Sony’s PlayStation 4 is the most successful video game console of this generation. The PS4 has an amazing lineup of diverse exclusives, the biggest multiplatform titles and a devoted, passionate fan base that has seen the console sell in excess of 75 million units worldwide since its release in 2013. The machine saw some fantastic games released last year and the lineup for 2018 looks arguably stronger. Sony’s tagline “This is for the Players” certainly fits.
Microsoft’s Xbox One is the PS4’s biggest rival. There IS the Nintendo Switch, a hybrid handheld console that has seen incredible first year sales. But despite numerous high quality exclusives, many gamers see the Switch as a machine that competes in a different market sector and for the hardcore gamer at least, is likely to be viewed as a console to compliment a PS4 or Xbox One rather than a primary gaming device. This is due to the Switch’s weaker hardware and lack of multiplatform support.
The Xbox One is the underdog this generation, with global sales estimated at roughly half that of the PS4. The Xbox launched at the back end of 2013 amidst much controversy. Don Mattrick the head of Xbox at the time marketed the console as an all singing, all dancing media box rather than a games machine, This strategy did not resonate well with gamers. In addition Microsoft’s proposed and controversial Digital Rights Management policies caused uproar in the gaming community with many users viewing the move as an infringement on their rights as consumers.
Facing a backlash from fans and negative press from industry figures, the team at Xbox were forced to completely revise their plans for the console. The One never released with the proposed DRM and not a single user was affected, However the One launched with Kinect something that many gamers did not want, its inclusion driving the One’s price higher than the PS4 despite it being the weaker system. For many gamers this was the straw that broke the camel’s back and many 360 users jumped ship to PlayStation.
Since this time many consumers have viewed the Xbox One in a negative light despite efforts by Microsoft to change this perception. Don Mattrick is gone and Xbox have a new man at the helm, the infinitely more likeable Phil Spencer. Spencer has turned the tides for Xbox by bringing the focus back to the games. Since the arrival of Spencer Microsoft have released two new versions of the console, The S is the new base model, smaller than the original and capable of 4K Bluray playback and the X – at the time of writing the most powerful console in the world.
That’s not all that has changed under the new management, Microsoft have worked hard to bring backwards compatibility from two generations of Xbox Consoles to the One at no extra cost to the user, some of which are enhanced in 4K. This is an incredible feat of software engineering considering the architecture of past Xbox consoles, and one that has earnt the company much goodwill from gamers and the industry.
PlayStation’s equivalent feature is PlayStation Now, a game streaming service based on the Gaikai backend acquired by Sony in 2012. PS Now allows PS4 users to pay a monthly fee to stream games in much the same way as Nvidia’s Geforce NOW. The technology behind it is far less accomplished and has clearly seen little financial investment by Sony since it’s implementation. This has led to criticism of Sony’s approach to backwards compatibility, with many users viewing the service as anti consumer when compared to Microsoft’s, even if a player already owns a physical copy of a game, the charge is not wavered, Customers are essentially paying twice to play a game they may already own on the service – something not really consistent with the tagline “This is for the Players”.
In 2017, Microsoft introduced Gamepass, A monthly subscription service that allows it’s subscribers to download and play three generations of selected Xbox titles for a low monthly subscription fee. Currently the service offers over 100 games including many of the consoles biggest exclusives highlights include Halo 5, Sunset Overdrive, Gears of War 4, Resident Evil, Bayonetta, as well as many more quality titles from the Xbox One, 360 and original Xbox back catalogue. In addition to this on January 23rd this year Xbox announced that ALL it’s first party exclusives would come to Gamepass, this means that subscribers will get Sea of Thieves, State of Decay 2, Crackdown 3 and Ori and the Will of the Wisps on the day of release for the low monthly fee of £7.99/$9.99. This represents incredible value for money, full price games on the day of release for less than $10 per month.
Gamepass has been viewed by the community as extremely pro consumer and all but the most delusioned of fanboys have recognised this, praise for the service is unanimous. It is no coincidence that Game Pass coupled with backwards compatibility and the introduction of the X has seen Microsoft’s year on year sales grow strongly whereas in recent months year on year growth of the PlayStation 4 has plateaued. Now I don’t imagine for one second that Xbox will catch or overtake PS4 in sales this generation. Five years of solid sales is a bridge too far for Xbox. But we only have to look at last generation and the Xbox 360 to see how a few small mistakes can lead to big changes in which brand is king.
Microsoft started last generation in front. The 360 was first to market and had a strong lineup of games. By the time Sony released the PS3 in 2006, the 360 had a huge install base of users. The PS3 was difficult to program for due to its CPU architecture, which led to early ports that were inferior on the console. An example being Platinum Games Bayonetta, which ran at 60fps on 360 and sub 30fps on PS3. The Cell architecture is not weak but development tools at the time struggled to optimise for it, especially as the 360 and it’s vastly different architecture was often the lead platform for development.
Sony took matters into their own hands and decided that rather than trying to compete on the 360’s terms, they would instead invest in their own studios and exclusivity deals, a smart strategy that delivered unique games not available on any other platform and coined the phrase “Only on PlayStation”.
This strategy turned the tides for Sony at a time when the company’s other divisions were struggling. Games such as Littlebig Planet, Yakuza, God of War, Metal Gear Solid and the Uncharted series saw sales of the PS3 rocket. It was this innovation that saw the PS3 overtake the 360 by the end of the generation and helped turn the tides of Sony Corp as a company. Fast forward to 2018 and now it is Microsoft that is innovating, Sony still has an incredible lineup of games but with the release of the X they no longer have the edge in terms of power, people will tell you otherwise but in the age of 4K displays, high frame rates and Virtual Reality, power IS important.
So what can Sony do to match the innovation of Game Pass and backwards compatibility? The obvious answer at least in my opinion is for Sony to introduce it’s own Game Pass style subscription service, one that includes PS Now.
The PlayStation 4 certainly has the software, with an unparalleled library of first and third party titles. Games like Persona 5, Nier Automata, Street Fighter V and Uncharted 4 are critically acclaimed and have won numerous awards and would make fantastic additions to a subscription service. If Sony were to offer a premium version of PS Plus, one that includes a subscription service, online access, as well as PS Now they would blow the competition out of the water, and prove to the world that their tagline “This is for the Players” is well deserved.
Sixty dollar games are expensive, especially in this time of additional downloadable content. Offering the base versions of games as part of a subscription service would allow publishers to sell additional DLC without the customer feeling ripped off, the inclusion of the unpopular PS Now as bonus would simply serve to add value to the service and alleviate much of the criticism of Sony’s handling of backwards compatibility. Sony is in a strong enough position not to have to offer it’s first party exclusives as an incentive, but if they did this it would cement their position as the clear winners of this generation not only in sales but also in innovation and value, leaving the company in the strongest possible position to enter the next generation with the PlayStation 5.
If there’s one thing that history has taught us, it’s that innovation in the industry is more important than anything else. Whether that innovation comes in the form of games, virtual reality, power, features or simply as value to the customer, companies need to evolve or they will die. You only have to look at the rise of Netflix and the demise of Blockbuster to see the truth in this.
Sony has delivered many innovative games this generation, but in the face of ever more consumer focussed moves by Xbox and the rise of digital media as an ever more popular and convenient way to consume our entertainment, how long will this be enough?
You’ve heard my thoughts, but what about yours? Would Sony benefit from the introduction of a Subscription style service, or are you afraid that digital only services will lead to the downfall of physical media and take choice away from the consumer?
Let us know in the comments section below.
Written by @Bzzap for Nintendo Fan