The console war is over | Opinion

Xbox, PlayStation and Nintendo all want different things from the next generation -- is it really a war if everyone wins?

The rhetoric and debate around the 'console war' can be quite entertaining.

Not when it gets divisive and hateful. Memes and jibes are one thing, but wishing abject failure and bankruptcy upon hardware makers is something else entirely.

For me, it's a bit like being a sports fan. There are always those that take it too far, but mostly it's about cheering on your favourite team, teasing rival fans, and getting frustrated whenever your club sells their best player, pretends their latest signing is bigger than it is, or when they score own goal after own goal.

This is a console transition year, and as such the console war rhetoric is at its peak. Whether in the media, amongst consumers or within the industry itself, with groups over-analysing every decision and the potential repercussions on those all-important hardware sales figures. Yet this time, more than with any previous generation, this 'war' is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

"Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo are all playing the same game but competing for different trophies"

Let's take Xbox. The company's current strategy is really not compatible with trying to out-sell PlayStation 5. The company is making all of its first-party exclusive games available via PC, its streaming service xCloud, and -- for a few years at least -- its current (and much cheaper) Xbox One device.

Xbox boss Phil Spencer told us earlier this month that he finds it "counter to what gaming is all about" to "force someone to buy my specific device on the day I want them to go buy it".

The fact that there will be no fully exclusive Series X games takes away one of the big motivating factors behind buying the console. It has also sparked a conversation around whether first-party studios will feel able to make the most of the new machine if they need to keep the old one in mind when developing their games. Microsoft feels strongly that it won't be an issue, but even if it is, in the minds of Spencer and his team, that small negative is more than offset by the benefits of being available across platforms.

Halo:Infinite will be accessible via Xbox One, Series X, PC and xCloud

Halo:Infinite will be accessible via Xbox One, Series X, PC and xCloud

This position makes strategic sense when considering Xbox's focus on growing its Game Pass subscribers, which now total more than 10 million customers. If Microsoft turns around to those 10 million people and says that they have to buy an expensive new box in-order to access the next set of big Xbox games, that might result in decent console sales, but will likely hurt its subscriber base. That isn't an acceptable outcome to the company.

Now compare Spencer's comments to those of his counterpart at PlayStation, Jim Ryan, who told us last year: "One of our tasks is to take that PS4 community and transition it to PS5 at a scale and pace that we've never delivered before."

"Right now, the days of console makers fighting over the same thing is over"

PlayStation wants to get its PS5 install base up quickly, and then release huge AAA games that have been purpose built for the platform. It feels the most effective business model for doing this is to sell these games to as many players as possible, individually, and at a price that will probably be around $60. It's a strategy that has served the company very well over the past seven years. Putting these exclusive games into a multi-platform subscription service on the day they're released, like Xbox does, is not compatible with that objective.

Both Sony and Microsoft are competing, much in the same way that all forms of entertainment compete with one another. Halo: Infinite is going up against Spider-Man: Miles Morales, just as it is Netflix, the cinema, comic books and going down the pub. Xbox and PlayStation are both releasing consoles at the end of the year with some big games on them, so they are certainly rivals.

The big exclusive PS5 games require gamers to buy a PS5

The big exclusive PS5 games require gamers to buy a PS5

Yet what success looks like to these companies is different. One is prioritising selling a service, whereas the other is prioritising the device. One of the reasons Phil Spencer cited Google as the biggest competitor to Xbox is not because PlayStation is suddenly insignificant, but because Google's current strategy is more in-line with what Microsoft is trying to do.

Then there's Nintendo. One question we've been asked in recent weeks is what Nintendo has planned to counter PS5 and Series X. The answer is nothing, and not because we believe it has no games coming out (although it'd be great if it announced something at some point). Nintendo has avoided going head-to-head with its fellow console makers since the GameCube. Its focus is with slightly different audiences, such as family gamers, kids, parents and lapsed players. Microsoft and Sony dabble in these areas with IP like Minecraft and LittleBigPlanet, but ever since they abandoned concepts like Kinect, Move and portable gaming, they've largely left Nintendo's segment of the industry alone.


Nintendo is focused on growing its character IP

Nintendo has slightly different priorities, too. Console sales are important to it, but of more importance is the growth of its core IP, hence its expansion into the smartphone business. Outside of pure hardware sales, some of the most pleasing results for Nintendo during the Switch years has been the growth of almost all of its brands, including Animal Crossing, Zelda, Super Mario and associated IP such as Pokémon. It's through the success of these properties that Nintendo has been able to co-develop fancy LEGO sets, animated movies and theme parks. A Christmas that focuses on the 35th anniversary of Super Mario (which is what is expected from the firm) is very much in-keeping with that vision.

Of course, they're still going head-to-head in some big areas. Yet to return to the sports metaphor: they're all playing the same game but competing for different trophies. Everyone's win conditions are different. This Christmas, Sony may well have the best-selling new console in PS5, Game Pass could cement its place as the biggest game subscription service with millions of new subscribers, and Nintendo will inevitably sell tens of millions of Mario games. And all three will be absolutely delighted with that.

I am already picturing the painful online arguments, where one group is bragging about console sales, the other is celebrating subscribers, and the other is pointing out how much bigger their brands are. Is it really a war if everyone wins?

These differing strategies actually support the wider business. Xbox making subscriptions a viable model, PlayStation creating these cinematic, high-end experiences, and Nintendo engaging younger and older audiences, is something that supports the overall console ecosystem, which they can all benefit from.

There will be gamers choosing between Series X, PS5 and Switch this Christmas. Super Mario, Spider-Man and Halo will all be fighting over people's time and money. And in the future strategies will inevitably change.

But right now, the days of console makers fighting over the same thing is over. The console war, at least as we have known it, is done.

