In 2013, Microsoft got on stage with a plan: Unify all couch-based entertainment under one box. Use your voice and hands for TV, streaming apps and play next generation games with your handy Xbox controller. They even went one step further, buy and sell your used videogames to friends on a virtual marketplace. One step too far.
The market panicked at the idea that physical used-game sales were going to be controlled by an arbiter, Microsoft, and something as simple as lending or giving a disc to someone would be a thing of the past. Microsoft reversed course. Lessons were learned, and the generation has played out with Microsoft sustaining a critical wound before their console would launch in 2013.
That same year, just a few months before, Sony got on stage after a uncharacteristically mediocre generation with PlayStation 3 and totally redesigned how they were approaching the console generation with PS4. The PS3 was designed as an exotic supercar, inviting only the most elite of engineers to get her running. Top studios like Naughty Dog were able to create games on PS3 that were show-stoppers, but only after what many would say was an unnecessary amount of bloodshed. The tradeoff between effort and pixel quality on PS3 was rarely worth it when it took far less effort to just make the games look “about the same” as Xbox 360.
With PS4, the machine was built almost entirely for developers, who would in turn be able to create games for gamers more easily. It was simple, it focused only on the simplicity of developing games with a passing interest in streaming apps and TV, and it was powerful, approximately 40% more powerful on the graphics processing side than the competing Xbox One.
The machine was a resounding success for Sony, placing them back in a similar position they held with PlayStation 2, still the world’s best selling console of all time.
This successful formula: design with a clean-break console generation in mind, make a balanced piece of kit, surprise developers in a few key areas, sell it for an aggressive price, is largely untouched for PS5, which is a benefit and a weakness. The benefit is obvious, it worked. The “surprise” that sony pulled for PS4 and which developers loved was the ultra fast and large pool of video memory or “VRAM”, the surprise they’re pulling this time is an ultra fast solid state drive, a near 100x speed improvement over the one in PS4.
But the sameness of Sony’s approach may also be its weakness, as it may be blind to the new “whole” experience of gaming. Factors like pricing, availability, and choice must be taken into consideration. Sony has created a “one place to play, one price to pay” mentality. Microsoft’s rebuttal to that is shaping up to be interesting.
The Xbox team’s approach has changed drastically from their 2013 failure but retains some of the bones, which places it in a very unique position compared to Sony’s, and it all starts with Xbox Game Pass and their Xbox Play Anywhere framework.
Xbox Game Pass is, simply put, the Netflix business model for gaming. Part of the reason gaming can seem so fatiguing sometimes has nothing to do with the game itself but rather the choice to game and the barriers in the way of exploring different games and then making the choice to buy one. If the 2013 Xbox vision was wrong, it was wrong because even though both the old and new visions were trying to remove player to game friction, only Game Pass and Play Anywhere don’t tell you not to do something, as in not sell your used game, they simply collect your money per month and tell you to go play and give you access to as much as they possibly can, including all Microsoft’s first party studio titles.
On Game Pass, one becomes more of a game tourist, limited only by their internet bandwidth (how fast you can download the game) and hard drive space (extra external hard drives are incredibly cheap now). So the entire experience of interactive entertainment shifts to a more frictionless experience. Even the nagging sense of obligation you have to finish a game you bought, just because you bought it, vanishes.
With Play Anywhere, Microsoft has taken advantage of their Windows platform and encouraged developers to make their games in such a way that they run locally on a PC or an Xbox, and that a player’s save progress is synced between the two. With Microsoft’s upcoming cloud based streaming platform, that would mean 3 platforms, two of which offer the highest quality and the streaming option offering the quickest convenience.
Sony’s PlayStation Now offers a similar promise but has nowhere near the same quality of streaming, and a complete lack of local play on PC, limiting it to streaming only.
Furthermore, Microsoft’s work on their “Velocity Engine,” designed to pause and resume multiple games with almost no delay works cross-generation, furthering their goal to frictionless gaming. We’ve seen nothing of the like for Sony’s plans for cross generation play with PS5, but we can assume pausing and resuming PS5 games will behave this way because of their extremely fast solid state drive.
The breakdown between the two companies lies in how Sony, and Japanese companies in particular treats hardware with a reverence, while Microsoft quickly realized last generation that focused hardware is incredibly important, yet continued to develop their entire platform, including software, to become a second strength.
If anyone has to have a fundamental shift in how they approach gaming this upcoming generation, one could easily make the argument that it’s Microsoft, who is in third place behind Nintendo and Sony for unit sales. But by including the PC in their “platform” and shifting the focus of development of games towards a more soft and flexible cross-generation period as apposed to the classic hard-break generations of years past, they seem to be shifting the playing field. A similar shift Sony themselves made when it introduced the idea of mass storage in games by way of compact discs many years ago with the original PlayStation to compete with Nintendo.
If Microsoft can push their software and develop tools to the extent that they did in the Xbox 360 generation, streamlining and letting developers get “to the metal” while still maintaining that ease and flexibility of their Play Anywhere promise, we may be in for a much closer generation race this time, and that kind of competition is good for gamers.