Horizon's success is Sony's next step on the long trek to 100 million
Sony's exclusive slate is streets ahead of the competition, but it's the uphill battle to reach the next 50 million consumers that really matters
How important is it to Sony that Horizon Zero Dawn has stuck its landing, with the game being praised in almost all quarters as a bona-fide hit that lives up admirably to the promise of a pretty lengthy hype cycle? With the PS4 comfortably leading its rivals in sales (the Wii U is out of the race and PS4's installed base is as close to double that of Xbox One as makes no odds), it's tempting to say that the success or failure of one game doesn't matter that much to the bigger picture.
Quite a few articles have popped up this week noting that Horizon widens an already dramatic gap in exclusive software quality between Sony and Microsoft's rival platforms - the implication buried in the wording being that, while it's a great game, Sony can afford something of a nonchalant "meh, put it over there with the others" reaction to its success, the platform holder equivalent of the moment when Usain Bolt slows down and looks behind him before crossing the finish line with a big dirty grin on his face.
I'd argue, though, that Sony will be very, very happy and relieved to see Horizon Zero Dawn do so well (critically, with commercial success very likely to follow) - far more so, in fact, than you might expect from a company so far ahead of its competitors. That's because for all that the PS4 has outperformed its competition and even its illustrious predecessors, Sony knows better than to rest on its laurels; it's been in this business for long enough to know that the point at which PS4 finds itself is not the start of a victory lap, but rather the bottom of the steepest hill-climbing stage of the race.
"Horizon proves that the studio is capable of much, much more than the bombastic corridor shooting of Killzone...establishing the studio as a promising new source of future exclusives"
First off though, let's talk about two issues specific to Horizon and the time in which it is launching that the game's success helps to clear up. The first is related to its creators, Sony's first-party studio Guerrilla Games. While nobody has ever doubted the studio's talent, they've been stuck on the Killzone franchise for years - a series that had its moments, but generally languished in the background, seen as Sony's not-quite-there answer to Microsoft's Halo franchise.
Horizon proves that the studio is capable of much, much more than the bombastic corridor shooting of Killzone, simultaneously justifying Sony's investment, potentially creating a major new PlayStation-exclusive franchise and establishing the studio as a promising new source of future exclusives. That should set corks popping on bottles of bubbly both in Amsterdam and in wherever on earth the globe-trotting Sony Worldwide Studios execs have found themselves this week.
The second issue that Horizon helps to clear up is around the whole question of how Sony conducts itself in the media and on-stage at events like E3 or Gamescom. While I wasn't remotely on board with the degree to which No Man's Sky was bashed following its release, there's no doubt that its critics had some fair points regarding the difference between the game implied when its creators were building up hype on Sony's stage, and the game that ended up in people's hands.
Horizon's pedigree, in terms of how it's been promoted and sold to fans, isn't dissimilar - its big, big moments have been on the Sony conference stage, where it's been a centrepiece of many events over the past few years. The outcome couldn't be more different, though; Horizon delivers on its promises, and that should help to restore a lot of confidence in the software Sony demonstrates and the way it demonstrates it in future. (Just in time, too, with GDC coming up shortly and E3 only a couple of months away.)
Even leaving aside those questions, though, there's a more general reason why Horizon's success is important right now. It's not about widening the gap with Microsoft; yes, that gap is cavernous and is growing wider, with the only real question being whether Microsoft is just refocusing resources on Scorpio titles (which also raises plenty of questions in itself, if it's the case) or whether it's all but abandoned first- and second-party publishing on Xbox platforms. Halo Wars 2 is good, by all accounts, but you have to look a long way down the pike to see the next big exclusive title, and the PS4 is averaging more than one major exclusive a month at present. Nor is the importance of these exclusives anything to do with Nintendo; while Switch is bound to do well at launch, especially given the availability of a great-looking Zelda title, Sony is unlikely to feel too much competitive heat from Nintendo in the medium term.
Rather, Sony finds itself in clear air ahead of its competitors, but facing an uphill struggle with which it is already somewhat familiar. PS4 is long past 50 million units now, and this is the point where the difficulty curve of attracting new customers starts to veer sharply upwards.
"Right now the PS4 doesn't need to think about the competition; it needs to think about how to stop itself from stagnating now that it's plucked all the low-hanging fruit in the console market"
Almost any console from a major player can get to 10 million - that's around the ballpark where Wii U and Dreamcast both breathed their last. 20 to 30 million is the territory occupied by half-decent efforts that fell to stronger competition; GameCube, the original Xbox, and so on. 50 to 60 million is the ground occupied by great consoles that never broke through the barrier to reach a mass-market audience beyond the core demographic; that's where PS3 and Xbox 360 were both located as they came into the closing chapters of their lifespan (though both made up extra sales when prices of both hardware and software plummeted later on).
The going gets tough beyond that. The second 50 million is much harder than the first 50 million; you have certain advantages (a bigger software library, including discounted titles; hardware revisions; price-cuts) but the consumers you're trying to attract are simply a tougher crowd. There's a combination in there - those who aren't hugely into games, but would like a console in order to play the occasional big title, and those whose tastes in games are niche. The most successful consoles are those which manage to provide to both of those groups, delivering consistent big mainstream hits to please the former, and packing out the schedule with high quality but more niche software to appeal to the wide and varied set of consumer groups that make up the latter.
That's Sony's challenge now. Sure, it may be a little nervous about what Switch and Scorpio will mean for the market, but right now the PS4 doesn't need to think about the competition; it needs to think about how to stop itself from stagnating now that it's plucked all the low-hanging fruit in the console market. Nearly everyone who wants a PS4 already has one; now Sony's release schedule must convince those who don't think they want a PS4 that they actually do.
Looking at the release schedule for this quarter, you can see how that's playing out, with the PS4 receiving first- and third-party exclusives ranging from a big, commercial hitter like Horizon to hardcore darling Nioh and eagerly anticipated RPGs Persona 5 (honestly brilliant - probably my favourite game of the generation so far) and NieR Automata. None of those are about Sony thumbing its nose at Microsoft; they're all about the company pulling out the stops to find the next wave of PS4 owners and consumers (as well, of course, as keeping its existing installed base happy and satisfied).
So yes, Horizon: Zero Dawn being a success is a big deal. It'll be an even bigger deal if, as many people expect, the game ends up being a major commercial hit and turning into a big franchise - not because it fortifies Sony's position in the console war, but because it gives the PS4 another string to its bow in the battle for the next 50 million.