The Xbox Series X and the PlayStation 5 aren’t exactly different machines, but they are diverging more than they ever have before. While Sony takes a more traditional console strategy, Microsoft is trying something new as it makes its games available across its lineup of consoles and beyond.
What it means to be a console gamer is changing. The experience of PC gaming has long been clearly different to that of console gaming. Genres like MMOs and FPSs have benefited from the PC for years and its an objectively better, more powerful experience on everything from the keyboard-and-mouse input to the capability of outputting higher refresh rates on screen. Not to mention the more advanced rendering that dedicated graphics cards are able to put forth. The more rigorous requirements that need to be met to create a working gaming PC price many people out, not to mention the additional time and resources needed to put it together. But for many, that extra time is well spent as it gives an opportunity for far more advanced experiences to take place. PCs offer what consoles can’t at the moment, and for the foreseeable future, they will always have a leg up. And although consoles will make a step forward soon, they still won’t totally catch up.
Microsoft’s shift in vision is expected, in hindsight, given not only Xbox’s recent lineup of consoles, but also given their focus on games. Xbox’s release of several skus in their lineup of consoles gave a good indication that consumers were going to be able to choose their power level and that games would be accessible across the lineup. Extending this to desktop PCs was a surprise, but not a revelation.
When it comes to games, we can see this decision for not restricting their player base in the lineup of successful games on the Xbox 360 console. Xbox got its reputation from its online capabilities during the Xbox 360 generation. Allowing players to easily play online with their friends was an enormous draw that defined the platform and set it apart from the competition. They saw their console take the limelight with games like Call of Duty and Halo at the forefront of the world stage.
The height of this stage saw Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 and Left 4 Dead 2 get released with huge success in 2009, with the former being non-exclusive and the latter being exclusive to Xbox consoles.
This same year proved, in retrospect, to see Sony’s new direction materializing. Although they had faltered with the initial release of the PS3, sales were improving and they were gaining back the reputation they once had. In 2009, Sony’s hit Uncharted franchise got its second installment and, in hindsight, we began to see the two manufacturers diverge.
The PS4/Xbox One generation followed with Sony digging deeper into its new cinematic realm while also improving its online capabilities to the high standard that Xbox had set in the previous generation — and even surpassing them. Meanwhile, Xbox was attempting to be the only box in everyone’s living room at the same time cable companies were struggling to hold onto subscribers who were dropping rapidly in favor of streaming services.
Now as we see Xbox’s indifference to whether players play on their big screen or on a high-refresh monitor, it’s clear that Sony is going for a more controlled experience. Their emphasis on securing blockbuster story-driven games that were intended to be played in high definition on big screens shows their difference in mentality. Without allowing their games to be played anywhere, they maintain power over the gamer’s cinematic experience.
This question of cinematic versus gameplay-driven can be seen in clear detail in each console’s recent lineup of exclusives. Where Xbox has seen a trickle of games like Sea of Thieves and Gears of War 5 come in over the last few years, Sony has maintained a steady stream of blockbuster releases throughout the entirety of the generation thanks to their acquisition of studios both big and small. Since the release of Sea of Thieves on Xbox, PlayStation has seen God of War, Spiderman, Days Gone, Ghost of Tsushima, Death Stranding, and The Last of Us Part II get released — meanwhile, Xbox’s only paralleled release has been, Gears of War 5.
That’s not to say Xbox’s offering is a poor one. Massive franchises like Halo and Forza still remain loyal to Xbox. And now, the added flexibility that it offers its gamers over their experience must not be taken lightly; it’s a lateral move into a different subset of the competition, with Google proving to be their most likely match. Not only does it mean that its own gamers will benefit from added flexibility, but it also will likely lead to Sony’s shoring up of their on strategy. If Xbox gamers didn’t jump ship from Sony for exclusive games, perhaps they will for an experience with a lower barrier to entry — especially for those gamers who don’t pay much mind to cinematic console exclusives and are far more concerned with sports releases and popular multi-platform shooters, a subset of the market that maintains a lot of power. For those who want a cheaper, more flexible experience and who don’t want Sony’s exclusives, the choice is an obvious one: go to Xbox.
For any comparisons between the upcoming Xbox Series X and the PlayStation 5, it’s important to take this context into account. A slightly faster SSD or slightly newer RAM will have almost no real influence on the performance and draw of each console. Its lineup of first party games and its ease of development for third party developers will have a far more substantial impact on the consoles.
In retrospect, this divergence in the two main console manufacturers goes back even further than 2009. Xbox’s reputation as the gamer’s choice in America for its Mountain Dew-toting Call of Duty fanatics is coming back in full force. For those who don’t care much to have the option to play the best, most polished stories in gaming, where else would you go than to Xbox?