With PlayStation 5 out in much of the world this week, and Xbox Series X arriving tomorrow, critics have already started to make judgement calls about which way this generation’s so-called console war might be headed.
Sony and Microsoft have taken quite different approaches this time around, with their tactics inspired by each firm’s experience of the current generation. Sony’s PlayStation significantly outsold Xbox One and its budget spin-off models by sticking to a rigorous and highly successful program of platform exclusives. This time Microsoft is betting the farm on Game Pass, a service it would like to see becoming the de factor Netflix of video games.
Normally console platform holders make their money by selling games. No matter who publishes a title, they pay the platform owner for a licence to produce and market compatible games, in a business model that’s been in operation since consoles have existed. Microsoft wants to disrupt that with its subscription service, which effectively renders buying new games obsolete, as most of the best titles, along with a raft of older ones, come included in a single monthly payment.
In its commanding lead of this generation’s console face-off, Sony sees no reason to change a policy that’s served it very well indeed. Its exclusive titles - often single player games, a genre that’s seen a decline over the last decade - have been one of the primary reasons many gamers chose to buy a PlayStation. That difference in tactics has also informed the new consoles’ launches.
For Sony it’s meant a launch line-up that includes the blockbusting Spider-Man franchise, albeit in a side-story with Miles Morales, a remake of Demon’s Souls, No Man’s Sky: The Next Generation, and PlayStation brand-celebrating Astro’s Playroom. Microsoft by contrast has no exclusives at all at launch, relying instead on multi-platform releases like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Dirt 5.
Critics have generally not been kind to Xbox Series X, partly for its puny launch games, and partly because it shares Xbox One’s confusing and cluttered dashboard, and has a controller that’s barely changed, while Sony’s new UI and re-imagined controller with its force feedback triggers and more refined vibration set-up feel a lot more like a step forward.
It’s very early days, and we won’t really have a clue as to likely winners and losers for months if not years, but it’s certainly not been an auspicious start for Microsoft’s new baby, where for all its pre-release scarcity in online stores, PlayStation 5 appears to be stealing an early lead.