Sony and Microsoft couldn’t have more wildly different approaches to next-gen strategies, and that’s a good thing for gamers in more ways than they might realize. No longer competing against one another in a traditional sense, the changes in tactics don’t just mean good things for gamers; it also means the end of console wars as we know them in terms of marketing strategies.
A common way to measure the success of a new console, especially compared to direct competition, is hardware sales but what happens when console sales aren’t the main objective?
In terms of “console wars,” gamers, in general, have been almost programmed to view hardware sales as the end all be all metric of success. While hardware sales are a key component to success, there are many other factors that play a role, factors that are more prevalent in this upcoming generation than ever before. The key difference between Microsoft and Sony going forward is a change in their overall marketing and strategy to appeal to gamers on a deeper level while not abandoning the consoles, and sale performance measurements, as a whole.
As in any industry, competitors need to look at what their competition is doing and then a key choice is made: do we stay in line with what ‘they’ are doing, or do we do something different? Microsoft knows it has different strengths than Sony and the upcoming generation is a key point in them recognizing that publicly, and utilizing those differences to their utmost potential.
The road so far
The Xbox One era changed the name of the game when it came to the public perception of Xbox as a brand, and not always in the best way, especially in the months leading up to launch. The Xbox One marked a significant decline in Microsoft’s gaming presence in the console world due to its waning first-party lineup and scattered focus on being an all-in-one entertainment system. With a rocky launch due to a flimsy reveal and confusing messaging regarding backward compatibility, the beginning of the current generation had many doubting Xbox as a serious contender when going head-to-head with PlayStation 4. The rise and fall of the Kinect, the negative feedback regarding the first-party lineup, and a lack of clear direction surrounding launch also posed a significant threat to where Xbox fit in on the gaming spectrum.
Under the leadership of Phil Spencer, however, the Xbox brand is back on track, but Sony has never faltered when continuing its strong streak of impressive first-party games and narrative-focused adventures. Though Xbox has made significant leaps in the past two years with studio acquisitions in an effort to compete with exclusives, it boils down to two very different experiences in terms of what each platform has to offer. Instead of fighting against the grain to prove to the contrary, Microsoft is instead drastically pivoting in a new direction in terms of marketing, a direction that is not only smart but incredibly beneficial to gamers around the world.
Though the launch lineup is looking paltry for both Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5, a look at games coming down the pipeline is indicative of what the first year following launch will have to offer. When people think of Xbox as a whole, the most common knee-jerk reaction is to immediately think of gun-heavy games like Halo and Gears of War. Sony has more story-driven titles up its sleeve with Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Ratchet & Clank, Horizon: Forbidden West, God of War 2 (unconfirmed), and more, while Xbox continues to stay in the online shooter niche that it has created for itself, with a growing focus on single-player journeys and indie titles on the peripheral.
Microsoft’s change in direction means a big win for gamers
Where Sony is focused on the traditional metric of success with hardware and software sales as its marketing messaging to buyers, Microsoft instead is going in an entirely different direction with games as a service thanks to programs like Games Pass, backward compatibility, and xCloud.
With the Xbox Game Pass, fans of Team Green can pay a low monthly subscription to gain access to an ever-evolving lineup of titles varying from first-party exclusives to single-player wonders. The Xbox Game Pass library is always changing and constantly adding new additions as new titles launch, making it an investment that consistently pays itself off.
With several major studio acquisitions under the Xbox belt over the past two years and more still on the way, Microsoft is poised to have a growth in their first-party exclusives as well but even more than that, Xbox Game Pass owners will reap the benefits of those acquisitions at launch. Furthering that point, Microsoft also recently announced that EA Play’s membership service is merging with the Xbox Game Pass as no additional cost, expanding the accessible library even further.
It’s important to note that PlayStation also has a similar service with PlayStation Now, but the difference between the two is visibility. PlayStation Now has more games than the Xbox Games Pass, but in this instance it can be considered quantity over quality with it being older games. The older games appeal is also covered by Xbox inherently with backward compatibility. Microsoft is pouring more resources into various services, especially that of the beloved backward compatibility feature, whereas Sony seems content with leaning their more aggressive strategy towards the hardware and hardware-exclusives.
