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Has Microsoft already conceded the next gen console race in favour of broadening their audience? Although I don’t believe Microsoft are necessarily resigned to losing, I certainly think they’re fully prepared for that scenario. Xbox has altered the metrics for a while now, avoiding hardware sales figures in favour of active users. Therefore, I can’t help but think Microsoft’s strategy derives more from circumstance than by design. If the roles were reversed and Xbox was on top this generation, would they be so eager to get Xbox onto multiple devices? I suggest their situation has at least hastened their plans.
The counter to this theory is the threat Google Stadia now poses, which Microsoft obviously saw coming and gives validation to their shift in focus. Whether live streaming is a viable alternative to playing natively on a console is another debate, with too many questions unanswered at this stage. Until the service is out in the wild, contending with various Internet speeds, not to mention pricing, only then will we discover how much of a threat Google pose. It’s the future, no doubt, but is the gaming industry equipped and ready? More importantly, are the gamers? I’m not so sure, there’s too many variables to consider.
Microsoft, meanwhile, whilst keen to promote xCloud, will continue to provide consoles for the foreseeable future. It’s clear getting Xbox onto as many devices as possible is the long-term plan. It could be argued their latest philosophy is an admission they can’t compete directly with Sony in the console space alone. When you consider the respective wealth of each company it’s almost absurd to suggest Xbox can’t compete. Whatever their real motivation, it’s at least interesting to see both Microsoft and Sony differentiate themselves in their respective plans.
Not all Xbox fans are going to be pleased by their aspirations for growth however, which some will complain dilutes the brand. From a personal perspective somebody playing the same game on another platform is of no consequence, though it undoubtedly diminishes the need to purchase a console when there’s alternatives available. Microsoft are perfectly fine with this situation, as long as you are invested into their ecosystem. I don’t think they care whether it’s Xbox, PC, or other formats. It’s the ‘other formats’ aspect which has raised some eyebrows though, with Switch recently touted and dare I say almost inevitable.
Whilst I don’t envisage a scenario remotely like the start of this generation, it seems obvious Sony’s more traditional stance will again reap its rewards. It was a major factor back in 2013, and I’m sure it will be in 2020. Sony are in the enviable position of being able to continue where they left off, with not a great deal to improve upon. The hardware will be more capable of course, along with a successor to PlayStation VR, but in terms of games, aside from a strong multiplayer offering, they’ve most bases covered.
In my view this generation of consoles was a significant one to lose. It’s safe to assume Sony will offer backwards compatibility for PlayStation 4 games: the x86 console architecture dictates it will be much easier to implement, and a no-brainer incentive. Couple this with the fact digital sales are considerably higher, having customers already invested into an ecosystem takes on greater significance. It also comes down to form, with a number of highly acclaimed exclusives on offer, you have a fanbase which is going to be extremely difficult to budge.
It becomes a situation not dissimilar from your phone, where changing brand becomes such an inconvenience; unconsciously you become the loyal customer they want. But then I’m sure Microsoft are already well aware how customer investment works, hence why expanding becomes a necessity. The ‘Sony formula’ can soon become stale of course, but whether Xbox are in a position to capitalise remains to be seen.
From a business perspective, getting games onto as many platforms as possible makes perfect sense, as it would obviously be more lucrative in the long run, but at what cost to console sales? Phil Spencer has made a lot of noise about going after ‘2 billion gamers’ by opening up their audience to iOS and Android devices, but the user who plays Candy Crush on a phone is vastly different from your average console gamer.
Microsoft has recognised content was their biggest failing in recent years, and to their credit they’ve addressed this with several studio acquisitions. The problem is there’s no shortcut to getting their first party portfolio in order. Introducing consumer friendly features like Game Pass is great in principle, but as Netflix – which Microsoft continually references – proves exclusive content is what defines the service. Xbox can still possess exclusive content without being tied to a console, which is clearly their mindset.
For Xbox to be successful globally, they will need a much stronger foundation – which has to stem from the console business. To suggest Halo Infinite is their most important release ever is an understatement. The gaming landscape is vastly different now, with free-to-play battle royale games grabbing most of the headlines. The younger generation of gamers won’t even know what Halo is, but to stand any chance of redemption 343 must deliver a Halo game that is nothing short of a bona fide system seller. That is the pressure they face, and I’m sure Microsoft has heavily invested the time and resources to ensure it stands every chance.
You only have to look at what Sony has potentially lined up with PlayStation 5, with The Last Of Us Part II possibly being a cross-gen title, along with Death Stranding, Ghosts Of Tsushima, and another Horizon Zero Dawn waiting in the wings. The challenge ahead is formidable. Sony will come out swinging, so Microsoft can ill-afford any Halo 5 type missteps, which now looks insignificant compared to the disappointments since.
It is rumoured Microsoft will offer two consoles at launch: a lower priced/powered version (codename: Lockhart) alongside a more premium variant (Anaconda). I fully expect Xbox to have the more powerful console, but that will amount to nothing if there isn’t quality content to showcase. Much of the concern from gamers is centred around online streaming services, something Sony has offered with PlayStation Now for a while now. But not unlike VR, Sony introduce these features without forcing it upon their customer base, whereas Xbox tend to employ an all-in strategy.
As a fan of Xbox and gaming in general I hope they provide stiffer competition next gen, because with their rival so dominant there’s always a danger of complacency. Only a highly competitive gaming industry can thrive, and with it hopefully dissuade some of the anti-consumer practices that have plagued this generation.
I fully expect Sony to maintain their market lead next generation, but it could be a case of them winning the battle, not the war, if Microsoft’s ambitious plans pay off. How Microsoft employ xCloud could be key. Should it be used to enhance the gaming experience, and not just be offered as a substitute? History has shown there are no certainties when it concerns gaming, especially with new contenders like Google Stadia entering the fray. The outcome is anybody’s guess.