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Latest comments (11)

Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation LtdA year ago
Microsoft requiring their first party titles to continue to support their last gen platform isn't a small negative, it's a huge mistake. It sends the message that they're not confident that they can quickly build an install base for the new platform to sufficiently subsidise it.

I'm sure they'll change course once the price of the Series X comes down, but that's probably not much consolation to the studios having to gut their ambitious designs and crunch to optimise for obsolete hardware.
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@Robin Clarke: But Robin, Xbox isn't about selling a device. They're about selling a subscription platform. And they've got over 10 million gamers on their current devices, forcing them to buy another one is risking losing a huge number of those.

You wouldn't get Netflix telling all its customers they need a 4K TV to watch its future stuff.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing A year ago
I was promised war to never change and now that. Different strategies, different target audiences and suddenly it is not a console war anymore? What are my insecurities to do, now that I no longer can make claims of superiority based on interchangeable product choices? Pretend to be too busy playing games in the first place, which is why I have Google Stadia running on my phone the entire time while it is in my pocket? That's how busy I am, no time to play, but wait, I bet you never considered doing that, because you are not a real gamer.

Adult console war is not the fun we once had, this much I can tell.
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Show all comments (11)
João Namorado Project Manager, Portugal TelecomA year ago
Microsoft's strategy is also leaning on the idea that no real "killer app" will be available for either of the two new consoles on their first 2 years. That could be true: in recent generations, console launch games usually look nicer but are hardly unattainable on the previous generation. It's far from a safe bet, though.
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DAVID FAHRENHOLZ Software Engineer/Game designer A year ago
I see Microsoft’s strategy as a focused continuation of their legacy software. Microsoft, like Sony are playing to their strengths and their installed user base. Sony is exhibiting typical Sony and by extension the Japanese philosophy that they have the superior product and are dominating the market and simply need to improve and innovate smartly.

Nintendo has always strived to follow a path of success through creativity and the deeper exploration of the idea. It does not alway play in the market well but since their days as strictly a playing cards company they fully embraced being a toy company. Many people forget that as the video game products take prominence in the brand identity now. You can not offer this opinion that the war is over in good conscience when it was over long ago when Nintendo revitalized the industry after consumers lost confidence in the burgeoning marketplace. From that point Nintendo went down a different path as both a revered brand and also one looking to enhance the playing of the game, not the gameplay itself.

The future seems muddled as we forage for normalcy today but I can see time when there will be four players in the market all carving out the pie. I am not speaking of Google as streaming is dead for the near future but an old player is coming back and will try to create a bridges offering between digital and physical.
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Bob Johnson Studying graphics design, Northern Arizona UniversityA year ago
I think MS and Sony are direct competitors. And are doing the same thing. The only real difference is MS emphasizes different points in their marketing than Sony. Sony has a subscription game service too. The reality is games in the last few past gens have been made for both old and new platform. Sony is now putting some PS4 exclusives on pc. Yes each are leveraging some of their strengths. But they are doing the same thing still.

Nintendo has been doing their own thing at least since the Wii/DS.
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Celticmulad Operator, cori informatiqueA year ago
@Robin Clarke:
I don't think MSFT are failing to build to the newer latest tech specs. I think they are building to run amazing on the latest hardware but also allow everyone to be still playable even for people with old hardware and desktops. Larger player base is also important and why would you make it exclusive? Just to stroke the egos of richer kids? Their egos don't need it. If they do let them buy a Sony and have few people to play against.
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Matthew Handrahan European Deputy Editor, GamesIndustry.bizA year ago
@Robin Clarke: I agree completely.

But perhaps the most striking thing about the showcase yesterday was how many of the games did not state they would be available on Xbox One.

We discuss it on the podcast, which will be available later today, but there is a clear signal that Microsoft's position on making first-party titles playable across all systems might not last that long. Maybe half of the games they showed yesterday were only marked for PC and Xbox Series X, which puts a question mark over what will be playable on Xbox One in even two years time.

Very confusing messaging from Microsoft.
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@Bob Johnson: They are definitely competitors. But the priorities are different. PlayStation Now is not the No.1 objetive for Sony, but Game Pass is for Xbox.
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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation LtdA year ago
I've now learnt that Forza and Fable *aren't* being required to ship Xbox One versions (vs. previous line "all MGS games for the first couple of years") so I guess they're having a bit of a rethink? Definitely confusing messaging!
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing A year ago
I argue Sony does not have to fear Microsoft for the reason that Microsoft are doing something so similar that Sony can trust in brand power and advertising to win.

If I was Sony, I would be more concerned about somebody such as Jensen Huang. Because that is somebody who is probably rather angry at the situation he is in. He opens his spam mail folder and finds an ad featuring a 1000€ gaming PC with his product inside. If you took out Jensen's product, it would not longer be a gaming PC. That is a nice position to be in. The stingy part is that the Nvidia part is a mere third of the sticker price. So there is a product that is gaming because of you, but two thirds of the sticker price do not enter your revenue pipeline.

These weird price imbalances tend to sort themselves out. Because trusting the customer to spend 666€ to then spend 333€ on top for your product is a luxury, which begs the question why the customer is not paying 1000€ on an Nvidia all in one product. We can now argue x86 licenses, feasibility etc. Or we can take note that Nvidia is picking up companies left and right, while Intel is the next competitor getting into graphics cards. Because they also have a history of thinking why there is still money going to people other than us in this PC (remember Nvidia memory controllers and on board graphics cards before they moved into the CPU?).

For now, this storm is way off for Sony and not likely to impact the first half of the PS5 life cycle. But the storm is somewhere out there and Microsoft leaning hard into software and subscription services might make them a beneficiary in the long run. Those Intel and Nvidia products will run Windows, they will also run Xbox so to speak.
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