Do we have Sony to thank for Microsoft's consumer focus?
2013 feels like a lifetime ago, doesn't it? In this COVID locked down world where even last week feels like it may have taken place a year ago, it's increasingly difficult to think back and remember the world as it was. 7 years ago, Trump and Brexit hadn't divided the US and UK respectively. Here in the UK, ex-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died - causing "Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead" from The Wizard of Oz to enter the popular music charts at number 2. Maybe there's a spot of rose-tint on my glasses, but the world seemed a bit less... shit.
At the start of that year, Microsoft were still in the lead of the console wars across most of the world with their 360 console. Sony's PlayStation 3 was catching up, but at that late stage of the race it hardly mattered. June of that year saw the announcement of the Xbox One at E3... and at that moment the ball was fumbled. Spectacularly. With a misplaced emphasis on TV streaming, living room domination, and an "always online" ethos, Microsofts offering was confused and inconsistent with the hardcore gamers that comprised their consumer base. Gaming press everywhere shouted from the rooftops that Sony had "won" E3 with their announcement of the PlayStation 4 - while from what this jaded Brit could see from his desk was that Sony hadn't so much 'won' as Microsoft had spectacularly 'lost'. The Xbox One announcement went down like a lead balloon, and the goodwill of a generation consumed in a matter of days when the console launched later in the year. It was never recovered in the 7 years that have followed.
Over the course of this last generation, some things have changed dramatically while others have stayed very much the same. Console exclusivity for games has very much continued, while the DLC and microtransaction model grew and expanded to the point where it appears to have possibly burst. Over the course of the XB1/PS4 generation, Sony have adopted the business tactics that drove Microsoft's succcess in the 360/PS3 generation while Microsoft have, apparently, floundered.
Give me a moment, and I'll elaborate.
In this generation, the dominance of the PS4 has been built on a couple of things: keen pricing, good marketing, technical dominance and exclusive games. Especially that last one, let's face it. Between God of War, Spiderman, Ghosts of Tsushima, The Last of Us 2, Uncharted 4, Days Gone and Horizon Zero Dawn, Sony's first party output this generation has been in a league that Microsoft has been unable to match. They've also had marketing deals with some huge games causing content to hit their machine first - particularly with Activision. These deals made both Call of Duty and Destiny most attractive on their platform, with Xbox players getting content considerably later.
If you sit and think back to the era that was coming to an end in 2013, you'll probably notice something - and that's that those things are exactly what Microsoft used to rule the roost in the 360 era. The 360 was more powerful than PS3, generally cheaper, and came with a level of exclusivity that would have Microsoft's own fans up in arms and screaming "anti-consumer" from their armchairs if it were emulated today. Microsoft tried to change the business model going into the Xbox One generation - from a machine centred on gaming to one that would own the living room. They bet their success on it - and they failed. By changing that focus, they vacated the space they'd occupied previously. Sony were only to happy to sweep in and occupy it. I think it's this swift move by them that prevented Microsoft from falling back into their old position and forced them to think about how they could do things differently - and now here we are. Seven years have elapsed. Seven years in which Microsoft have been forced to face their failure and examine what, if anything, they can do to pull themselves back to the top of the gaming pyramid.
If their recent announcements are anything to go by, they just might have managed it.
Whether you're a PlayStation fan or an Xbox fan, at this point there isn't any real debate to be had over which of the two is the most consumer-friendly moving into the next generation. On the one hand, we have the PlayStation 5. Yes, it's powerful. Yes, it will have exclusive games. Hell, it'll probably have lots of them. And - unless Sony pull off an extremely fast change of direction - it's going to be sold in exactly the same way the PS4 was, and the PS3/360 before that. You'll buy your £500(ish) console, you'll buy your £50-£60 games. You'll need to upgrade most, if not all, of your peripherals. You'll get those shiny new launch games - and then there will be a period of time where there is little new to play. You'll need to fall back on your PS4 to mop up that pile of shame, unless you're lucky enough to have games on it that the PS5 will run with its limited back-compatibility. If you needed to trade your PS4 in to buy your PS5... then you're a bit stuck.
On the other hand, there's Microsoft. £249 for a Series S, or £449 for a Series X. Both of them powerful enough to make most console gamers see a benefit, and in the case of Series X quite a powerhouse in comparison to what's gone before. There will be some new games to play, and lots of them will be on Gamepass on day one - meaning no need to cough up £50-£60 for each one. Your old joypads and headsets will all work. And when you've played the new games and face the inevitable dry period, you can plug in any of your old Xbox One games (or most of your 360 games for that matter, if they're still kicking around) and you're off - often with a nicely upscaled version at a better framerate now available to you.
From the sidelines, it very much looks as though one of these models presents a move forward for us consumers and one of them doesn't. No doubt you'll decide for yourself which is which - but there's only one correct answer. Whether any of this will pan out into better sales for Microsoft in this coming generation is anyone's guess - but, like in 2013, they're putting their money on being able to change the marketplace while Sony are betting on the status quo. One thing's for sure though - if Sony hadn't kicked their ass every year for the last seven years, they wouldn't be trying so hard now. Companies are like people; they only change when they need to.
Come the end of the year, we'll be a lot closer to knowing whose bet has paid off. In the meantime, Xbox fans - give those Sony fanboys that you meet online a thank you. Tell them that without them making the PS4 as dominant as it was, Microsoft would never have felt the need to look after you so well as we move into the next generation. And if you're a Sony fan, give yourself a little pat on the back. You've helped to make all of this possible.
And if, like me, you play them both... sit back. The next generation's lining up to be the best one yet.