At a glance, Microsoft had a decent E3. Their presser showcased a huge number of quality games, solid genre diversity, and decent pacing. Xbox head Phil Spencer remains a great ambassador for the brand. And the Xbox One X looks to be an engineering marvel, a cutting edge console in a svelte enclosure.
But Xbox doesn’t exist in isolation. Sony is well ahead in mindshare and sales. Nintendo surprised many (myself included) with the runaway success of the Switch. With E3 over, Microsoft has two chief questions to answer. Why should anyone buy an Xbox One X? And why invest in Xbox over the PS4?
Sadly, Microsoft stumbled on both questions. Like I wrote earlier, by leaning so heavily on 4K, Microsoft has put themselves into a weak position for the holidays.
Early signs suggest 2017 will be a conservative year for gaming. The PS4 and Xbox One have little to prove, with an already robust library and huge user base. VR will be fascinating to watch, but mainstream adoption isn’t happening anytime soon. And the disappointing sales of several AAA sequels (Dishonored 2, Titanfall 2, Watch Dogs 2) will make major studios cautious with their output.
Despite all this, several factors may shake up the industry. PC and console gaming have been inching closer together for years; strong PS4 Pro and Scorpio sales should speed up this trend. And Nintendo continues to play a wildcard role. They could transform iOS and Android gaming and revitalize dedicated portable gaming devices.
The PS4 Pro has serious potential. It has decent internal specs, a reasonable price point, and follows the popular base PS4. But we’re a less than a month away from the release date, and Sony’s marketing and PR wing feels asleep at the wheel. Performance claims, especially for those without 4K displays, are vague. And there’s few titles or publishers with Pro enhanced games ready for 2016. As someone bullish on a more iterative console cycle (for both Sony and Microsoft), that’s worrisome.
Granted, tech and home theater enthusiasts in the market for a PS4 won’t hesitate for the Pro. They already own 4K set or PS VR, or plan an investment in either over the next year or two. But this is a niche minority of potential buyers. For everyone else, Sony needs to step up its game and provide more information.
The Pro isn’t a routine tech release. This is the first time two consoles both labeled “PS4”, with the same game library and similar feature set, are on sale side by side. Yet one has $100 price tag for premium performance. That’s commonplace in consumer tech, but a first for game consoles. And consoles historically are very sensitive to price differences. Unless the marketing situation changes, I see few outside the enthusiast market paying extra for the Pro.
Microsoft’s E3 announcement of Project Scorpio is big news. It’s the first official sign of consoles moving toward a faster, more iterative release cycle. But the announcement is also a big strategic mistake.
Not because of the Scorpio concept itself. Consoles have advantages with a faster release cadence. There’s more wiggle room for innovation and breakthrough gaming experiences. Game compatibility expands; older platforms aren’t immediately left behind.
Yet I see two big errors on Microsoft’s part. They announced Scorpio too early and are targeting a high end, costly specification.
The maturity of the console market and strong sales clearly rubbed off on the Microsoft and Sony this year. Each had their missteps, but they stayed on message and were the most interesting pressers by each company in several years.
Yet Sony and Microsoft took different approaches. Microsoft knows it’s well behind Sony and wanted to present a wide net for potential buyers. They succeeded; onstage content was bright, fun, and diverse.
Sony had the swagger of being in the lead. While Microsoft went wide, Sony went uncharacteristically narrow and minimalist. PlayStation VR got a mention, but the focus was otherwise all on games, many of them first party exclusives.
An earlier than usual PS4 successor has its benefits. But why is the PlayStation NEO coming now?
Early console releases are usually for companies with lagging hardware and low sales. The news grabs attention, can drive sales, and establish a clean break from the past. Nintendo’s upcoming NX console is a textbook example.
Sony’s the opposite of underperforming. They’ve exceeded expectations: 40 million PS4s sold, over double the Xbox One, and sales are accelerating year over year. And consoles thrive on momentum. Sony’s lead allows them to coast on the PS4’s success for a while; don’t rock the boat and watch profits grow. Yet success also buys the chance to take some costly bets. That’s Sony plan, an investment on the NEO today for the chance to solidify PlayStation over the long run.
Giant Bomb confirmed an upgraded PS4, codenamed NEO, is real and coming soon. There’s still a lot we don’t know, but based on the leaked developer guidelines, I’m cautiously optimistic about this news. However, a shift to a more iterative console isn’t won through hardware or development studio relations. It’s with marketing to gamers and the larger public. And it’s on that angle Sony can turn this into a mess.
The PS4 has record sales and gained significant mind share among gamers. Yet among game journalists and core gamers, there’s disappointment. Kotaku’s Kirk Hamilton recently ran a positive yet tempered post on the PS4, calling it an “unexciting video game console.” Kat Bailey at USgamerfinds this console generation “disappointingly conservative”. And I see similar resentment all over popular gaming forums like NeoGAF.
I’m a big fan of both Kirk’s and Kat’s writing. But I suspect their enthusiast perspective is coloring their viewpoint. For those of us that are more casual gamers, the PS4 has been great, a big improvement on previous console generations. It feels tailor made for what I’d term a “tech prosumer” market.
As evident from recent sales figures, there’s a lot of new PS4 owners. Console bundles have reached a $300 sweet spot, and both the Xbox One and PS4 have built up a decent library. But most game recommendations I’ve seen online – from enthusiast (Polygon, Kotaku) to mainstream (BBC, The New York Times) – feel safe. They lean heavily on mega hits and franchise sequels like Halo 5, MGS V, and Destiny.
Granted, they aren’t bad choices. I’m currently hooked exploring the wastelands of Fallout 4, and I’d recommend it to almost any RPG fan. Yet the PS4 has many strong games that received little coverage. They are accessible, cover a wide range of genres and are affordable. Here are some of my favorites from the past year:
Strong E3 showings generate hype and set a company’s aspirations for the future. On that count, it’s hard to fault Sony’s strategy. They focused on a few hugely anticipated game announcements: The Last Guardian, a Final Fantasy 7 remake, and Shenume 3. Just one would have made many PlayStation fans happy, but we saw all three at once. Alliances with this year’s biggest third party releases (e.g. Batman, Star Wars) underline Sony’s status as the console market leader. And an upcoming exclusive, the futuristic RPG Horizon: Zero Dawn, was an E3 highlight.
Yet all the hype and big games for the future can’t mask Sony’s lack of big exclusives for 2015. That’s a problem given Microsoft’s strong lineup this year. And beyond the mega announcements, I found stretches of Sony’s E3 presser poorly focused. We barely saw a mention of Project Morpheus. There was little stage time for indies, far less than Microsoft. And Sony relegated 2015 exclusives like The Nathan Drake Collection to a few seconds of a sizzle reel.