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The Last Console War?

Written by Eric Seitz // Illustrated by Stefany Belasic

With PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X and Series S launching this month, a tonal shift in the nature of the classic console war looms..

As November creeps along and the end of the year approaches, the hotly anticipated war between video game console makers reaches its climax. With Microsoft’s Xbox Series X and Series S releasing on November 10 and Sony’s PlayStation 5 releasing on November 12, the race to have the most successful gaming platform looks on the surface to be just another battle between Microsoft and Sony — a battle that has repeated itself four times now. However, a closer inspection at the players, the stakes, and outside influences reveals that all may not be as it seems in the console war of 2020 — and it reveals how a console war might look moving forward.

History Repeated

In order to understand how the console war could change, we must first understand what it has been. Console wars are not new — they have existed as long as the consoles themselves. First, with Atari and Nintendo; and after Atari’s fall in the ‘80s, Nintendo and Sega. However, perhaps the most pivotal moment for console wars was E3 2000. E3, standing for the Electronic Entertainment Expo, occurs each June in Los Angeles, where video game developers and publishers make announcements about upcoming games, hardware and other entertainment media. But what made E3 2000 so special?

By E3 2000, Sony had already revealed the PlayStation 2 to the public; and while the original PlayStation had not topped the sales charts, Sony had proven itself a worthy contender. Though not present at E3, Microsoft sought to prove that an American company could keep up with the big boys, announcing in 2000 that it planned to release its first console the following year. With Nintendo allowing the Nintendo 64 to finish its run as it prepared to launch “Project Dolphin” the following year (which would later become the GameCube), Sony had the perfect opportunity to execute a preemptive strike — selling its PlayStation 2 for the holidays in 2000. Sega had launched its Dreamcast in 1999, and its lackluster sales would spell defeat for the Japanese gaming giant if E3 2000 couldn’t turn things around. Sega came out swinging. Its booth at the E3 show floor boasted a wide variety of games as Sega hoped to reach as wide of an audience as possible. However, all eyes remained fixed on the PlayStation 2. Sega would announce the next year that it planned to back out of the console-making business, turning its focus to software development.

E3 2000 set the tone for the next twenty years — Sega’s fall from grace proved that no one is safe — that newcomers could rise and old empires could crumble. The system is volatile and unstable. Since 2000, the console war has remained slightly more steady — though it has rarely been consistent. 2005 saw the release of the Xbox 360, with Sony and Nintendo following suit with releases of the PlayStation 3 and Wii, respectively. The eighth console generation began with Nintendo’s Wii U that launched in 2012. Microsoft and Sony faced off the following year with November launches of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. With Nintendo’s mid-generation launch of the Switch in 2017, it effectively broke itself out of the console war; leaving Microsoft and Sony alone to duke it out for their next console releases, which brings us to the present.

"Lacking the dedicated followers that Nintendo and, to a degree, Sony boast, the Xbox Series X and Series S face the monumental task of turning supporters of the other consoles into supporters of the Xbox family — and their approach is…unorthodox."

Battle Lines Drawn

We’ll start easy and talk about PlayStation. Sony hasn’t changed its methodology much since it entered the console-making game with its original PlayStation. Broken down to its core, Sony wants you to buy its console and buy games for that console. Boasting a slew of titles that are coming exclusively to PlayStation 5 in fall or the year following its launch, Sony knows that games sell consoles — which leads to winning the console war (winning, which is something that Sony is accustomed to, thanks to the massive success of the PlayStation 4).

Sony’s philosophy — that games sell consoles — rings true throughout the history of the console wars. The Wii U was a commercial failure because it lacked third-party games. The PlayStation 4 thrived because of its lineup. The Gameboy sold like hotcakes when Nintendo ported its classic NES games to the portable device. Whether or not Sony’s rinse-and-repeat approach will succeed this generation remains to be seen — but Sony’s odds of success are likely not in its own hands at this point…

Coming out of the previous generation in last place as compared to the PlayStation 4 and Nintendo Switch, Microsoft has a lot to prove. Lacking the dedicated followers that Nintendo and, to a degree, Sony boast, the Xbox Series X and Series S face the monumental task of turning supporters of the other consoles into supporters of the Xbox family — and their approach is…unorthodox.

Microsoft advertises gaming as an “ecosystem,” touting the sentiment that where gamers play is not Microsoft’s main concern. In an effort to make gaming more accessible, Xbox games of this generation will be playable on Xbox One, PC, mobile smart devices, and Xbox Series X or Series S. Supporting their ecosystem philosophy is GamePass, Xbox’s monthly subscription service that grants players access to all first-party Microsoft games, as well as many AAA games. It’s the Netflix of gaming, and to call it anything other than an amazing deal is foolish. Microsoft also boasts comprehensive backwards compatibility features for Xbox Series X and Series S, making it so that every Xbox game since the original Xbox will be playable on them.

A Mammoth Acquisition

Stirring the pot even further is Microsoft’s purchase of ZeniMax Studios, parent company of wildly popular video game developing company Bethesda. Bethesda, creating iconic experiences such as Skyrim, Fallout, and Doom, will serve to beef up Xbox’s first-party games, which had been lacking until now. The acquisition cost Microsoft a whopping $7.5 billion. For reference, Disney bought Star Wars maker Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion.

