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Diverging paths: Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo's radically different visions | Opinion

After decades of platform holders releasing similar hardware, we should celebrate their new, wildly different visions of gaming's future

We're talking about new hardware from all of the biggest players in the console space this week -- but what different stories we're telling.

Sony undoubtedly stole most of the thunder with its unveiling of selected details of the next-generation PlayStation in a Wired interview with Mark Cerny, but new hardware from both Microsoft and Nintendo is in the spotlight as well; a cheaper Xbox One S that drops the Blu-Ray drive from the former, and a few more hints at a pair of forthcoming Switch revisions from the latter.

Mindful of the fact that this is a very early reveal and there's much we still don't know, I don't want to describe the PlayStation hardware Cerny demonstrated as "conventional," but it's certainly evolutionary. It's a console very much within the lineage of those Sony has produced so far; it will of course be embedded in a services ecosystem that few would have imagined when the original PlayStation rolled out in the mid-1990s, but at its heart this promises to be a powerful, meaningful upgrade to a console paradigm we've all known and understood for over 30 years.

"The traditional console market, as it has been for such a long time, is now in essence the PlayStation market"

By contrast, Microsoft and Nintendo are moving in quite different directions. Microsoft's removal of physical media support from the new Xbox One S is both a statement of intent and a toe in the water. It speaks to the company's vision of Xbox as a gaming platform that spans across devices, powered through a combination of local hardware and Azure cloud services, with physical Xbox consoles being just one mode of access for an Xbox "experience" that's equally at home on a laptop, a tablet or another smart device.

In such a world, the notion of physical media that you stick into a standalone console is not only retrograde, it's outright restrictive. I wouldn't go so far as to say that Microsoft's true next-gen device, whenever it appears, will dispense with physical media entirely, but it's certainly testing the waters and showing clearly where its preference lies.

Nintendo, for its part, is off doing its own Nintendo stuff -- working on new iterations of the Switch that would variously be downsized and possibly ruggedized (a more kid-friendly device than the existing hardware, in other words), and powered-up and more advanced, while also quietly slipping out news that it's working with Tencent to launch the console in the Chinese market. Nintendo has hit a formula that works exceptionally well and which allows it to build a significant market while dodging getting caught in a horsepower arms-race with the other platform holders. It's a trick the company has pulled off before, but the Switch is thus far its most successful execution of the idea.

"That makes this, in many ways, one of the most exciting times I can recall for game consoles"

Given these divergent directions, one might be forgiven that thinking Sony ends up looking a little staid; here's Nintendo and Microsoft, off reinventing what game hardware looks like, how it works and where and how we play games, while Sony toils away on a better, faster version of the same kind of box we've had under our TVs for decades.

Yet that's not really a fair or reasonable way to look at the story. If anything, it's a testament to Sony's success that it dominates the traditional console model so utterly that both its major rivals are effectively ceding that territory. There will be a next Microsoft console and a next Nintendo console, but they won't compete directly with the next Sony console; the traditional console market, as it has been for such a long time, is now in essence the PlayStation market.

Xbox has made perhaps the boldest move, but all three console strategies could find a large audience

Xbox has made perhaps the boldest move, but all three console strategies could find a large audience

That makes this, in many ways, one of the most exciting times I can recall for game consoles. After many years in which the platform holders often felt like they were releasing systems that were carbon copies of one another, separated only by vaguely different controllers, some software exclusives and a bevy of Digital Foundry graphs, we're now approaching a point where each platform holder is espousing a completely different vision of the future of video games.

"What we might be seeing -- albeit only in its earliest, tentative phase -- is effectively the end of the whole 'console war' entirely"

Those visions compete, of course; many people will find themselves musing over whether Sony's more traditional console or Microsoft's service-led multi-device console platform concept is more appealing to them. They don't, however, compete in the same way that past consoles have; many people will find a place in their lives for more than one of these different approaches to gaming, and each of them will undoubtedly open up new markets and demographics that are simply inaccessible to the others. The potential to seriously grow the console market has slackened off in recent years, but the divergent strategies of the big players will open up a world of new possibilities on multiple fronts.

Indeed, what we might be seeing -- albeit only in its earliest, tentative phase -- is effectively the end of the whole "console war" entirely. With very different visions on offer -- different audiences, different usage cases, perhaps even whole new types of software that just couldn't be done on other platforms -- the need for tribalism to sell a console as a brand, to distinguish between boxes under the TV that, honestly, everyone who isn't a gamer is just going to call "Nintendos" anyway, will fade into the background somewhat.

We could easily find ourselves in a world, not too far down the line, where platform holders find themselves more interested in the complementary parts of their ecosystems than in the competitive aspects. Weirder things have happened -- think of how the level of cooperation between Microsoft and Apple nowadays would have sounded to us back in the mid-90s. Even after the dramatic "rescue" of Apple by Microsoft in 1997, the extent to which Microsoft treats macOS and iOS as top-tier platforms today would have been unimaginable. Is a similar détente between some or all of Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft so hard to visualise?

The assumption for a long time in some parts of the industry has been that the console paradigm would disappear with a bang; an implosion of console sales and a big, messy industry collapse, with companies trying to ride it out on emergent platforms like smartphones. The success of PlayStation 4 and latterly of Switch has made it clear that the implosion, if it's coming, sure as hell isn't here yet.

