Sony went all-in with this week’s PlayStation 5 Reveal event, choosing to push all of its chips into the center of the table on one hand rather than make more frequent smaller bets, as Microsoft has (mostly successfully) done so far. But, perhaps knowing it had a great hand – it certainly helps that you’re the market leader by a sales factor of two over your competitors, meaning you have a much higher margin for error – it waited. And when the time finally came, Sony played its hand beautifully – it was also the most-watched gaming stream in YouTube’s history – erasing much of Microsoft’s hard-earned Xbox Series X momentum in one fell swoop. So the question for Team Xbox becomes, “Now what?”
Winning the price battle would be a good start. Unlike in the matchup between the Xbox One and the PS4, the general consensus in the developer community thus far seems to be that the Xbox Series X will have more overall power than the PS5 and thus be able to run in higher resolutions and at higher framerates, while the PS5’s custom SSD seems primed for faster loading times and asset streaming. Though that might suggest that the Xbox will be more expensive, Xbox boss Phil Spencer said on IGN’s Podcast Unlocked that Microsoft will remain “agile” on pricing, with Spencer implying that he has the backing of both Microsoft CFO Amy Hood and CEO Satya Nadella to undercut Sony’s prices regardless of Microsoft’s costs in an effort to regain market share. A competitive price plus more overall grunt in the box and would go a long way towards winning gamers back. At worst, it can’t be a penny more than Sony’s PS5 Digital Edition. It’ll also be interesting to see how Microsoft messages its own digital edition, codenamed Lockhart, which is rumored to be less powerful than the Series X but therefore more affordable.
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In addition, Microsoft has great gamer-friendly services like Xbox Game Pass, Smart Delivery, and backwards compatibility, but there needs to be more light shone on all of these. Xbox needs to shout that from the rooftops from here on out, starting at July’s first-party Xbox Series X games showcase. Consumers should be reminded that they can play Halo Infinite and a bunch of other games without needing to buy anything else the day they bring their console home (assuming every Series X includes a 14- or 30-day Game Pass free trial, as Xbox Ones do now).
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But none of those services ultimately matter without great games. And not “great” on the IGN scale (8 out of 10), but the 10-out-of-10 masterpiece-level games that Sony has delivered time and again this generation, and Microsoft hasn’t done since the Xbox 360 days. It’s not just a first-party situation either. Sony seems to have no issue with luring third-party developers to its platform with timed exclusivity deals. Microsoft, in turn, is more bearish on the practice. To that end, I would argue that there’s more riding on that July showcase than there’s ever been for another event in the entire history of the Xbox.
Through a series of acquisitions and startups, Microsoft now counts 15 studios in its first-party stable. That outnumbers Sony’s roster, but delivering on the quality is the trickier part. Halo remains the biggest property Microsoft has, but its reputation has suffered since Microsoft parted ways with Bungie on the back of a disastrous launch of Halo: The Master Chief Collection and an extremely disappointing campaign in Halo 5. As such, here’s what could happen at the July event to win back that lead in the next-gen console race:
- Halo Infinite needs to prove once and for all that 343 Industries can deliver the series’ first 10/10-level game since Halo 3 as the studio looks to reinvent Halo for arguably the first time ever.
- Ninja Theory’s AAA project is the Unreal Engine 5-powered Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2, which is the most “Sony-like” game we’ve seen from Xbox Game Studios so far. We need to see actual gameplay, as impressive as that blindsiding reveal trailer.
- The Initiative, which counts a number of experienced and talented developers among its crew, is either creating a new IP or rebooting Perfect Dark, depending on who you talk to. It’s time to find out which it is, and the answer has to be impressive.
- Playground Games, the incredibly accomplished studio responsible for Forza Horizon, spun up a second team that looks set to reboot Fable. This might be the biggest dormant IP Microsoft is sitting on. This one could be huge (a next-gen Fable running on Playground’s four-season open-world engine, anyone?); the type of showstopper that will make people pay attention.
- Obsidian Entertainment, arguably the most high-profile of Microsoft’s new teams, has at least one major project – almost certainly an RPG – in the works courtesy of the Pillars of Eternity team. And don’t forget Forza Motorsport 8, Rare’s Everwild…we need to see it all – not just this handful – even if they’re just sexy CG trailers. This is not the time for Phil Spencer to hold anything back, and it’s vital they move forward. I wouldn’t waste a moment showing Series X-optimized updates for old stuff like Gears 5. That can be done in a nicely edited video released later. This is the fresh start he and the Xbox team have been working so hard for over the past six years since he took over, and if he’s serious about regaining the trust and enthusiasm of core gamers that Microsoft enjoyed during the Xbox 360 era, he has to come out swinging with entirely new and amazing content.
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All that said, it’s probably not reasonable to expect Microsoft to “win” the upcoming console generation, no matter how good a showing it has in July. Not only does Sony have an astronomical lead in market share, it also has many happy gamers comfortably nestled in its ecosystem for multiplayer games, digital purchases, and more. It’s a lot tougher to get people to jump ship than it used to be. But it is definitely possible for Microsoft to earn back some of the market share they lost when it Don Mattrick’d itself in 2013. Great hardware and services play a part, certainly, but it has been and will always be about the games. Show me what you got, Microsoft.