Xbox undoubtedly lost the current console generation. Sales estimates put the PlayStation 4 at more than double the sales of the Xbox One, which is a bit of a surprise coming on the back of the Xbox 360’s dominance in the previous cycle. Aside from an incredibly rocky launch, where the Xbox One’s online-only model, inability to share or trade-in games, and forcing the console to be bundled with the Kinect were all criticised, Xbox One’s biggest problem through the whole generation has been a lack of exclusive games.
Just off the top of my head I can name a number of PlayStation 4 exclusives, many of which were well-received are considered among the best titles of the generation: there’s God of War, Uncharted 4, Spider-Man, and Horizon Zero Dawn, as well as remasters of titles like The Last of Us and Uncharted 1-3. What does Xbox have in response? The Halo series, but with the recent release of those titles on PC, only Halo 5 remains a true exclusive. Other Xbox One titles, like the Forza series, Sunset Overdrive, and Sea of Thieves were also released for PC. That doesn’t have to be a problem, but not having any exclusive titles robs a console of one of its major selling points. The fact that Xbox’s lineup of titles have been generally thought of as average rather than great definitely didn’t help, and Xbox One has been an underwhelming console ever since it launched in 2013.
I didn’t see anything in yesterday’s PlayStation 5 reveal presentation that blew me away. As I wrote previously when looking at Microsoft’s Xbox Series X gameplay trailer, the biggest selling-point for new consoles since at least the era of the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 has been graphics. And none of the titles on show either for Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5 look significantly better than what’s currently on offer. As a result, in order to stand out in a difficult market, the consoles are going to really have to push their exclusive titles, and this is where PlayStation 5 has the upper hand.
The issues Xbox has had this generation are not going away. In fact, they’re compounded by the strange decision to make all Xbox Series X titles also available on the Xbox One for at least the next couple of years. This means that any new Xbox title is constrained by the system specifications of 2013’s Xbox One and will need to remain compatible with that device. So far it seems like PlayStation has avoided this pitfall, but even so I wasn’t exactly on the edge of my seat thinking how amazing PlayStation 5’s graphics were.
Games in 2020 look great. PC games can run in 4K resolution with high frame rates, and even the oldest versions of the current crop of consoles manage to output decent-looking titles. The Nintendo Switch, despite its small form factor, can run games like The Witcher 3, and even titles like Animal Crossing: New Horizons look great on that system. PlayStation and Xbox have long billed themselves as the “hardcore gamer” brands, and they’ve both put a big focus on graphics and how games look. While it seems that the reaction to the PlayStation 5 announcement is generally positive, I’m disappointed that neither brand is really doing anything different.
The PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X – which has a truly awful name – feel like minor iterations of what we already have. There will be some quality-of-life improvements for sure: better battery life in the control pad, faster loading times as a result of using SSDs instead of hard drives, a better rumble/vibration feature in the control pad, etc. But beyond these small things, there are no new genres being pioneered as there had been in the past. There are no new ways to play – both systems have control pads scarcely any different to current generation controllers. The graphics on display look great, but graphics already looked great and I didn’t see anything in the PlayStation 5 or Xbox presentations that wouldn’t feel right at home in the current generation. In short, is there really much point to a new generation of consoles in 2020?
If the new consoles can’t do anything fundamentally different or transform players’ experiences in new ways, there’s definitely an argument to be made that it would be better to continue with the current consoles, even though they’re into their seventh year of life. Nintendo at least offers innovation – the Wii introduced motion controls, and the Switch is a hybrid between a handheld system and a home console. Xbox and PlayStation are really just offering more of the same.
In this environment, what will matter is exclusive titles. Whichever brand is perceived as having the best exclusives and the most exclusives will benefit, because when the graphics look samey, when the consoles look samey, and when it’s hard to really upsell a small difference in loading times or longer batter life, exclusive titles are what players will be focusing on. While PlayStation 4 won the argument this time around, any time a new console generation kicks off it’s a case of the slate being wiped clean. It should be up for grabs, and both companies should be going for it. But they aren’t.
PlayStation 4 will pass the baton of varied and great exclusive titles to PlayStation 5, as they demonstrated last night. Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Project Athia, Returnal, Sackboy: A Big Adventure, Destruction All-Stars, and Horizon Forbidden West, as well as a remaster of Demon’s Souls makes for an impressive-looking lineup. None of the titles blew me away in terms of their graphics, but they all look like they have the potential to be great games. And this matters! Exclusive titles are going to be a huge selling point this generation, and if Xbox Series X doesn’t offer many, and only has multiplatform titles like Assassin’s Creed or FIFA, it’s hard to justify picking up that console instead of a PlayStation 5, which offers those same titles plus a bunch of exciting exclusives.
PlayStation is playing essentially the same hand that it has since 2013. Why mix it up too much if it works, right? Xbox looks set to stumble into the same trap it did this generation too.
All that’s left now is for both companies to sort out their price structures – and to make sure that the coronavirus pandemic won’t disrupt their launches. If I were advising Microsoft, I’d suggest the best chance they have right now is to try and undercut the PlayStation 5 in a big way. If Xbox Series X could manage to be £100 or more cheaper, it suddenly seems like a better option, even if its exclusive lineup is lacklustre. But we’ll have to wait and see.
All brands and properties mentioned above belong to their respective owners. The Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 are scheduled to release by the end of this year (2020). This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.