It’s not often that the winner of a match can be declared before its first half is even over, yet here we are: just three years into the latest clash between PlayStation and Xbox – both not having yet reached what would normally be the midpoint of their 7- or 8-year run – Sony seems to have secured another victory over Microsoft: the 9th-gen Console Wars are, for all intends and purposes, already over.
The evidence is overwhelming: the PS5 is outselling the Xbox Series S|X two to one globally, the former’s sales numbers are way up while the latter’s have been down for some time, the PlayStation snowballing effect is already felt in third-party software sales, Microsoft will not be offering a more powerful mid-generation Xbox and is already making plans for next-gen instead. Going into their fourth year, the PS5 and the Xbox Series S|X could not look more different: Sony’s system has gained considerable momentum and its customer base will soon start closing in on the 50-million mark, while Microsoft’s systems have yet to reach 25 million units combined and are looking for a soft restart helped by new software.
This is not the kind of gap that can be closed within one generation of console hardware. If this was a race – which, when it comes to any home entertainment system’s userbase, it certainly is – the driver leading it would have to make a mistake of such epic proportions in order to let the driver following catch up, that it just doesn’t happen. Subscription customer bases, engagement, money spent on each platform and other metrics do matter but, when it comes to unit sales, the current Console War really is over.
The reasons why this came to pass are many and varied – worthy of a story all on their own – but, for the time being, there’s another interesting question in need of an answer: now what? Now that the PlayStation seems to have won this war (even faster than it did the previous one too), what should Sony be doing until the next time it meets Microsoft on the battlefield? Here’s a list of suggestions.
PlayStation is all about the games and so it should remain
It’s fair to say that Sony managed to quickly get ahead of Microsoft in terms of console sales by taking advantage of its strong intellectual properties as well as by offering a few tantalizing glimpses of what PS5-exclusive games will look like in the future. The fact that this happened while Xbox suffered an embarrassingly long period of silence when it comes to AAA-level first-party releases, obviously didn’t help. But PlayStation is usually playing to its strengths regardless of what the competition is doing and that is exactly where Sony must keep on investing in: exclusive, compelling software. Lots of it.
But it will have to be a careful mix. The PlayStation crowd will always welcome the next Gran Turismo or God of War, sure, but Sony should also strive to nurture new IP (like it did with Ghost of Tsushima during the previous generation) and also surprise with one-off, creative productions that demonstrate what the PS5 can do in unusual ways. It’s important to keep a software platform – especially one on the verge of going mainstream – as fresh and interesting as possible for as long as humanly possible… and it’s Sony’s job to do that, as third-party publishers are not in a position to take big risks with AAA productions and indies cannot make the splash a platform holder can in terms of marketing.
A steady, balanced stream of familiar IP, new IP and offbeat first-party productions (plus all the PlayStation third-party output and indie output) should ensure that the PS5 remains strong on the software front regardless of what Microsoft and Nintendo intend to offer over the next few years. A top-quality game selection, evolving and diversifying, is what people expect when getting a PS5, after all. Sony should not lose sight of that, especially now that the PS5 is about to become the dominant format in the video games market.
Some of the other things that Sony should be doing in terms of software are already on the way: the company has made significant investment in the live service games category, for instance, and everyone’s waiting to see what these titles will look like – more so now that the PC will also have to be taken into account.
Talking about PC games, Sony has made notable progress in that space, but it may need to reconsider its approach regarding staggered releases (18-24 months might be too long a time between a PS5 release and its PC counterpart) and evaluate how PC games could be included in its PS Plus offering (Microsoft expects PC Game Pass to grow faster than Xbox Game Pass going forward). The company should also be looking into how cross-play between the PS5 and the PC (plus any additional functionality for compatible titles) can be leveraged as a competitive advantage, something Sony has not really explored as of yet.
It’s obviously difficult to talk about PlayStation software without mentioning Sony’s mobile efforts or the PS VR2 – but these are not what will define PlayStation’s position and level of success in the marketplace over the next few years. Having said that, since Sony has decided to invest resources in both mobile and virtual reality, it should be trying to “tie” its own such products with IP and functionality that’s coming back to the PS5. Doing it in any other way, no matter how creative, just reduces the odds of these products succeeding and making a difference in the PlayStation ecosystem as a whole.
PlayStation hardware and services should evolve but also deliver a clear message
Games is the most important part of the PlayStation equation, but not the only one: those must be supported by Internet services designed to enrich the entertainment experience on offer, deliver more options or ways to play and add value to the time consumers invest in this software. It’s fair to say that Sony has a lot of work to do in that part of its business: last year’s PlayStation Plus reboot, for instance, has not yet helped the service’s subscription base grow significantly despite the fact that its mid-tier is actually very, very good. Maybe its message and its advantages have not been clear enough or maybe PS Plus Extra has not been marketed hard enough. Whatever the case may be, come 2024 it needs to become as integral a part of PlayStation’s strategy and be promoted as such.
Sony should also strive to deliver more value with the PlayStation Plus service as a whole. Since the company has decided, and rightfully so, against offering its AAA first-party games on the service on launch day (admittedly the most important advantage Game Pass has over PS Plus), it could explore other ways of making it attractive to more PlayStation owners. Raising the quality bar of the PS Plus library across the board, for instance, would be one obvious way to do that.
Offering subscribers more bonus functionality made possible by smart features built for the PlayStation Network would be another. Sony should just take a look at what every other digital entertainment subscription service is offering, evaluate what the PlayStation crowd would consider a worthy addition to the PS Plus service and start working towards implementing new features of that kind. It’s that simple.
Last but not least: what Sony chooses to do when it comes to possible new PlayStation hardware matters – but how this new hardware delivers its core message matters more. There may be, for instance, a redesigned PS5 model included in Sony’s plans somewhere down the road, but unless it’s just a manufacturing process refresh (like the next Xbox Series S|X models will most probably be), any possible benefits will have to be described effectively and marketed clearly.
The same goes for the rumored PS5 Pro model, which many consider to even be unnecessary in the greater scheme of things – unless, of course, Sony can illustrate its advantages over the standard model in an easy to understand manner. Not just selling points: actual, tangible benefits to consumers. The recent announcement of the PlayStation Portal device – and the confusion it’s caused regarding its target audience and actual value – is a good example of how Sony can do better when it comes to handling new PlayStation hardware.
Sony has a lot of work to do… but ample time to do it in
There’s no denying this simple fact: the more layers added to the PlayStation business model over time, the more work Sony will have to do in order to (a) keep everything running smoothly and (b) make different parts of that business work together creatively. But the company has the rare opportunity of leading a console generation, unusually early on, without having to worry about the competition at all. This will allow Sony to truly do its own thing, while also getting ready for its next clash with Microsoft.
That clash will take place under markedly different circumstances and it will be more subscription-focused and cloud-centric than ever before, so the Japanese have a lot to do in order to meet the Americans – who are all about Game Pass and The Cloud these days – in the field of battle fully prepared.
The COVID-19 pandemic, the unorthodox way the PS5/XSX/XSS systems were initially offered – as well as the three “cross-gen” years they had to go through – mean that the current consoles’ successors will not appear until 2027 at the earliest. Probably later. So it will be interesting to see how Sony plans to spend the next four years in terms of product and services planning, as well as what strategy and tactics the company will employ to take full advantage of this unique situation. Now there’s a challenge worth taking on, no?