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Stacking the deck against the new console launches | Opinion

Halo Infinite's delay is a watershed moment -- between economic recession and development disruption, the climate is looking tougher than ever

As a wise and very bald man will eventually say, it is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose.

I've written several times this year about how the most remarkable feature of the run-up to this year's next-gen console launches is how adeptly both Sony and Microsoft are handling everything. No balls have been dropped, no feet firmly wedged into mouths, no vainglorious statements made that will come back to haunt everyone involved. Nobody's tried, inexplicably, to turn their console into a glorified viewing device for live TV, or claimed that it's a miracle wonderbox that consumers will gladly get second jobs to afford.

The future visions articulated for Xbox and PlayStation are quite divergent, but each of them has thus far been outlined adroitly and sensibly. Yet even though both companies are deftly navigating around the pitfalls of a pre-launch year, it's hard to escape the sense that the cards are increasingly stacked against them, and successful launches of the scale they would naturally desire may now be impossible. Put bluntly, 2020 might be shaping up to be the worst year imaginable in which to launch a new console -- let alone two of them.

"2020 might be shaping up to be the worst year imaginable in which to launch a new console -- let alone two of them"

This week's delay of Halo Infinite into 2021 feels like a watershed moment in this regard. Despite the necessarily upbeat nature of all the communication around the new console launches, it's been clear for some time that the COVID-19 pandemic was going to create a host of problems -- not least of which is the difficulty many developers have faced in hitting milestones and keeping to their schedules in the face of major disruption to their working practices.

Nintendo, with the comfort of being mid-cycle and having a solid back catalogue of major titles for the Switch, has given the strongest indication of any platform holder that everything is not okay with its development schedules, with a threadbare forward release schedule standing as testament to how uncertain the company is about when upcoming games will be ready to launch. Now Microsoft's hand has been forced -- and the cut it's been forced to make is in some ways the cruelest of all, depriving its new consoles of their most high-profile first-party title at launch.

"It's hard to imagine a scenario where PS5's launch isn't also being robbed of some key early titles"

On Sony's side, we never really had any confirmed launch titles, so we'll likely never know which of them have been pushed back by the year's events. But it's hard to imagine a scenario where PS5's launch isn't also being robbed of some key early titles, delayed due to the challenges of development in a pandemic.

After having managed its launch plans so carefully thus far, it must be a terrible blow for Microsoft to face launching its new hardware without any headline first-party software accompanying it. It's some compensation, at least, that the company's intense focus on back catalogue support and service offerings like Game Pass will now really come into its own, hopefully supporting the console through the early months until it gets its initial first-party blockbuster.

Nonetheless, it casts a certain tone on the Xbox Series X/S launches; for a lot of consumers, the arrival of the new hardware is now going to be an event more comparable to the launch of Xbox One X -- a better, more high-spec way to play your existing games -- than a "true" next gen launch event. Microsoft wanted to emphasise continuity in the Xbox line, for sure, but this isn't how it would have wanted it to play out.

"Nintendo's position, mid-cycle on a fabulously popular console of its own, is arguably a coup de grace here"

These problems with software line-up will only serve to exacerbate an already tough climate for the launches. The new consoles are going to be pretty expensive hardware; how expensive, of course, we don't actually know yet, but they're going to be launching right as a major demand-side recession bites into the economy. As consumers tighten their belts, delays to big software titles will just help them to make up their minds -- new console purchases can wait.

Nintendo's position, mid-cycle on a fabulously popular and successful console of its own, is arguably a coup de grace here, creating yet another headwind for more expensive and software-challenged hardware launching in the winter. If Nintendo can get its hardware supply chain sorted out, it's not hard to see the company emerging as the solid victor of yet another Christmas -- albeit one where demand is pretty depressed overall.

Sony hasn't committed to many launch exclusives right now, and it remains to be seen which games will be ready for the launch window

Sony hasn't committed to many launch exclusives right now, and it remains to be seen which games will be ready for the launch window

The real question, though, isn't how sales will look for the winter quarter this year -- it's what this will mean for the new consoles in the long term. Unless Sony has some amazing rabbit to pull out of the hat and has kept its high-profile first-party titles on schedule despite the pandemic, the set of circumstances we now face doesn't really advantage or disadvantage either company -- though it's worth noting that until Microsoft reveals a lot more detail about the Xbox Series' first- and third-party line-ups, it'll be hard to say for sure just how many eggs were riding around in that Halo Infinite basket.

"If consumers get the notion that the next-gen consoles are a bust at the outset it could take years for either of them to recover"

Nintendo will make hay, but for Sony and Microsoft, a limp opening salvo will arguably just push the competition back into 2021 and beyond. The new systems were always going to be constrained at the outset anyway, especially given likely supply chain problems in various areas, and by the time there's enough hardware for regular consumers to be able to buy a console without queuing or otherwise jumping through hoops, both firms ought -- in theory -- to have their software situation looking a lot rosier. There's a strong argument that someone who would otherwise want a next-gen console is not going to give up on the notion altogether just because the launch window software is delayed; it'll push their purchase back a quarter or two, but the revenue will still turn up eventually.

That's the positive take. The negative take is that console platforms live or die on momentum, and if they can't get positive buzz and consumer desirability fired up right from launch, it's going to take an enormous amount of spinning wheels and wasted effort to climb back to where they need to be in that regard. Being realistic, a console in its first year or so of life isn't actually a logical purchase; it's a promise, an investment in imagined and hoped-for games that will come down the line. As such, if consumers get a whiff of the notion that the next-gen consoles are a bust at the outset it could take years for either of them to recover their standing and sales.

It took PS3 a whole generation and vast amounts of investment and effort to claw back market leadership after a botched launch; Xbox One never even came close to managing the same feat in the following generation. There's an assumption that one or the other of these next-gen systems must end up the "winner", as Xbox 360 and PS4 were -- but it's also possible that both of them could do very well, and more pessimistically, there's nothing to stop the next generation seeing both consoles perform more like PS3 (a slow burn) or Xbox One (a fizzle) while many consumers go off to fulfil their interests elsewhere. That is the real risk of failing to excite at launch.

I'd love to close on a clever-clogs note of suggesting a remedy to this problem, but unfortunately I'm not convinced any such remedy exists. Both firms are now locked into a pathway to launch and have been dealt the most rotten hand imaginable by the year's exogenous events. Armed with foreknowledge of how 2020 would pan out, I doubt either Sony or Microsoft would have chosen this winter for launch, but at this point a straight-up delay would probably be hugely damaging.

There's an Irish joke about a driver stopping to ask an old man by the roadside directions to a certain town; the old man thinks about it solemnly for a moment before saying "well, if I wanted to get to there, to be honest I wouldn't start from here." Nonetheless, here we are. For all the careful, smart planning that's been done thus far, both Microsoft and Sony must now figure out how to make the most -- in terms of consumer excitement and product reputation -- of what will arguably be the toughest circumstances new console launches have ever faced.

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