My thoughts on the “console war”

Barring a major shift in circumstances, which we may yet see if the coronavirus pandemic isn’t sorted out in the next few months, Xbox and PlayStation plan to launch new consoles before Christmas. They will replace this generation’s Xbox One and PlayStation 4, which were released in 2013, and will join the Nintendo Switch to form the “big three” gaming platforms heading into 2021 and beyond.

When I’m in a gaming mood I’m primarily a PC player. I find PC to be a more versatile platform, and the abundance of digital shops on PC means that sales and discounts are aplenty, which I absolutely feel makes PC an appealing choice even if the up-front costs can be higher than a console. But that’s a whole different article!

When Google Stadia launched towards the end of last year, I felt it had the potential to be disruptive to the gaming market in all kinds of good ways. To understand why, we need to step back in time.

The Xbox Series X was unveiled late last year.

For a brief moment just after the millennium, there were four companies in the home console market, and they were, broadly speaking, all trying to appeal to the same core audience of gamers. There was Sega, with the Dreamcast, Sony, with its PlayStation brand, Nintendo, and Microsoft, which launched its first Xbox console in 2001. This moment wasn’t to last, of course, as the Dreamcast would prove a failure forcing Sega out of the market altogether. Nintendo’s GameCube was also not a resounding success, and the lessons the company learned led to the creation of the Wii in 2006, and from that point on, Nintendo has been fishing in a different pond to the other two console brands.

So since the mid-2000s, when Nintendo decided to go in a completely different direction with the Wii, Xbox and PlayStation have been the two main brands in direct competition. Nintendo’s current offering, the Switch, is a very different platform from anything Microsoft and Sony have, being half-handheld and half-console, and has a very different hardware setup. As a result, many gamers (myself included) will have a primary platform for playing most games and a Nintendo for playing their titles. I’m currently in the early stages of building my island in Animal Crossing: New Horizons so stay tuned for my thoughts on that at some point!

The two main competitors, PlayStation and Xbox, have taken very different routes since 2013, and the console market is in danger, I feel, of becoming a monopoly. It needs something major to shake things up – hence my excitement at Stadia potentially doing so. Microsoft’s Xbox brand has been focused on being a “multimedia” brand instead of purely gaming, and its output reflects that. Microsoft has also seen a steady growth in the PC gaming market and has chosen to release some previously exclusive titles on PC as well – the most significant being Halo: The Master Chief Collection, which is as close as Xbox has to a signature franchise. Only Halo 5 remains a console exclusive right now, and I have to say it feels like only a matter of time before that, too, is ported to PC. Microsoft have been working hard to turn the Xbox One into a multimedia centre – something people could have in their living rooms to watch television, use streaming services, and even do things like make video calls.

As a result of Xbox’s foray into the PC space and using their platform to promote things like video streaming as much as gaming, PlayStation has been the dominant force in this console generation. They’ve offered many more exclusive titles, and the PlayStation 4 has outsold the Xbox One by at least two-to-one, perhaps even more. While Xbox as a brand is still healthy and commercially viable, it doesn’t leave the overall state of the market feeling especially great, as competition between the two companies is necessary to keep quality high and for developers to keep pushing the boundaries.

The DualSense controller is all we’ve seen of the PlayStation 5 so far.

Google Stadia is clearly not going to be the disruptive force I hoped for, at least not any time soon. Its minuscule userbase and tiny library of games has seen to that, though I hope Google will continue development as the core technology is interesting at least. And as far as I know, no one else is planning to get in on the home console market right now. There have been past attempts, like the Ouya and other android-based consoles, but none have been particularly successful. It took a company with the clout and financial resources of Microsoft in 2001 to break into the market for the first time as a newcomer, and if Google is unable to successfully enter the gaming space I can see that failure being offputting for anyone considering investing significant money into a new home console.

So we’re left with a two-plus-one situation in the home console space. PlayStation versus Xbox, with Nintendo off to one side largely doing its own thing. Both the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 will be comparable in terms of their internal hardware, especially as both seem to be using AMD’s Zen chips and incorporating ray-tracing graphics, so the choice between systems will be more about marketing than technology. Xbox has already signalled that their multimedia and PC plans will continue into the new generation, and it was even suggested at one stage late last year that every Xbox Series X game will also be available on Xbox One for the first year or two of the new console’s life. This combination will, I feel, give the PlayStation 5 a distinct advantage.

So where do I stand? I’ll be honest, I don’t really have a dog in this fight any more. As someone who plays primarily on PC it’s less important to me. Later in the generation, when prices start to come down, I can perhaps see myself picking up a console, but it would only be if there was some must-play exclusive that didn’t make it to PC. And of the two, PlayStation seems most likely to offer something along those lines so it’s not impossible I’d pick up a PlayStation 5 in the next few years. It certainly won’t be at or near launch, though.

However, I’ve never really been a big PlayStation gamer. In the generations after the first PlayStation launched I owned a Nintendo 64, a Dreamcast, an Xbox, and then an Xbox 360. It wasn’t until much later when I picked up a second-hand PlayStation 3. By then I was less into gaming and I’ve only played a handful of PlayStation 3 and 4 titles over the last few years. This is purely subjective, but as someone who likes to play some games with a controller instead of keyboard and mouse, I find Xbox controllers more comfortable to use. The original Xbox controller from 2001 – known as the “duke” – is actually one of my favourites, despite the justifiable criticism it received at the time for its large size!

The Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 will join the Nintendo Switch in the home console market.

Looking in from the outside as someone who has no plans to purchase either of the new consoles imminently, what I hope is that both are successful for their parent companies and that both are going to be great platforms for gaming. I’d like to see a bigger stride this console generation than the last, particularly where graphics are concerned, but it seems unlikely. Many PlayStation 4 and Xbox One titles don’t look much different from games released in the latter part of the previous generation, and gameplay and graphics in general have not advanced nearly as far over the last few years as they had in previous generations. Earlier console generations brought huge advancements over their predecessors. The Nintendo 64, for example, was an incredibly powerful machine compared to the Super Nintendo, which was itself streets ahead of the earlier NES. I remember in the late 1990s and early 2000s when there was talk of genuine photorealism by 2010, 2015, or 2020. While some projects can come close to that, we aren’t there in a general sense. And to make a long story short, the fact that the next generation of consoles will be a progression or iteration on what is already available in terms of graphics and gameplay makes them less exciting to me personally.

What we will see are smaller quality-of-life improvements. Things like longer battery life in wireless peripherals like controllers, as well as a move from hard discs to solid-state drives will give console gamers something to appreciate. There might also be things like faster download speeds, quicker installation from optical discs – which are still going to be present – and support for 4K resolution and video playback. With most new televisions being 4K that makes a lot of sense.

Overall, the biggest issue that is currently facing Xbox and PlayStation is the pandemic. Both in terms of disruption to their manufacturing and logistics and the wider economic impact on consumer spending, the launches scheduled for later this year may yet be delayed, and if they aren’t, sales may not initially be as strong as they were in 2013 or 2005/06. The consoles themselves will be of some interest, but what I’m most interested to see is how new games plan to take advantage of some of the new hardware capabilities. Pushing the boundaries and creating games that are bigger, better, and more visually impressive than ever is something I’ll always be interested to see, even though I don’t really mind which brand or company “wins”.

All brands mentioned above are the copyright of their respective parent companies. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.