I was torn watching Sony’s recent PS5 showcase. It’s always exciting to see Sony’s first party content given their studios’ strong track record. However, almost every game was predictable and safe in a way I wouldn’t expect from Sony in an earlier era. Overall the event reminded me of Disney’s recent filmmaking output: lucrative, fun, but creatively a bit hollow.
Comparing Disney films to PlayStation games may sound like a stretch, but consider the parallels through the lens of PS5 first party games from the showcase. Disney loves remakes of beloved hits (The Lion King, Aladdin). Sony will release two remastered Uncharted games in a new collection. Disney leans on sequels of well tested hits like Toy Story and Cars. Sony showcased God of War Ragnarok and Gran Turismo 7. Also, Disney loves cranking out all things Marvel and Star Wars. Sony revealed teasers for Spider Man 2 and Wolverine. Stretching beyond first party content, Sony also gave prominent placement for a Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic remake and a new Guardians of the Galaxy game.
Opinions around Microsoft’s 90 minute Xbox & Bethesda E3 showcase are positive, a highlight alongside Nintendo’s outing in an otherwise quiet E3 year. But there have been pockets of criticism around the show’s lack of depth and “wow factor.” VG247 argued there were not enough “next-gen show stoppers”. Threads on Resetera, social media, and Digital Foundry knocked the Xbox presentation for having too many CGI trailers.
I’m sympathetic to missing more hands on time with Microsoft’s upcoming lineup. However, much of this “depth” criticism is myopic, relevant to an earlier era where Microsoft’s core focus was on the number of games and consoles sold. Thirty trailers in ninety minutes may not be an optimal pitch for $70 games and $500 consoles. However, it is a very sound approach to push Game Pass.
E3 2021 has made it abundantly clear that Microsoft has bet Xbox’s future on subscriptions. Keeping gamers hooked on Game Pass is a different, tricker pitch than buying high profile games. Variety is a must, with enough titles and genres to attract a wide variety of subscribers. Quantity can also help. Not every game will interest a potential subscriber, but the feeling that many more games are coming to the service over time adds to its sense of value.
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.
I expect the gaming landscape for console games will be radically reshaped in a few years. The existing $60 AAA game market will mostly collapse. Indies, stifled by saturation across every market, will turn to subscription services as their only viable path forward. Everyone will still chase Fortnite (or its successor) to become the next free-to-play hit.
Gaming trends today portend significant changes on the horizon. For years we’ve seen the same $60 titles — mostly first person shooters (Call of Duty, Destiny) and big sports franchises (FIFA, Madden, NBA2K) — dominate NPD and digital sales charts. But more recently, these perennial best sellers have shifted into effectively “games as a service” platforms. Studios increasingly focus on new functionality at a core fan base that readily laps up micro-transactions. This ensures revenue stays flowing in well past the upfront sticker price. Look at FIFA and how so many improvements lead back to Ultimate Team. The Call of Duty: Modern Warfare reboot added a Fortnite-inspired battle pass and a prominent shop rotating in and out costly cosmetic gear. This is rampant speculation, but I could see the anticipated Halo Infinite moving in a similar DLC-heavy direction, reliant on a narrowing core base to push the game’s initial investment into the black.
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.
Game streaming services depend on three big factors for success: technical prowess, cost, and games. Based on Google’s track record and their recent GDC pitch, Stadia’s tech chops will likely hold up well in real world testing. Consumer cost I’d anticipate won’t be high either. The big unresolved question is what actual games Stadia will have for its release later this year. And it’s on games that give Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo solid footing for blocking Stadia’s advances.
Games carry an outsized significance when considering past PC and console platform battles. For example, the PS4’s “must play” exclusives helped buttress their lead over the Xbox One over the last few years. This is where Google will run into a substantial headwind; game libraries on Switch, Xbox One, PS4, and PC are gigantic, with many critically acclaimed exclusives bound to a single platform. Assuming next-generation consoles from Sony and Microsoft support backward compatibility, this “lead” from Google’s competition should only grow.
Playing console and PC games through streaming may shift from niche experiment to mainstream reality this year. It’s the biggest gaming news story to watch; if the tech lives up to the hype, streaming will disrupt the gaming industry in a way that many companies will be unprepared for.
Historically streaming’s technical hurdles like high latency and bandwidth requirements have been a barrier to entry, but the latest signs of progress are promising. Google ran a beta of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey streaming through a Chrome browser. I read positive feedback on the experience, even from dedicated gaming sites like GameSpot; we’ll learn more from Google at GDC tomorrow. And while Microsoft’s xCloud streaming infrastructure is under private beta, they are bullish enough on the technology to release multiple splashy video teasers. If there are any two companies with the right expertise in cloud infrastructure to pull this off, it’s Google and Microsoft.
This year I finally swapped out my aging 10-year old Sony Bravia TV for a new Vizio P-series. In the intervening weeks of staring at this new screen, well mastered HDR content has been the most impressive improvement. HDR in conjunction with the full array local dimming (FALD) of the TV provides a brightness and contrast boost that surpasses what I experience in NY movie theaters, even well-calibrated ones at the Alamo Drafthouse and Nitehawk. And critically, almost every piece of media benefits from the tech, from TV crime procedurals to Planet Earth II, from Netflix to a la carte streaming rentals and even select Youtube channels.
But that same wow factor hasn’t translated as well to gaming. Of the five HDR capable games installed on my PS4, only two significantly improve the gaming experience.
E3 was fairly low key this year. In place of big reveals or surprises, we saw a solid suite of games as the current console generation hits its full stride. Two narratives stood out: Microsoft is staying in the game, and we’re getting next generation consoles sooner than I originally expected.
Microsoft’s best presser of the generation
Microsoft’s overall E3 message was one of strength and confidence for both the present and future. Their press keynote reassured Xbox loyalists and anyone else considering a dip into the Xbox ecosystem.
Granted, Microsoft’s keynote on paper shared the same DNA as their last few: trailer after trailer for solid third party games. It’s an obvious move given their competition moved in a different direction at E3 this year: Nintendo stuck to Smash Brothers while Sony focused on first party titles. But this year had especially strong game variety and pacing. The presser got virtually every third party game of interest through next year. Closing with Cyberpunk 2077 — hands down the most buzzed about game at E3 — was a masterstroke.
Microsoft’s E3 presser is a must-see this weekend, and not necessarily for any single game or hardware announcement. It’s because unlike other console manufacturers, they lack any clear long-run trajectory. As the only real wild card for E3 2018, Xbox’s positioning at the show has large implications for its relevancy over the long run.
Conventional wisdom suggests Xbox needs more killer exclusives. Offer the games, and the fans will follow. But at this stage, I don’t see Microsoft capable of making this happen. On paper, they don’t have enough first party studios, and those studios haven’t branched out beyond long-standing IP from the Xbox 360 era.
Nor are Sony and Nintendo standing still. This late in the console cycle, both platforms are hitting their stride. For Sony, the pedigree of The Last of Us II and the hype factor behind Hideo Kojima’s enigmatic Death Stranding sets a high bar. Nintendo is already riding high with a new Zelda and Mario in their back pocket. New Pokemon and Smash Brothers are out later this year with much more to come. Even if Xbox announces four big titles — Halo, Gears, Forza, and a fourth IP surprise — at best Microsoft reaches a draw with Sony and Nintendo.