Sometimes it’s nice to have a bit of validation that you’re on the right path, that your plans for the future make a bit of sense. Sony and Microsoft are fierce rivals for your free time, and despite the regular love-ins on social media they’re constantly trying to one up each other with most powerful consoles, new exclusives, or special bonuses. It’s this that had the two companies originally paint two very different pictures of what the next generation and the future of gaming could look like.
Funnily enough, Sony have now plainly validated what Microsoft is trying to do with the Xbox Series X and S, Xbox Game Pass and cross-generational gaming.
Despite months of saying otherwise, it turns out that Sony are actually in favour of cross-generational game releases for their first party games. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Sackboy: A Big Adventure and Horizon Forbidden West are all coming to PlayStation 4 as well as PlayStation 5 when they launch, and that’s a major turn out for the books when viewed through the lens of what PlayStation CEO Jim Ryan was saying earlier this year.
In a quote that is now being thrown back in his face by so many people (alongside the whole pre-order heads up thing), Ryan told GamesIndustry.biz back in May that “We have always said that we believe in generations. We believe that when you go to all the trouble of creating a next-gen console, that it should include features and benefits that the previous generation does not include. […] We are thinking that it is time to give the PlayStation community something new, something different, that can really only be enjoyed on PS5.”
You would have been forgiven for thinking that this statement followed by the June PlayStation 5 reveal event meant that all Sony’s first party titles would be PS5 exclusives. Sure, we could take it with a pinch of salt that Spider-Man: Miles Morales, a game being built on the foundations of the PS4 hit, would be focussing on visual finery more than pushing the SSD to its absolute limits with dimension hopping antics, and that Sackboy: A Big Adventure was an exclusive to tempt families and could lean on DualSense tricks, but Horizon Forbidden West looked and sounded every bit the next-gen exclusive that would push the PS5 as hard as possible.
Of the three, it’s Horizon Forbidden West that really validates Microsoft’s decision to support cross-gen gaming for the start of the new generation. It turns out that where there’s a will to cater to the current generation, there’s a way to do that while also making use of the power of the next as well. Can we maybe accept that cross-gen isn’t necessarily anathema to providing a next-gen gaming experience on newer hardware?
Ryan’s comments and the way that this shaped the narrative of the next generation this summer now seems like an attempt to gain a quick victory over Microsoft, and it’s come at the cost of riling up the partisan fans and maybe even adding to the latent toxicity that can be found on the internet.
Now, obviously Microsoft aren’t perfect and they also deserve criticism for their own failings. They’ve done anything but stick the landing as they try to put their cross-gen plan into action. Their Xbox Series X showcase was quite ironically full of pure next-gen exclusives that must be at least a year away from the console’s launch, and their marquee title Halo: Infinite was still disappointing as a supposed visual showcase of the console’s raw power. However, just because a game has to support the current generation does not mean that developers cannot also extract major advantages from next generation hardware. Demon’s Souls is a remake of a PS3 game, and I don’t hear anyone complaining about that game’s design being held back, instead it’s praise for how far Bluepoint are pushing its visuals.
The follow up to Sony’s stream last night also validated another side of Microsoft’s next-generation plan: the cost. Next gen is going to be expensive, and Sony revealed that they will be joining Activision and 2K Games in raising the cost of their biggest first party titles, settling on $69.99 / £69.99 / €79.99 for their most premium games. Add to that the price of the next generation consoles that, while more reasonable than some might have feared a month or two ago, is still a significant cost for many gamers to consider this Christmas or next year.
Where they are getting is spot on, though, is with trying their hardest to bring the cost of the next generation down as much as possible. The Xbox Series S comes in at the price point of a current gen console, there’s also the All Access purchase plans that puts both consoles more within reach of those on a budget, and Microsoft’s commitment to putting their own first party games into Xbox Game Pass is looking like better and better value as time goes on.
The appeal of Game Pass will come down to actually being able to fill the service with enough new and compelling games, and the pressure is now on for Xbox Game Studios to deliver. It might be a few years away before they can truly deliver a string of blockbusters, but even a single big game could be enough. It’s difficult to argue that subscribing to Game Pass for £8 or £11 a month to play the next Forza and also getting access to over a hundred other games is bad value for consumers, especially when Gran Turismo 7 on its own will now set you back £70 on day one. I know GT holds a special place in a lot of people’s hearts, but… that’s a hell of a deal.
Sony’s Jim Ryan sat down for another interview with GamesIndustry.biz overnight saying, “We have had this conversation before — we are not going to go down the road of putting new releases titles into a subscription model. These games cost many millions of dollars, well over $100 million, to develop. We just don’t see that as sustainable.”
For Sony it might not make sense when they see Spider-Man selling 9 million copies in the space of 3 months – that’d be $540 million gross at RRP – The Last of Us Part II passing 4 million in 3 days, and each new first party release and IP setting records. You do also have to wonder if a single subscription like Xbox Game Pass can truly provide enough cash to feed the churn of game development at Microsoft. They’ve themselves admitted that it’s not currently a real money-maker for the company just yet, but they’ve also been able to state numerous times that their subscribers typically go on to play more games and spend more money outside of the subscription. We don’t know their absolute sales and performance, but it’s not like their first party games aren’t able to swoop to the top of Steam’s charts whenever they’re released.
Sony are clearly seeing the appeal of Game Pass and responding in their own way with the PlayStation Plus Collection, a range of PS4 games as a free bonus to PS5 owning PS Plus subscribers. Put that alongside PS Now, and outside of having their games entering their subscription services day and date, Sony are tentatively following the same kind of path as Microsoft.
After months of posturing and a handful of half-truths, it turns out that Sony’s vision for how the next generation comes to be isn’t all that dissimilar to Microsoft’s. Now we just have to wait and see who can do it better.