& the Rise of the Console Cold War

The gaming social media landscape is, to put it plainly, a minefield of ponies, xbots & everyone in-between. All three companies that produce video game systems are benefitting from a worldwide pandemic, but fans of two out of the three have turned up the heat on the console-wars talk. Everyone being at home has provided all with an ample amount of time to pour excess energy into trying to prove to non-fans of their platform that they (and their purchases) were right, and that their system is the ultimate next gen experience.

Unfortunately for those fans, the end of the console wars has happened. It ended this previous generation, with Nintendo dropping out to do its own thing (picture them as the third kid playing with blocks while the other two kids fight over said blocks), Xbox hitting the reset button (yet again) midway with a console update, and Sony following the 360 guideline, something they themselves had done with the ps2 in two generations prior. It is no longer about consoles, though, but about services, and Microsoft has ushered that along by changing up the console/service game.

The Sony Plan

Sony has been in this game quite awhile; by this count, they are the 2nd oldest console maker that still releases something every 5 to 7 years. They have faltered only once before when releasing the Playstation 3 (PS3) by both releasing a year after a competitor did (Xbox 360) and being more expensive. Still, it was a great system, full of wonderful, arthouse style games, but it got off to a rocky start.

Around 2005/2006, Sony was focused on owning your family/living rooms with their products. The consumer would get home, turn on his Sony television, watch a movie on their Sony DVD or Blu-Ray player, or play a game on their Sony PS3 which would pump out sound on their Sony surround sound speakers. They were outlining a plan to take over the family space with their products, but the money grab of leaning heavily into brand loyalty is where they lost focus on just what made people attracted to their console in the first place. Most gamers will not spend the extra money to just get one brand for everything. This is not clothing, and people do not mind mixing and matching their electronics. Even right now, I have a Dell PC plugged into an LG screen, with some of the oldest Altec Lansing speakers in existence pumping out sound.

With the presumed loss of that generation of the console wars, Sony doubled down on their console (as well as revamping their efforts in the sound and television spaces, seperately), pumping a lot of money into their own brand of studios, making excellent acquisitions of talent along with placing the proper finances behind third party games for either timed exclusives, or a smaller amount of console exclusives. With the strength they have gained from the Playstation 4 (PS4), they have approached this current/new generation with a laser focus, but to what effect?

Sony is solely focusing on their main titles, hoping to fill the gap between their studio releases with enough exclusives or timed exclusives to hold their fans (and the media’s) attention. They have learned by now that gamers are fickle, and if they were to acquire a large amount of early access / timed exclusives on their system, it will hold everyone over. It takes a certain type of gamer to really dive in to older titles, and Sony knows that gamers really do not like playing old games (even if it is in their dreaded ‘backlog’, the ghost which haunts most gamers), so why not just double down on a slate of constant, steady new releases (whether that be Indies or more AAA or AA studio releases) to hold their hardcore fans over?

Every 85+ scored Metacritic game is like another feather in Sony’s cap, so they do not feel the need to focus on smaller, “crazier” games that they believe there is limited space for; the flash in the pan type games which are here now but gone anywhere from 3 weeks to 6 months after release. There are a ton of independent makers that are filling that void, trying to get their games out on every single system to profit just enough to produce their next game. Sony does not have to worry about those types of money crunches; that’s why Sony studios can still release games over extended lengths of time, sometimes years down the road, and they will end up making their money from 1st-party console sales, then follow it up with a PC release after three to four to six months to make even more money on top. Besides, PC players will play anything, really. Betas, pre-release builds, post console release games, anything; it does not matter how old it is. PC gamers are those special gamers mentioned before, almost like a guy who will eat any leftovers because, hey, it is all tasty and reheats nicely, depending on your toaster oven/pc.

As stated before, Sony does not really need to focus on smaller games; that weird niche market that they have built over time from the PS1, PS2, PS3 to where they were taking chances. They can just capitalize on the thousands of games they get released quarterly from smaller guys. Maybe they are saying “Hey we’re reinvesting in Indie titles with all of these releases” and then go from there. “We don’t need to release a new Ape Escape, or Hydro Thunder or anything else like that. We can just release our hits, and our fans will be satiated with just the slew of independent games that we will focus on, even if everyone else is getting them.” It works double because with Ubisoft & EA seemingly abandoning smaller titles to focus on bigger projects, Sony can reap the benefit of saying “We are re-investing in Indies to bring you the freshest, off beat titles all the while spotlighting them to the biggest audience in gaming”. Almost reminiscent of the Xbox 360, but we will get to that.

In retrospect, their constituents will not complain because they are getting games, if they get a few two blockbusters a year or have something like a Deathloop or Ghostwire: Tokyo be exclusive for a year (which Sony won’t tell anyone at the first announcement of any game that it’s only a timed exclusive. Sony is rather good at calling things exclusive without adding the ‘timed’ in front of it, only for the news to break a couple of months later that it is not exclusive, but no one will give them any s*** about it) or any other type of game they can get for a year, or a week, or a few days, since they work so closely with Japanese studios. This allows them access to get early releases to the next Resident Evil demo (seriously, just a demo being withheld?! Petty) or anything Square Enix is doing, such as the Final Fantasy’s (Fantasies?) or whatever else is being released that has a ton of buzz.

