Let me start this opinion piece by stating that in no way am I biased towards the Xbox as a console. I have owned all major console releases from both Sony and Microsoft since the PlayStation 1 and have had favourites from both sides in each generation – PS1, PS2 and Xbox 360 (although the original Xbox does hold a special place in my heart). Having said all that, it’s the next generation that has got me really interested in how the following great battle of the console wars will play out. For me, E3 played out in a way that I hadn’t anticipated. I had expected Microsoft to hit the full panic button, talking about Crackdown 3 for an hour before begging people to buy the Xbox One so they could bridge the gap on Sony, at least a little. That wasn’t what happened at all, with Phil Spencer leading a conference that was so future focused it was almost unheard of, particularly considering the ninth generation of consoles isn’t on the immediate horizon.
The first thing to talk about is Microsoft’s litany of studio acquisitions, all of them companies with stellar track records in game production. Perhaps the most notable coup was the purchase of Ninja Theory, who managed to produce a pretty unbelievable “indie AAA” in Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice on a budget far lower than what they might expect to have available to them with the backing of Xbox. The reason this stood out for me, however, was that it was a real slap in the face for Sony, who lauded Hellblade as one of the consoles flagship exclusive titles (which of course it no longer is).
The trend of Xbox firing direct shots at Sony has continued since, brought about anew by the continuing issue of cross-play, and who has the greatest interest in providing the best experience for players rather than the company themselves. At best, PlayStation has come out of the exchange poorly, and at worst it looks downright stubborn and childish. Of course, there is absolutely no reason that Sony should feel obliged to attend the cross-play party that Microsoft and Nintendo seem to be hosting, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is making itself, rightly or wrongly, look like the offensively grey mega corporation portrayed in South Park.
So what does this all mean? Well, for one, it means Microsoft are already well ahead of where they were in their preparations for launching the Xbox One. If you force yourself to cast your mind back to 2013, you will remember the confusion over the always online DRM debacle which made people go cold on the new console pretty quickly, despite a quick 180 by the company in the wake of a fairly unprecedented backlash. Not only that but PlayStation beat them to the punch, releasing a week earlier in North America, something which, although it seems insignificant for those who had already decided which console they want, is key in persuading those who were unsure which to go for. What I’m trying to say by dredging up all of that prehistoric nonsense is that the launch of the last Xbox was almost uniquely chaotic, and it’s moves like the ones Microsoft have been making recently that show how keen they are to avoid the same happening again.
Now in the run up to the inevitable console announcement, perhaps next year, Microsoft needs to continue to push forward in the fashion it has been. Greater collaboration, and more exclusive titles, something which has been sorely lacking in recent years, could well cement their position going forward. We’ve already heard about how the new Halo game is so advanced it required the construction of an entirely new engine, and how Gears of War could well be the most complete entry into the series to date, so the intention of the company is clear. It’s not that they’ve given up on the current generation of consoles as a whole, but merely that they are putting themselves in the best position they possibly can for the next, in recognition of the fact that they simply cannot close the gap on Sony this time around. Time will tell if they cock it up in a way that only Microsoft can, but the onus is very much on Sony to respond in kind.