Case Study: PlayStation and Xbox go head-to-head in the next-gen console wars

The latter half of 2020 saw one of the biggest marketing face-offs of the new generation go ahead. Sony (PlayStation 5) and Microsoft (Xbox Series X/S) have been pulling out all the stops in their quest to win the hearts and wallets of gamers around the world.

Now that the first estimated reports of who outsold who are emerging, let’s look back at who won the console wars this time around.

Photo: Future

Now that that the world’s two gaming giants have had a moment to sit, was it Sony or Microsoft who won 2020’s console marketing war?

PlayStation 5

Speaking in broad terms, Sony’s current focus is on developing large-scale, blockbuster, single-player experiences such as God of War, The Last of Us, Horizon, Bloodborne, and many others. PS5 exclusives such as Returnal (which critics are already hailing as one of the best roguelike games ever made) or Deathloop are all but guaranteed to be financial and critical successes, based on the recent reputation of Sony Interactive Studios, and it seems that players around the world have latched onto this.

Sony’s focus on the single-player experience led to two factors that they’re currently eclipsing Microsoft under: the enhancements to their next-gen controllers, and accessibility.

The PS5’s DualSense controller features incredible pieces of new technology such as improved vibration, adaptive triggers, and long battery life. And the Xbox Series X? Well the batteries last slightly longer, I guess.

Games developed under the Sony Interactive Studios banner have also been the most-hailed titles from the disabled gaming community in recent times. Games such as The Last of Us Part 2 (arguably the best survival game ever released) or the upcoming Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart have been unilaterally praised for their accessibility options, providing in-depth customisations for players with motor disabilities, hearing loss, and eyesight issues alike.

With these features in mind, it’s no wonder that many gamers are attempting to pick up the PS5 in preparation for some of 2021’s best upcoming games, such as Battlefield 6, God of War 5, Diablo 4, and countless others.

So, did it work? Well it’s almost impossible to buy a PS5 in Australia as of May 2021, and the console has outsold Xbox’s equivalent by a factor of two according to some reports. However, are PlayStation playing a long game that can rival Microsoft’s?

Xbox Series X/S

Counter to Sony’s strategy, Microsoft have released two next-gen consoles; the highly-specced Xbox Series X and the less powerful Xbox Series S, which retails for a more accessible price.

At the current moment, Xbox’s primary marketing strategy seems to be slightly more future-focused than Sony’s. Microsoft are wearing the Xbox Game Pass – a subscription service similar to Netflix that allows broad access to a large library of games – on their sleeve.

Game Pass has a unique position in the current console market, as it allows players on either an Xbox or PC to access these games. Xbox exclusives are no longer console exclusives – they’re now more broadly available to the huge PC market.

To push for Game Pass subscriber numbers, Microsoft has been aggressively enveloping some of the world’s biggest games publishers – the most notable of these being Bethesda, which Microsoft acquired for $7.5 billion. Bethesda is a studio with some of the industry’s best-selling franchises under its belt, and the assumption is that when they bring out new games, they will now be exclusive to Xbox and PC, perhaps even available on day one via Game Pass.

One other object of note is Microsoft’s lean towards backwards compatibility – the ability to play older games on your next-gen console. In this area, they have Sony beat. While Sony is slowing rolling out free PS5 upgrades for PS4 games, Xbox players are already enjoying the next-gen benefits on a huge amount of classic games thanks to Smart Delivery.

And finally, though these will likely be stamped out, consumers seem to be troubleshooting more Xbox Series X/S issues on a technical front. Never a great look.

Crossplay: a potential game-changer

Alongside all this ‘who’s better?’ debate looms one of gaming’s hottest topics: crossplay. In multiplayer games, crossplay is the ability to play online with friends who use a different platform – for instance, using your PlayStation 5 to for some Apex Legends crossplay with a friend on their PC or Xbox One.

Prominent voices like to tote the large-scale changes crossplay will incur on the world of gaming, but we’re not so sure. The rare games which facilitate crossplay are usually unbound by larger publishers such as Sony or Microsoft, who generally want as many players as possible to use their own platforms.

If anything, the prevalence of crossplay-adapted games will unfortunately dwindle as these two giants continue to battle for consumers throughout the PS5/Series X era.

Decisions, decisions…

While many consumers have already picked a side – and that side largely seems to be with the PS5 – Microsoft are certainly running with some strategies that could mark longer term success.

The console wars happen once in a generation, but they also last a generation. We’ll be eagerly watching, and playing, as each mega-company continues to try and outplay the other. Or maybe we’ll lose interest as soon as The Sims 5 comes out.

Radi Safi

by Radi Safi

Radi Safi is the Creative Director at IYBI. In 2012 he launched Happy, a music blog and media company.
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