Xbox And PlayStation’s Different Approaches Are Giving Me Analysis Paralysis

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A year of dueling console launches is upon us once again, but this one feels different somehow. Far from deciding between competing launch lineups or network infrastructure, this time the choice between Xbox and PlayStation is more philosophical. The two companies, Microsoft and Sony, have presented very different visions for the future of console gaming. And that’s left me uniquely torn between my feelings of an innate responsibility to reward the direction I want to see from the industry, and simply wanting to have access to all the games I care about.

To state what may be obvious, we don’t know the price points for the Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5, but we’re expecting each of them to be roughly $500. Many gamers will have to choose one or the other this year even if they ultimately plan to own every major console eventually. I’ll probably be among those making the choice, especially as America collectively tightens its belt in the midst of a pandemic-sparked recession. That difference between each console’s approach accents the considerations facing those making a choice between them.

Microsoft appears to be consciously blurring the line between generations, with the promise of a vast back-catalog playable on Series X, the rejection of next-gen exclusivity for the near future, and free upgrades to next-gen through its Smart Delivery feature. Many of its games are also available on PC, and sometimes that includes ownership across the two platforms. Meanwhile, it’s leaning harder on services like Game Pass and the included xCloud streaming to make the ecosystem itself an attractive proposition. Even the controllers will work across generations, which is especially welcome news to me as an Elite 2 owner.

PS5 games can only be played with the new DualSense controller, further reinforcing Sony’s traditional approach with the upcoming console successor.

Sony, by contrast, is taking a much more traditional approach. PlayStation 5 games will only be available on PS5. The backward compatible catalog should be available to some extent, but its messaging has been unclear. Although there have been piecemeal efforts, there is no concerted push for cross-generation upgrades. Likewise, PS5 games can only be played with the new DualSense controller, which Sony attributes to its unique functionality.

On the whole, Microsoft appears to be approaching this generation with an eye toward making the console ecosystem more PC-like–sensible for a company that is already heavily invested in the PC landscape. It is less interested in the specific box you use to play its games, and more interested in getting you involved in its suite of services. Sony, meanwhile, is making a clean break. Like each console launch of the past, the PS5 is defining itself as offering a distinct experience. It’s a more recognizable approach for long-time console gamers.

I view Microsoft’s moves as generally more pro-consumer and forward-thinking. The shape of the video game industry is shifting, and we are inevitably moving toward a services-based approach. Microsoft’s services aren’t charity, obviously–it wants us paying $15 per month in perpetuity–but they are well-structured and good value for the money. As someone who has always leaned more toward console gaming, I’m all for adopting some of the PC-like unification and more attractive features like cross-gen compatibility. Sony may very well include these features too, but Microsoft has been pioneering them in a way that exhibits confidence in its message and vision. I would like to reward this forward-thinking approach with my dollars, reinforcing the behaviors that I think are ultimately good for the industry and consumers.

At the same time, due in part to the PlayStation 5 being its own unique box, I also feel compelled in that direction. Sony has already announced a number of platform exclusives, including franchises I love like Spider-Man, Horizon, and Ratchet & Clank. In this way, the Xbox’s consumer-friendly cross-platform approach may perversely push me more toward PS5, because I’ll already have access to Xbox’s offerings either way. With a PS5 and my existing Xbox One, I can be reasonably confident that I’ll have access to the vast majority of console exclusives.

While I shrug my shoulders thinking about Xbox Series X's current launch line-up, Microsoft's pro-consumer approach with services like Xbox Game Pass is something I still finding myself wanting to support.
While I shrug my shoulders thinking about Xbox Series X’s current launch line-up, Microsoft’s pro-consumer approach with services like Xbox Game Pass is something I still finding myself wanting to support.

The gulf between Microsoft and Sony is larger than usual, and it’s making the choice that much harder.

Meanwhile, Microsoft hasn’t made much of a compelling case for being an Xbox Series X early adopter, and I’m not sure that’s its primary focus. Deemphasizing the hard split of a new console launch must mean the company is fully aware that it isn’t pushing people to adopt jump on-board immediately. In many ways, it feels like the relaxed opposite of Microsoft’s aggressive push for the Xbox 360. And with the recent Halo Infinite delay, the console launch is increasingly relying on enhanced versions of existing games to be its system-sellers. That’s a difficult pitch next to something like Spider-Man: Miles Morales even if we rely on the classic model of direct comparisons between launch line-ups.

In any year with two console launches, you’d want to have your priorities sorted before your decision is made. It’s natural to need to justify one over the other, even temporarily. But the conditions and distinctions between these consoles make the choice unique to this generation. I’d like to be a conscious consumer and make the choices that I think best reflect my ideas for where the industry should go. But I’d also like to make the choice that allows me to play the widest array of anticipated games. The gulf between Microsoft and Sony is larger than usual, and it’s making the choice that much harder. I still don’t know what to choose, and it feels like a difficult battle between my heart and my head.

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