Now the diverging visions of the platform holders are suggesting an entirely different way forward; not the death of the console, but the evolution of the console and the diversification of its form and concepts. And with it, perhaps, a return to the kind of market growth the core industry used to boast about in the 1990s and 2000s.

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Latest comments (4)

Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing A month ago
While the total amount of console players may be very healthy, it has been a while since an entry level sensation attracting a new generation of gamers really happened on a console first. MMOs, f2p, Minecraft, eSport, Mobas, Card Games, Battle Royale, Streaming, all those things happened elsewhere and then 'also' happened on console, often in a very limited form. Almost always looked upon as the inferior experience. In contrast to motion controls, those things stayed relevant to this day.

In terms of tent-poles, you have to hand it to mobile and Windows 10. Consoles were very successful covering that up financially with the, excuse me, innovation of the lootbox. But if you look for people shouting 'this is the defining gaming experience that brought me into gaming', chances are, you will not find them on consoles. At best, it is people saying that they wanted a certain type of experience and the console was the one to deliver it within the budget they are willing to spend. Hence renting out these types of games along with the processing power to compute it and targeting this specific market by means of Google Stadia suddenly looks attractive.

Which brings us to the curious case of Microsoft. The more entry level Windows gaming gains ground on the Playstation, the more Microsoft has the chance to be disruptive by just getting it over with and rolling out Windows 10 on Xbox X. Microsoft stubbornly fight Sony on their ground, with the Sony business model, when Microsoft could make Sony fight on their ground. Sure, licensing fees for Xbox and total marketplace control means it made financial sense, but while Microsoft may have a few Dollars to lose, they also have the power the pull the rug of cultural relevancy away from under Sony's feet. Look at the list in the first paragraph, this happened on a Microsoft platform. Sony may look big, but a lot of it are remakes, none of it are new generation cultural sensations.
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I'm not entirely sure one company providing a console with a disc drive and digital services and another intent on providing a console without a disc drive exclusively on digital services is sufficient to prove the term radically different vision, Sony is doing everything that MS is doing its just providing a disc drive as well, I suspect disc drives as optional will be a mainstay from now on, but due to the fact that high speed reliable internet is still some way off for a great deal of the world (and even in rural areas of G7 countries) it seems very bad for business to drop them entirely, as MS discovered to its chagrin during the Xbox One vs PS4 marketing war, I admit Nintendo is doing its own thing, but that's hardly a new trait.

If anything they tried all these ideas out round the Xbox One launch time, and sure its a different vision than sony, but it was an out-of-touch boardroom vision, handed out from on high by those who probably never touched a computer game before, and was not received well from start to finish granting Sony a great boon in this hardware generation, MS may not always be the most in touch company about, but I suspect even they will learn from past failures, at least if its the very last one they made, there's quite a big difference between providing a version of ones hardware without a disc drive as an option and removing them entirely from your platform, but using the term radical is still a term to far, it would be if sony for instance did not do digital services and games also, but as it also does, the different between the two are more a matter of the number of customers you can cater to, one being rather more inclusive then the other, especially in emerging markets.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Alexander McConnell on 19th April 2019 4:54pm

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Bob Johnson Studying graphics design, Northern Arizona UniversityA month ago
MS is going to do the exact same thing as Sony.

The digital X1 is just a way to get the cost down farther as that platform heads into the sunset in order to reach the customers that haven't bought in yet. It probably is also a means of combating the used game market. The thought being customers buying in this late buy a larger percentage of used games given they are the most price sensitive and given they are highly likely to be buying older games at this point more than new.

IF the digital X1 was a test for customer acceptance of digital to help determine the direction of the the next Xbox then they would have brought it out a few years ago. ...because the Xbox core audience already bought their consoles at this point. Nevermind MS along with publishers have the data already of how many buy digital. IT might be a test though to see how the many of the most price sensitive households have robust enough home internet connections to go digital. Although again this data is probably already available to a large degree.

Nintendo stopped playing the spec game since at least 2006 when the Wii came out. So that's nothing new.

The cloud games services are not a way to compete wtih consoles. I think the idea there is to try and reach new customers with the same games. I have my doubts about it because, as I've read, where is CoD's next $1 billion going to come from? Everyone that wanted to play the game I think has played it. I doubt the barrier to more people playing these games is purely monetary and, besides, consoles during xmas already get really cheap as in sub-$200 the past few xmas's no to mention bundled with games. The real barrier is time and desire. Cloud gaming won't cure that. And in the long run cloud gaming is not going to be cheaper but more expensive.

ON top of it cloud gaming isn't going to appeal to gamers because the experience will be worse overall not to mention (again) more expensive in the long run.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Bob Johnson on 19th April 2019 7:49pm

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Richard Browne Head of External Projects, Digital Extremes28 days ago
Cloud / Streaming games SHOULD be a way of targeting a new larger audience with new content, I don't necessarily see it as an attempt to directly replace console hardware. At the end of the day a gamer is going to want the best experience and that can't come from a streamed game ; especially when you're talking competitive games. Sony and Microsoft's visions don't diverge at all, they're both aiming at the 150-200m people who buy consoles. Nintendo target people within that realm who are happy with a second console for Nintendo IP plus kids and family. Stadia can target a market beyond, but whether they can identify the content that opens that market (and the interface to do it) remains to be seen.
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