Xbox leads the way in innovative ideas that benefit players.Credit: Jarmoluk/Pixabay
Fanboys and pundits breathlessly promote the foolish and counterproductive idea of a console war every time a new console generation arrives on the scene. Competition in the console space is generally a good thing for everyone. It drives competitors to innovate in ways that benefit players and increase sales. Selling consoles is not a zero-sum game. More than one platform can succeed and the more that do, the more opportunities players have to play the games they love. The Switch didn’t go to war, it entered the competition and players reaped the benefits.
Casting competition in terms of a war where one console wins and the other loses has the potential to create a situation where one company dominates and the other moves on to other things. When that happens, innovation tends to stagnate because the “winner” has little reason to make their console more attractive. More attractive than what? With little or no competition, there’s nothing to be more attractive than.
This dire circumstance could have happened with the current console generation. The Xbox One launch was screwed up so badly you were left to wonder how a company of Microsoft’s size and experience in the console space could be so arrogantly unaware of the needs and desires of game players. Sony grabbed the opportunity and the PS4 crushed the Xbox One from the git-go. Five years later, Xbox hasn’t closed the gap.
Xbox One XCredit: Microsoft
Innovation and Xbox
Stake holders were yammering for Microsoft to sell off the Xbox and get out of the console business when it became clear the PS4 was doing much better in the marketplace. Fortunately for everyone who loves video games, Satya Nadella didn’t listen. Microsoft shed the Xbox management team responsible for the launch, and Nadella put Phil Spencer in charge of Xbox in March 2014. The result has been a steady stream of innovation from Xbox that’s squarely focused on making things better for players.
The Xbox One X is the clearest example. Microsoft’s flagship console is so superior to the PS4 Pro that it’s reasonable to think the only reason to buy a Pro is to play PlayStation’s outstanding collection of console exclusives. That’s a very good reason, but virtually every cross-platform game looks and plays better on the One X.
Microsoft didn’t build the most powerful console ever seen, pat itself on the back, and then sit and wait for the world to recognize its achievement. The company reached out to developers and helped them enhance previously released games to take advantage of the processing power in the One X. Microsoft also continued to innovate in console hardware with Design Lab and the Adaptive and Elite wireless controllers.
Some Xbox backward compatibility titles.Credit: Microsoft
While Xbox’s hardware innovations lead the industry, a strong argument can be made that the company’s most important innovations lie in broadening opportunities for players to play games. Backward compatibility is the most obvious example. The story when the Xbox One and PS4 launched was that games from previous console generations were unplayable on the new consoles because of fundamental hardware incompatibilities. And then Xbox engineers built a virtual Xbox 360 that runs on the Xbox One and old games could be played on the new console.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about backward compatibility is that Microsoft didn’t treat it as an opportunity to squeeze more money out of players by making them buy back-compat versions of games they already own. Instead, backward compatibility exemplifies the idea that players should have a library of games they carry with them from one console generation to the next. If you paid for it once, you shouldn’t have to pay for it again. It’s hard to imagine a policy that operates more for the benefit of players.
‘Forza Horizon 4’ was the only one of Metacritic’s top-five best-reviewed games of 2018 available on PC thanks to Play Anywhere.Credit: Forza
The buy-it-once ethos Xbox introduced to console gaming continued with Microsoft’s Play Anywhere policy. Xbox exclusives generally appear on the console and Windows PCs at the same time. Buy a game for either platform and you can play it on both. You get two platforms for the price of one.
Xbox surprised the gaming world a year ago with another new idea that’s all about benefiting players. Henceforth, Xbox console exclusives would be available to play for free on Game Pass on the day the game launched. Since then, a selection of cross-platform games such as the recently released Mutant Year Zero: The Road to Eden appeared on Game Pass on launch day. A cheap subscription service that includes access to new games on launch? Who saw that coming?
Xbox also looked to benefit players in the future when it added next-gen technology to the One X and S last year in the form of support for variable refresh rate, automatic low-latency mode and 120 Hz refresh rate. These features won’t come fully into play until HDMI 2.1 becomes widespread, but Xbox is helping players navigate the transitional stage by supporting the technology now.
PlayStation VRCredit: PlayStation
Innovation and PlayStation
The innovations introduced by Xbox since Spencer took over illustrate how competition can produce benefits for players. It’s sad to say that PlayStation’s performance during the current console generation exemplifies how a dominant position in the console space can lead to innovative atrophy. With few exceptions, PlayStation has done little to introduce new and innovative ideas to console gaming. Instead, the company has been content to stand pat with it’s large lead in sales and its vastly superior collection of console exclusives.
That’s not to say PlayStation hasn’t done anything, it just hasn’t done much, especially in comparison to the relentless series of innovative ideas coming out of Xbox. Playstation VR is the go-to VR platform for those who don’t want to spend big bucks for an HTC Vive or Oculus Rift although it’s still saddled with the Move controllers that were designed to compete with Nintendo’s 2006 Wii. The PS4 Pro is a significant upgrade from the original PS4 but it’s not in the same league as the One X.
There are also some indications that the blinkered arrogance that produced the Xbox One launch disaster has gained a foothold at PlayStation. In June 2017, Sony’s global sales chief Jim Ryan told Time magazine “When we’ve dabbled with backwards compatibility, I can say it is one of those features that is much requested, but not actually used much.” A little less than a year later Xbox reported players had logged almost a billion hours on back compatibility games. A more recent example can be found in PlayStation’s resistance to player demands for Fortnite crossplay.
The situation today seems almost the reverse of what it was at E3 in 2013 when an agile PlayStation crushed a clueless Xbox and electrified the gaming world. Now Sony feels staid and hidebound while Microsoft forges ahead. PlayStation has never lacked for innovative thinking and it’s hard not to wonder whether the company would have done more to change gaming for the better if the PS4 didn’t have such a decided advantage in sales.
Phil Spencer at E3 2018Credit: Xbox
The Xbox One quickly fell behind the PS4 in the competition for console sales. Microsoft responded by bringing in Phil Spencer who infused Xbox with a sustained commitment to innovative ideas that benefit players. The consequences illustrate the value of thinking about competition rather than war in the console space. Xbox’s innovations have markedly changed the world of console gaming for the better. From a player’s viewpoint, it’s the best thing that’s happened to gaming in years.
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