What does this acquisition mean for the console war this generation? Normally, a console maker acquiring a developing studio would mean that the console maker now had the opportunity to put the games produced by the developing studio exclusively on its own console — and not on the consoles of its competitors. However, this is likely not the case with Xbox. To start, Bethesda and Sony had come to a deal before Microsoft acquired Bethesda that two of Bethesda’s upcoming games would come to PlayStation 5 exclusively before landing on Xbox as well. This creates the almost oxymoronic scenario of Microsoft publishing a game that is exclusively on PlayStation.

However, the timing of the acquisition isn’t the most interesting part. This acquisition lays out a prime opportunity for Xbox to prove that not only is it talking the talk when it comes to gaming as an ecosystem, it’s also walking the walk. If Microsoft wants to show the world that it is truly about making gaming accessible and letting gamers play wherever they want, it will release Bethesda-developed games on PlayStation 5, and potentially Switch as well.

When it comes to publishing games, first-party publishers (companies that both make game consoles and publish games) essentially choose between focusing on selling more of their own consoles or focusing on selling more of their own games. For example, Nintendo publishes a massive amount of games — and they are almost entirely exclusive to their console, the Switch. Nintendo is choosing to use its games as a means of drawing people to its system — if you want to play Mario, you need a Switch. The other option — and the one Microsoft will likely take — focuses more on the games themselves as a means of making money. If Nintendo released Super Mario Odyssey on PlayStation, Xbox, and Switch rather than solely on Switch, it would undoubtedly make more revenue on the game itself. With franchises like Fallout and The Elder Scrolls selling wildly on PlayStation systems, Microsoft would be foolish to pass on releasing future installments of these franchises on PlayStation 5; and conveniently for Microsoft, doing so just so happens to fall perfectly in line with their newly minted promise of gaming as an ecosystem.

A Dark Horse

As Microsoft and Sony continue to clash swords and trade blows, a third party marches on — seemingly unaffected by the war at hand. Since it dove into the console-making game in the ‘80s, Nintendo’s philosophy has been to challenge what has been and embrace what could be. Proving repeatedly to be a wild card, Nintendo’s penchant for quirkiness has made it the longest lasting console maker ever. Its tactics haven’t always been effective (see Virtual Boy and Wii U), however, if Sony and Microsoft can learn anything from Nintendo, it’s this: no one ever won a war by mimicking their opponent.

When it released the Switch with over three years until Microsoft and Sony would drop their next console, Nintendo shifted the console war from a three-way face-off to a one-on-one matchup between Microsoft and Sony. The Switch’s massive success has proven that a party that abstains from the war at hand can still win, so this begs the question: why does a war need to happen?

The Switch seems to market itself toward an audience different than the one whose affection Microsoft and Sony are vying for. Nintendo may have made the decision to opt out of the console game when it knew its system was unique enough to either appeal to its own audience or entice those who buy Xbox or PlayStation to purchase a second console. Assuming this leads to the thought that perhaps Nintendo has not removed itself from the game, but is so far ahead that we cannot recognize the game they are playing.

Iteration vs. Innovation

Summarized well by Sony’s naming convention for the PlayStation generations, gaming consoles until this point have been iterative: the PlayStation 2 was the follow-up to the original PlayStation; it contained enhanced graphics, higher processing power and faster load times. This method is what made sense. When a system becomes obsolete and technology exists to improve upon it, video game hardware makers create a new one to replace the old one. Sony continues this method, and who can blame them? It’s been working for them — this succession of slightly better consoles, all neatly numbered 1–5.

However, this is an era in which technology can shift the way that an object works. Teslas can download software overnight to improve their drivers’ experiences. Who is to say that this is impossible when it comes to video games? Microsoft is showing their hand a bit by naming their console for this generation a “Series.” The name seems to indicate that the lines between console generations are about to become much blurrier.

Are we witnessing the final console war? As Microsoft marches down a progressive new path, waving a banner that says “Follow us to the future!” the world waits, holding its breath, to see if Microsoft is accidentally marching off a cliff. Perhaps Microsoft’s innovative new approach will prove to be PlayStation’s downfall, revealing that Sony’s unwillingness to morph its approach in accordance with a shifting society will spell its inevitable doom. Is Microsoft’s suave confidence blinding it from the truth of the flow of the industry? Will Sony’s stubbornness and attempts to stiff-arm the market into remaining the way it has been for the last twenty years fail?

As next-gen becomes current-gen and what is yet to be becomes what has been, the scroll will begin to unravel; and at the inside of that scroll will be the answer — to what will become of the war that we have so long witnessed. It’s what is written on the inside of that scroll that will tell what will become of this new generation of consoles — the nebulous concept of gaming accessibility and the continuation of a method that has proven successful. Whether or not all the players involved will still stand at the end remains to be seen, however, one fact is clear: those who follow the console war now will not recognize it when that day comes. The console war may finally have a winner.

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