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Two Roads Diverged…

For years now Nintendo have, in one way or another, been doing their own thing, separating themselves from the other two members of the “big three”, Sony and Microsoft. While the PS3 and Xbox 360 were low-end PCs that introduced online gaming to the mainstream and introduced HD graphics to consoles, the Wii sold eschewed power and connectivity to target the causal audience to great success. The less said about its successor, the Wii U, the better, but even that sincere failure from Nintendo diverged from its contemporaries with its second screen gimmick.

The Switch, once again, doesn’t follow the general trends of the console market, however in this instance the handheld/console hybrid has found solid footing in its first year and seems to be going strong as it faces its second year on the market.

Interestingly now, the two console makers who had much less differentiating them, Sony and Microsoft, are finding themselves in much more disparate positions than ever before. The PS4 has sold extraordinarily well since it hit the market, in stark contrast to the PS3 launch. Each year has seen a slew of critically well received and commercially successful first party or third party exclusives, and for the most part any multiplatform games have found their biggest audience on the PS4 rather than the Xbox One. Sony haven’t done much else to shake up the formula they tested on the PS3, instead it has refined its strategy into launching exclusives in periods where larger multiplatform games are still months away, also making it so that every E3 we see enough new and upcoming games to ensure people will want to buy and stay on the Playstation ecosystem. Even PSVR, the biggest question mark of Sony’s PS4 strategy, has been a moderate success in terms of sales, and seems to be getting enough of a steady stream of games to keep it afloat.

On the other hand, Microsoft have been much more up in the air this generation. Even before the Xbox One released Microsoft was capitulating on what the Xbox One could do and what it stood for. Tempering its focus on TV and Kinect, as well as eliminating the always online and blocking used games policies, helped turn what could have been the death knell for Microsoft’s time in the console market instead into an extremely soft launch that left Microsoft’s new console on the wrong foot out the gate. Since then it has made up some ground, but has never come close to selling the numbers the PS4 has managed. There could be multiple reasons for this: large multiplatform games favouring the PS4 as their lead platforms, the fact the Xbox One was a weaker console technically, the lack of exclusive games or even the general public being unaware of Microsoft’s U-turns on its anti-consumer policies before the Xbox One release.

In recent years and months, a number of new announcements around the Xbox One have changed the landscape for the console. The release of the Xbox One X means Microsoft now have the most powerful console on the market. If this matters at all is yet to be seen, as hard sales numbers on the console aren’t being readily released, which is never a great sign. Microsoft are now releasing exclusive games day in date on the PC which is a positive move for consumers, which again is hard to judge the impact of. Now though, the announcement that Microsoft’s game pass service, which is effectively a Netflix for games on the console, will feature all new exclusive games on the service on their release dates is making some waves in the video games news circles.

On the face of this announcement, it seems to be a positive move for Xbox One owners. When Sea of Thieves releases later this year, anyone can pay for a month or longer subscription to Xbox Games Pass and play the entire game without purchasing a copy. Similarly for Crackdown 3, the next Halo and Gears of War game, a subscriber won’t need to rush out to stores or wait for the game to arrive from Amazon to play it on release. Sure, DLC will still likely not be free for these games if a player wants it, lootboxes will likely litter the online portions of these games which will help to make revenue on the back end, and you won’t own the game, but for many this is likely an attractive proposition. On the other end, it may make some developers weary of working with Microsoft. All announced games coming from Microsoft are first party exclusives, meaning Microsoft owns the developers making these games exclusively for the Xbox One. For any studios who may want to launch a game exclusively on Xbox One who are not owned by Microsoft, though, what’s in it for them? Unless Microsoft are cutting a generous cheque to publishers for the possibility of these third party exclusives, I can’t imagine many developers gambling on this kind of venture, at least for the foreseeable future.

Part of what makes Sony’s line-up of exclusives so strong is their third party support. Bloodborne, Nioh, Nier: Automata and many other games in recent years found homes on the PS4 to critical and commercial acclaim. These games bolster Sony’s first party line-up of games like Uncharted, Horizon Zero Dawn etc. Microsoft do not have nearly as many exclusives, and the ones they do have (Forza, Halo and Gears of War) have all seen better days.

So as it stands, we have three console developers who are all doing different things. While Sony has found its comfortable strategy and stuck to it to great success, Nintendo have taken a gamble that has paid off. Microsoft are the remaining question mark in this situation. For the sake of healthy competition it would be beneficial if Microsoft continued to gain ground against Sony in terms of console sales, however the persistent rumbling of internal satisfaction with Microsoft’s console division may make these bold moves for the Xbox One look more like a troubled product struggling for relevancy.