles for PS5 and Series X cross generation or exclusive to the new hardware? For cross gen titles, what’s the upgrade process when migrating from current to next gen hardware (e.g., same SKU, a fee for the upgrade, repurchase the game entirely)?

Microsoft Game Pass and Sony’s potential counter offer. The value proposition behind a Game Pass subscription is undeniable; for the price of two full-priced games a year, you have every first party Microsoft release and a bunch of other quality titles. What other third party games will Microsoft add onto the service for the Series X release? Would Sony roll out a similar service, and if so, what’s the pricing structure and launch library?

All four of these factors boil down to games — quality, variety, and value. Other quality of life improvements from xCloud, to fast SSDs, CPU bandwidth, and ray tracing may get the lion’s share of media attention next year. Still, games are the primary bellwether to understand which company will enter the next console generation strong.