There’s an arrogance trap that platform owners fall into each cycle. It’s been a relatively recent phenomenon, only within the past few decades; but it’s predictable, which makes one wonder why these pitfalls aren’t avoided in the first place.
The best examples of it are from the PlayStation 2 generation until now. Sony dominated with it’s PS2, and rolled into the Xbox 360/PS3 generation with balls the size of boulders. It asked $600 USD for the 60GB PS3. Knowing that this was a steep asking price for its console, the company actually suggested that gamers “get a second job” to afford this, admittedly stunning, piece of hardware.
Gamers found this messaging hard to swallow. At the time the PS3 released, the Xbox 360 had nearly a year head-start. It was more powerful (though it lacked a Blu-ray player) and much easier to program for developers. Also Xbox Live was a more robust and established online gaming service, whereas the PSN was in its infancy. In the end, Sony had to eat a lot of humble pie, launch several redesigns of its console — slimmer models with larger hard drives which helped the gaming giant claw its way back into the conversation. Somehow, miraculously, Sony won last gen; it barely crossed the finish line in first place, largely thanks to worldwide sales in emerging markets. But it was a wake-up call for Sony, and they listened.
There’s an argument to be made that Sony had the better first party titles last generation. With an alarming sales gap growing in the early years, Sony threw its muscle behind what it had that Microsoft did not: a large stable of talented first-party developers that knew how to properly harness the power of the Cell processor. Media Molecule gave us LittleBigPlanet, Naughty Dog gave birth to its Uncharted series, Sucker Punch turned away from Sly Cooper and delivered Infamous. On and on, Sony’s first-party studios crushed it.
Toward the end of the last generation Microsoft began to shutter or break ties with its first-party developers; many of whom turned multi-platform, such as Bioware and Bungie. Emboldened by the stupefying success of titles like Call of Duty, many third-party devs found a home on the 360. If you had a good multiplayer game, odds were that gamers were playing it via Xbox Live. And, save for a handful of titles, most games just ran better on Xbox 360. Current Xbox bosses and Microsoft execs appeared to underestimate the value of first-party developers or platform exclusives and began to lose that focus.
Heading into our current generation, Microsoft thought it owned the gaming space. Their arrogant messaging about the Xbox One at E3 2013 turned off gamers. What the hell was it? A gaming console? A living room entertainment system? We can’t share our games? We can’t sell them and buy new ones? A Kinect in every box?
Meanwhile, a humbled Sony turned to developers and enlisted the help of gaming legend Mark Cerny with one major question in mind: What kind of console would you like us to build for you? Once developers gave Sony direction, Cerny helped design a box with one mission: to be the baddest motherf*cker on the block. It’s a gaming console, suped-up and ready to party; and it cost $100 less that the Xbox One. Simple messaging (“For the Players”), great legacy of games, sweet-spot in the pricing — Sony hit the ground running in 2013 and haven’t looked back.
Much like Sony back in 2006, Microsoft had a lot of humble pie to eat. They promptly lost the Kinect, dropped the price, and started ushering out a lineup of exclusive games ON TIME. That last point is incredibly crucial to Xbox’s current success, and we’ll get back to it.
Sony had sexy on “PlayStation 4 First” deals with the likes of Destiny and Call of Duty; their third-party deals helped establish the platform as the place to play. The PS4’s lower cost proved that gamers aren’t necessarily loyal to one console; they go where their friends and other gamers go. Xbox One was too expensive for too long, and lost the early-adopter market that often dictates to where the crowd will migrate.
But Sony had a major problem brewing: Their first-party developers were unable to get their games out on-time. Title after title missed its initial launch date, eagerly-anticipated games were getting pushed back, frustrating gamers. In fact, Sony didn’t have one new first-party title on the shelves holiday 2014. When Driveclub launched, it was a disaster (though, to Evolution Studios‘ credit, they eventually fixed it and it was an amazing game). The Order: 1886 got pushed to February 2015. In fact, LittleBigPlanet 3 was the only first-party exclusive on Sony’s roster that fall. The same thing happened for holiday 2015: Uncharted 4 got pushed to May 2016, which hurt. This fall Sony’s only major exclusive is, unbelieveably, The Last Guardian — a title that will never live up to its 10-year-development-cycle hype.
Again, for the sake of fairness, Sony has released some fabulous exclusives over the past year and a half: Ratchet and Clank, Uncharted 4, Until Dawn all deserve praise. But Horizon Zero Dawn and Gran Turismo Sport are still MIA, and we have no idea when we’ll see the intriguing Days Gone.
Shortly after the Xbox One’s lackluster launch, Microsoft turned Xbox over to gaming industry veteran Phil Spencer — a savvy and brilliant move. Gamers love Spencer because they know he’s one of us. You have to wonder whether Spencer would have approved the Xbox One that launched, but that’s kind of a moot point now. The Xbox One S is the console he gave us, and its success speaks for itself.
Spencer refocused Microsoft, putting its muscle behind first party development. The Coalition got to work on Gears of War 4, 343 turned out a robust Halo 5, Turn 10 and Playground Games have alternated between stunning Forza and Forza Horizon releases, and we even saw some risk-taking with ReCore. We also have a long list of exclusives on the way with Crackdown 3 (eventually), Scalebound, a new Halo Wars game, and the highly anticipated Sea of Thieves finally being released to the public.
Last year we got backwards compatibility — which was probably the biggest announcement of E3 2015. In addition to this, Microsoft have promised that all games from this gen onward (including the back-compatible games) will work with future consoles.
The barrage of exclusives coupled with a new, gorgeous, less-expensive console that has a 4k Blu-ray player and can upscale has made gamers sit up and take notice. And, though Microsoft won’t publicize it, the Xbox One S actually runs some games a bit better.
And then there’s Project Scorpio, not a new console generation, but an iteration of power and muscle-flexing. There’s nothing Sony has in the immediate pipeline that will be able to compete.
Taking all that into consideration, it’s easy to see why Xbox has outsold PlayStation for the fourth month straight in the United States. This is a big deal. Xbox has only outsold its competitor once or twice this gen, but never back-to-back. One month on top, it’s likely due to a sale or a major release; four months and you can detect a change in tides.
Some analysts suggest that many PS4 owners now feel the Xbox One S is attractive due to its price and the library of exclusives Microsoft has cultivated this generation. So we’re seeing some crossing of the isles. And then there’s the confusing messaging from Sony, with a PS4 redesign and a PS4 Pro coupled with the launch of PlayStation VR, which can cost $400 to $500 depending on whether you own Move controllers and a PS camera. It’s all exciting stuff for the early-adopters and gamers with disposable income, but that’s only a small fraction of Sony’s customer-base. Gamers want games on an affordable, powerful console. That’s it. $299 USD for the Xbox One S is a sweet spot that is paying dividends.
Has Xbox turned a corner? Only time will tell. But Spencer and Microsoft are playing the long game. To borrow a quote from Training Day, “This shit’s chess, it ain’t checkers.” Slow and steady wins the race. Now that Spencer is in the driver’s seat, I would be surprised to see Microsoft pull another arrogant move like E3 2013. The X is in good hands, and the future looks bright.