Sony undoubtedly dominated this generation when it comes to general public perception and sheer sales figures of the PlayStation 4. But Microsoft has made waves the past couple of years that has propelled the Xbox One to the forefront of the conversation, whether this was through programs like Xbox Game Pass or the acquisition of high-profile game studios to bolster what many consider to be a struggling first-party catalog.
I'm going to get this right out of the way: first-party games are incredibly important. PlayStation absolutely needs them to remain successful. I'm arguing that with Microsoft going all-in on first-party games — though it remains to be seen to what degree of success — Sony needs to turn at least some of its attention to other features.
This generation saw some of the very best Sony has to offer from its first-party studios and partnerships with Bloodborne, Marvel's Spider-Man, Uncharted 4, Until Dawn, Horizon: Zero Dawn, and God of War. Not to mention The Last of Us Part II, which if it's anything like its predecessor, may go down as one of the greatest games of all time.
Public perception surrounding the state of your first-party catalog means a whole lot, but in the grand scheme of things third-party titles by and large sell more copies across individual platforms. Across all PlayStation and Xbox platforms (individually, not combined), Grand Theft Auto V and the Call of Duty series overwhelmingly took nearly all of the top 10 best-selling spots on each platform, respectively. According to Mat Piscatella of the NPD Group, even the best-selling PlayStation exclusive (Marvel's Spider-Man for PS4) would only rank at #18 overall across PlayStation platforms. For comparison, Halo 3 would rank #8 overall across Microsoft's consoles.
Nintendo is a special case and a bit of an outlier because of how immensely popular its first-party series are. Multiple entries in the Mario and Pokémon franchises grace the list of best-selling games of all time across all platforms. When you account for games packaged with the Wii like Wii Sports, Nintendo makes up over half of the top 10 list.
Indies are vital to a console's ecosystem too. Look at what happened to Xbox One after its abysmal treatment of indie games around its initial launch. It was harder for indie studios to develop on Xbox One, so they completely bypassed it and developed for PlayStation 4 instead. Microsoft rectified this over time with the ID@Xbox initiative, but damage has been done.
As acclaimed as some of Sony's franchises are, they can't compete with the sheer consumer demand that Nintendo's hold.
As acclaimed as some of Sony's franchises are, they can't compete with the sheer consumer demand that Nintendo's hold. And because of this, Sony can't put all of its eggs in one basket. Games and power reigned supreme, but it's becoming increasingly apparent that they can't carry consoles in the long-term. Crucial to a console's success, games and raw power still need to be complemented by other services and features, especially when we get to a point where computing power will yield diminishing returns for players — like in the case of 4K vs 8K resolution.
When you have consoles like the PlayStation 5 and Microsoft's Project Scarlett boasting the kinds of specs that they do — based on what we know so far — what's going to set them apart from other than games are their ecosystems. What features and services they offer that players cannot get elsewhere.
Even seemingly little things like digital game gifting, expanding the trophy system, tweaking party and chat options, and creating an easy way to gameshare could make all of the difference.
The PlayStation 4 is VR-ready with PSVR support, and right now it's the only major console to do so — no, Nintendo Labo VR doesn't count as a "competitor". PlayStation is already ahead on this front, something the company should focus on going forward considering the strides that VR technology has made. Sony Global Head of R&D for PlayStation, Dominic Mallinson, said that we shouldn't expect a new VR headset to launch alongside the PS5, and I think this is a mistake. Virtual reality is only going to get bigger, it's just a matter of time.
Despite this, the current PSVR headset will be compatible with PS5, so it's got a leg up on Microsoft. While the Xbox One X is technically VR-capable, Microsoft's VR plans never came to fruition and there are no headsets compatible with Xbox's console. Should the company want to launch a VR headset for Project Scarlett, it will need to start from scratch — though it has a good track record when it comes to augmented reality experiences with the HoloLens.
An area where Sony needs to improve is PlayStation Now. Whether you compare it to Microsoft's streaming service Project xCloud or the on-demand library in Xbox Game Pass, PlayStation Now sorely falls behind in terms of its incentives. It's double the monthly cost of Xbox Game Pass and only select titles can be downloaded through PS Now, with the rest being available to stream through shoddy, unreliable servers at best. Not to mention that Microsoft offers all first-party games day one for Xbox Game Pass subscribers. The same cannot be said for first-party Sony titles on PlayStation Now. It never took off in the way it could have.
In a major surprise, Sony and Microsoft revealed that the two companies have partnered on cloud gaming technologies. This is the perfect opportunity for Sony to leverage Microsoft's experience in the field. Overhauling PlayStation Now should be first on its list.
Sony should also continue its PlayStation Plus program that offers members two free games every month, or at least supplant it with something equally as enticing. I'd even go a step further and say that not only should Sony offer a couple of free PS5 games every month, it should continue to offer PS4 games as well since the PS5 will likely be backward compatible. This is something Microsoft currently does with Xbox Live Gold, offering two Xbox One and two Xbox 360 games each month for Gold members. Getting rid of the program after such a precedent was set would cause quite an uproar.
Pricing is important, even if you need to sell the console at a loss.
And wrapping everything up for a price that's competitive and affordable — in terms of gaming consoles — is key. PlayStation 3 suffered for being hundreds of dollars more than Xbox 360. Xbox One suffered for being $100 more than PlayStation 4. Pricing is important, even if you need to sell the console at a loss. Make up the difference elsewhere.
Just because PlayStation is king of the hill right now doesn't mean it always will be. Comfort and success breed complacency, not innovation. That's what lit a fire under Microsoft to do better in the latter half of this generation. It's the mindset Sony needs going forward. Show us something we didn't know we needed, but now that we have, we can't live without.
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