Consoles aren’t dead, but the console war is over

This year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), still the most important press moment for video games in the year, could have been big. We’re near the end of the eighth console generation and Microsoft and Sony could have gone head to head. But this time around the transition into a new generation won’t be as clear as before.

Sony unveiled their next console (presumably PlayStation 5) through a Wired article a few months ago. It’s a rather boring way to announce the next big thing in gaming. The company probably isn’t ready yet to show the device and all of its features and is not even present at this E3. Microsoft talked about its next Xbox, Project Scarlett for now, during a media briefing a few days ago.

While the specifications Microsoft talked about are incredibly similar to what Sony unveiled first, the overall strategy seems to be different. Microsoft hasn’t sold nearly as many Xbox One consoles compared to PS4s (41 million versus 91 million). Although the Xbox One X released in 2017 is currently the most powerful console available, it wasn’t enough to close the gap with Sony’s slightly less powerful PS4 Pro.

But Microsoft doesn’t really seem to care too much about that. In an interview with The Verge, head of Xbox Phil Spencer said:

“I don’t need to sell any specific version of the console in order for us to reach our business goals. The business isn’t how many consoles you sell. The business is how many players are playing the games that they buy, how they play. So if somebody bought an original Xbox One from us on launch day, and they’re buying and playing games, I don’t need to sell them an S. I don’t need to sell them an X.”
That’s because Microsoft is much more focused on services and games. Game Pass is their Netflix-like subscription platform, which lets you play first and third party games for $10 a month. It now also has a more premium version, which extends the service to PC. Speaking of PC, most Microsoft-published games follow the “Xbox Play Anywhere” model, which means that when you buy a compatible game, you can play it on both Xbox consoles and PC at no additional cost.

Also later this year, Microsoft will debut xCloud, which essentially means you can play Xbox games on your phone, streamed from either an Azure data center or your own console at home.
All Xbox One games will be playable on Scarlett and all existing accessories will be compatible as well. But what remains to be seen is whether or not Scarlett will be a part of the Xbox One family of consoles. Will Scarlett games be playable on Xbox One X, which was released not even two years ago?

In terms of hardware architecture, consoles are more like PCs than ever before, so technically it should be doable, so it’s much more of a business decision. Considering what Phil Spencer is saying, I wouldn’t really even be surprised. However, from a psychological point of view, PS5 would immediately sound more desirable than “Xbox One (whatever)”, just because it’s clearly newer than PS4.

Nintendo does whatever it wants and has found success with Switch, which was released mid-cycle due to disappointing Wii U sales. Google Stadia is a new streaming-only gaming platform and Microsoft seems to care more about subscriptions and services. Sony seems to be a bit behind other parties when it comes to cloud gaming and attractive services and used to have a conservative view on things cross-platform multiplayer, but proved it has a healthy number of first party studios capable of making great games And with the hardware being so similar it really comes down to software.

There will be more competition than ever, but there are enough signs that this upcoming generation isn’t about getting the most boxes in people’s homes anymore.
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