Another major change in the Microsoft vision began during the tail end of this generation, setting the stage for what’s ahead in an incredibly tactful way. Where Sony is mostly still focused on console exclusives — again, because of the hardware metric focus — Microsoft has leaned into the mantra of “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
Microsoft has continued to bridge the gap between the Xbox platform and PC, putting its first-party exclusives into the hands of PC gamers. Not only with first-party exclusives making their way over onto Steam, such as the Halo Master Chief Collection, but also in terms of cross-platform availability so that console and PC players can play together.
The company has also made a few surprising moves with another competitor in terms of expansion: Nintendo. From crossover Nintendo Xbox experiences, Super Smash Bros. Ultimate conversations, and the arrival of Xbox-like achievements, Microsoft is continuing on in a direction that fades away the barriers between different platforms, instead focusing on gaming as a whole versus gaming on a particular piece of equipment.
It is because of that expansion beyond Microsoft borders that it is easy to see that the mega-company is completely changing the rules when it comes to future generations. So much so, that Sony has finally begun to relinquish a little of their control on exclusives as evident with Horizon Zero Dawn making its way over to computers in an adaptive move prompted by Microsoft’s expansion, though on a much smaller scale.
With first-party games now on PC, the focus continues to pull away from Microsoft’s reliance on console sales. While they naturally still want to sell the console itself, they know that to thrive in the years to come they need to offer something special. It’s because of this that we must reiterate the differences between next-gen strategies in terms of marketing: hardware vs. service.
xCloud takes some of the biggest games on the market and brings them into the hands of mobile devices in a way that maintains integrity without having to lug around a massive system.
Project xCloud, when first revealed, impressed gamers with its high-quality mobile experience for some of the biggest console games to hit the library. Being able to play Gears 5 on the go had a special appeal to many, especially so for hardcore Xbox fans, but another aspect of this feature has a payoff that many might not realize at first.
Back in the day, I used to do marketing with companies like Barnes & Noble to outreach consumers on a global scale. I will never forget when I was working on a project rooted in Recife, Brazil, and learned how incredibly different the pricing of electronics was over there. A console for us that costs $400 can cost up to 1,300 USD in Brazil, and that’s not uncommon in many areas worldwide. Consoles, cell phones, laptops — the price difference is astronomical for many, so buying every console on the market is a lot harder to do.
With xCloud gaming, mobile users can have access to over 100 titles without having to spend $1000+ for different systems. This makes the barrier of entry into gaming, including next-gen, a lot lower in areas normally used to massive price spikes.
PlayStation continues to shine
With Microsoft focusing on their strengths to offer important substance in terms of gaming in the future, Sony recognizes where PlayStation’s strengths lie: exclusives. Exclusives sell consoles, consoles translate into physical sales, and physical sales continue on the traditional metric for success. Hardware = clear-cut indicators of user participation.
With the acquisition of Insomniac Games, which also gained the company rights to the previous Xbox exclusive Sunset Overdrive, and plenty of in-house games currently in production, the PlayStation 5 is set up to succeed with wildly varied gaming experiences. Become an adventurer in Horizon: Forbidden West, transform into Miles Morales with the upcoming Spider-Man adventure – even relive a fan-favorite with the upcoming Demon’s Souls remake; there is a lot that Sony has to offer for PlayStation 5 players.
Sony has always pushed to serve players high-quality first-party exclusives, and that’s not going to be changing any time soon. It’s that strategy that ties into physical console sales that plays to their strengths, much like Microsoft is learning to do through services.
Just because PlayStation is sticking to a more traditional method of launch and maintenance into the next generation doesn’t make their strategy any less effective than that of Microsoft. And Microsoft’s pivot into a service-driven model doesn’t make it any less of a gaming platform than its PlayStation counterpart. For the first time, Sony and Microsoft have two incredibly different marketing strategies right from the gate, making its progress through the next cycle more effective and more clear-cut for gamers looking to experience everything they can in the games space.
Microsoft and Sony couldn’t be more different in terms of next-gen goals regarding representation, and gamers are set to win when companies begin to become innovative in their approach.