PlayStation can’t stay the course forever

Xbox has been on a news tear lately. In early March, Xbox head Phil Spencer confirmed future Bethesda titles would only appear on platforms that offer Game Pass (read, not the PS5.) Days later, Square Enix revealed that the high profile action game Outriders would release on Game Pass in parallel with a full price retail rollout on other platforms. This one two punch crystalizes the biggest challenge to PlayStation’s market leader status. Sony has built a strong reputation on its platform exclusives, but the next Fallout or Elder Scrolls absent on PS5 will push many to Xbox this generation. Also, as Sony continues to press on with its $70 first party titles, Xbox Game Pass offering tentpole games at $15 a month looks increasingly tempting.

I hope this flood of recent Xbox news serves as a wake-up call to Sony. As Xbox differentiates itself from Game Pass, Nintendo on portability, and evergreen first party IP, Sony has some work to define its future direction.

In many ways that hook is a continuation of what Sony has done from the PS4 era: a curated collection of high caliber games that run exclusively, earlier, or best on PlayStation hardware. But that doesn’t mean a repeat of the same strategy from seven years ago. In 2013, well timed big budget exclusives could be the deciding factor, marketed through traditional channels on enthusiast websites, social media, and the occasional TV spot. Today we’re looking at an audience expecting more genre diversity, variety of price points, all while being fragmented across the internet.

Sony can better address a more expansive market by redoubling their investment in low to mid budget games. Today independent studios dominate this space, releasing on Steam in the $10 to $40 range. Sony should pay studios to prioritize getting the best of these offerings on PS5 first. Financial assistance to take advantage of unique PS5 capabilities like the DualSense controller and activity card menus wouldn’t hurt. It’s also time Sony’s prestigious first party studios splinter to build small games with faster turnarounds alongside its marquee AAA offerings.

Development is only half the equation; solid marketing is as essential. While a curated set of small to mid budget titles rarely get the attention of AAA releases, the collection must have visibility above the glut of new games released on PSN, Xbox Live, and Steam every week.

Granted, Sony actively highlights small games today. In recent PlayStation showcases, we saw Kena: Bridge of Spirits, Solar Ash, Sifu, and Stray marketed alongside mega budget Horizon and Gran Turismo sequels. Nevertheless, Sony’s investment in games that aren’t blockbusters feels like an afterthought. Their marketing playbook caters almost exclusively to the largest first party games and third party titles through marketing partnerships and pricy TV spots. Meanwhile, indie titles rarely get more than a few blog posts and an occasional tweet from the PlayStation account on launch day.

It’s in the curation and marketing space where Sony can innovate over its competitors. Pick just a handful of titles each month, and add them to an ongoing branded collection with a prominent listing in the PSN store and the default “explore” area that all PS5 users see on first boot up. Give discounts and special trial periods for PlayStation Plus members to check collection games out. Around a game’s debut, send creators and developers for these games out for interviews, podcasts, and videos to promote the work behind the scenes.

A PS5 branded collection could be a counterpoint to Xbox Game Pass. While Sony’s collection available a la carte wouldn’t match the value proposition offered by Game Pass, having a higher quality ratio would have serious appeal. Let Game Pass go through the more expansive Netflix approach. Sony can take the artier HBO or Criterion route that’s self-selective and focused. The collection could also widen genres associated with the PlayStation label beyond its “house style” of narrative driven third person action adventure games (Horizon, Uncharted, The Last of Us).

I realize many reading this would point to Sony’s market leader momentum, record PS5 sales, and instant IP buzz to argue virtually any change to be unnecessary. Wait until software sales start to dip, then roll out a Sony branded Game Pass competitor. Wait until Series X sell through rates match PS5, and then diversify content aggressively.

However, my worry is a snap change of direction at that point is too late. Yes, the console wars are dead. Sony and Microsoft are pursuing different enough strategies for both companies to be successful. However, PlayStation doesn’t have the flexibility to pivot to a plan B the way Xbox and Nintendo do. Xbox has the backing of one of the world’s biggest companies, with the ability to go big on first party games or wide on cloud based mobile gaming. Nintendo has the most prized, evergreen IP around with Mario, Zelda, and Animal Crossing, a foot in iOS and Android, and a native console solution that works great on the road. While the overall PS5 hardware proves Sony’s technical prowess can be second to none, I’m hoping for signs that it’s no longer 2013 all over again at PlayStation.