Perhaps them closing their Japan studio was planned to give them an edge, pinpointing a need to fill on their own console which allowed them to broker deals with other companies for games, causing Sony to rely on them more and giving other developers a greater share of the market and less competition against Sony’s home-grown games. Sony is focused on multiple projects with Sony San Diego, Santa Monica, and Sony Bend, plus Naughty Dog and Insomniac, so they do not want to spend the extra time or capital with catering to the Japanese market as much because Capcom, Square & From Software (to name a few) are crushing it with DMC, Souls and RE. This will hopefully lead to saving money off spending millions of dollars making games when they can literally pay maybe a quarter to half that for time exclusivity at least just from Xbox, since most of those games will most likely be coming out on PC same day as PS5 so it will not really hurt them that much in the long run.

The Microsoft “Soft Reboot”

The term ‘soft reboot’ has a different connotation now that all this business ethic negligence has come to light over the last few weeks with the Microsoft higher ups. This article is not about that (it will be in an article to come) but we will focus on their plan for just gaming.

The one thing Microsoft has going for it is Game Pass. They have shifted their focus from the previous unending wheel of “New Console, Games, New Console, Games” and just focused on service. Lest we forget, Microsoft was the first to really put money into an online gaming network that was really a premium service. Most people will point out MMO’s on PC, the shoddy online console offerings of the consoles that came before, etc., but that was for a niche market at the time. Xbox took that idea and put it in your living room, making it easily accessible for the college student or high school student or parent who grew up on games. Ever since then, they have been forced to come up with more consumer-friendly ideas, seemingly always swinging while on their back foot in the console prize fight. After really landing a solid haymaker during the 360-era, they then took up Sony’s plan to take over the living room by making the next generation an all-in-one box, losing sight on just games, making them a forever underdog. We all know the story by now, especially if you are a gamer.

Enter Game Pass

Games As a Service (GAS) is an intricate thing to master. Destiny is the best example, and in this age of electronics, it is difficult to imagine their being room for only one thing what seems like an endless landscape of gaming opportunity, but there is only room for one thing. For example, Destiny is the premiere looter shooter/online grinding RPG. No one has come close (although recently Square has with Outriders, a solid entry into an already packed Loot/Shoot-GAS genre) to really making Bungie sweat. Fortnight is for Battle Royale what Destiny is for L/S, COD is the online 1st person shooter game to play, NBA 2K has no challengers, FIFA is still king (even though Winning Eleven/PES isn’t half bad, and sometimes has better game mechanics and less glitching), Forza is the game for driving sims (Sorry, GT fans, but have you really played Forza and Forza Horizon, the best arcade racer out there?). The list can continue, but I think that’s enough examples for now.

Xbox is turning that idea on its head, or making it their own by offering Game Pass, making the point that Games Are the service. They have been making leaps and bounds with getting Game Pass everywhere; PC, IOS, even pushing the limits of cloud gaming by making the service available on a website to stream. They literally crushed out any competition they have now (Thanks for playing, Stadia and Luna) by making their service second to none, along with the team up with EA’s online service, and the rumor that more services are to join soon.

The thing that makes Game Pass a threatening weapon for Xbox is that Microsoft has allowed Phil Spencer to approach developers and pay them for their production cost just to put it on Game Pass, making it so that any sales on top will be pure profit. This has made Game Pass very profitable for Microsoft in general, in a way that the number crunching video game “purists” cannot understand when thinking about Microsoft’s Xbox: Loyalty is Money. Game Pass breeds loyalty to it. The perfect example: I am in the middle of moving to a new city. I have not played video games in almost 2 months to prepare, and I have another month before I am all done with this move. That is 3 months of me paying for ultimate ($14.99/month), and I have not played any games, but I would be a fool to cancel my subscription with all the game options I have to play, and all the ways I am able to play them. Plus, what seems like almost every week they are making it easier for me to access the service.

The Cold War

In the short run, I think most game companies will go for what Sony’s offering with timed exclusivity, but once they see games begin to do so well on the Game Pass service, like Outriders had done, or the upcoming Flight Simulator or anything that Microsoft publishes on their own, or even MLB: The Show, a Sony San Diego production, (if you can afford it, I urge Xbox people to buy that game as well. No pressure, though), it will allow people to see the potential of Game Pass. Besides, Xbox could just walk up to each large company and indie developer and say “Hey, not only was MLB:TS free, but a bunch of people bought the Jackie Robinson edition to play early. Also, this many people just bought the game in general so not only will we pay for your production cost, but you’ll get money on top of that so why are you selling timed exclusivity when you can just release it at the same time on our service and make at least double your money?” This will inevitably lead to Microsoft becoming tough with publishers who are selling timed exclusivity to rival consoles. They will have to push a lower profit share with them, stating that they have waited 6 months or 8 months or a year then put it in game pass and just give you whatever scraps come at you, which will be quite a bit because Game Pass acolytes are as serious about gaming as Sony fans, even if the game comes out a year later, and just to support the game makers they will sink money into it on top of playing it for free.

This gaming generation is past the console wars, and it is past the reset. Game Pass, the ultimate Games Are Service machine, has seen to that by going multigenerational and multi-platform (pc, Android, console, browser, and soon post beta IOS), so that fanboys on both sides must recognize that this is the end of those days. The last generation was the last generation of console wars; after that, it is all about service. Game Pass is the service, so what will PlayStation do to answer the call other than focusing on big AAA blockbusters that get released every year or so, while filling the void with smaller indies that are being released on multiple platforms. Believe me, this tactic will carry them, because it has carried other consoles in the past (this is Nintendo’s bread and butter, to be honest), but will it get them to the end of the cold war, or force Playstation to usher in a new age of gaming?

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