The next generation of gaming consoles is finally upon us. A new console launch is the most exciting time for the games industry and all who follow it, as a refreshing array of polished and technically innovative games sweeps across our shelves—all designed to make the most of the upgraded tech in the shiny, new consoles.
With every new console generation, excitement builds as gamers across the world ogle at every technical detail designed to change the gaming experience forever: mega-fast solid state drives (SSDs), 4K resolutions, Ray Tracing capabilities, super high numbers of teraflops (does anyone actually know what they are?)—every technical facet coalescing to sell us on the “world’s most powerful console” yet.
But amidst the usual selling points of a new console cycle, this time something else very important is happening. With the release of the PlayStation 5 and, very specifically, the Xbox Series X | S, the gaming industry is beginning to signal a potentially drastic shift in how games are to be played going forward. Unlike during previous console launches, the central focus is not solely the actual consoles themselves this time.
The new generation is, instead, focused on how we will actually be accessing our games, rather than where we will be accessing them. So, let’s see what’s changing and where the gaming landscape may eventually end up.
Games as a Service
You may have heard the new buzz-phrase of the day being bandied about recently: “games as a service.” It is being primarily pushed by Microsoft and is used to refer to their new flagship product, the Xbox Game Pass. The simplest way to understand Game Pass is that it is Netflix for your games. That description defines not only how its subscription-based model works, but also the way in which Microsoft intends to use it as a revolutionary device.
Entertainment as a service has already revolutionised other mediums. Netflix and its spawning of many other streaming platforms have completely changed the way we interact with media and forced through a new era in the film industry. With Game Pass and the push to make gaming more accessible than ever before, Microsoft is hoping to make similar ripples in the gaming industry.
We already know that Microsoft has previously held grand plans to reinvent how we interact with gaming. The Xbox One was initially conceived as the “all-in-one” entertainment system; it was to be more than a games console by also providing inroads to making tv/film/YouTube/Twitch/whatever-other-media-form a central part of the Xbox One experience.
However, the self-described “new water cooler” of home entertainment failed to revolutionise our lives quite as Microsoft had hoped. The Xbox One fell well behind Sony’s PlayStation 4 in popularity. It turns out that most gamers didn’t really care for the bright future of being able to bark commands at your console and watch Tom Brady throw a 70-yard touchdown in a tiny four-inch square, crushed into the corner of your screen, while Master Chief simultaneously teabags aliens on his way to saving the galaxy.
Gamers just want the tea-bagging part, Microsoft. We don’t care for your historic NFL packages.
Fast forward back to the present, however, and Microsoft does seem to have learned that hard lesson. With the dawn of a new console generation, Microsoft’s efforts are now all tuned to quite simply ensuring that you are always playing games with them instead of elsewhere. In fact, between Game Pass, Xbox Play Anywhere, xCloud, Xbox All Access, and the genesis of the cheaper Series S, Microsoft is making it nigh on impossible to not, at some point, play on a Microsoft platform.
Their aim is simple: to get you on Game Pass whichever way they can. Typically, for a console launch, all eyes are on the console sales themselves, but Microsoft has signalled that they are far more interested in Game Pass subscriptions; the Series X is merely the best platform through which you can access its library. Meanwhile the all-digital Xbox Series S is ultimately designed to be a Game Pass machine. By being far cheaper but less powerful, the S bridges the gap into the new generation while ensuring you, again, have a place to access Microsoft’s subscription service.
Further, Play Anywhere allows you to move your play seamlessly between different Windows devices, and the current ongoing beta for the xCloud pushes that accessibility even further to bring Game Pass streaming to your phone.
And, as we’ve seen recently with the sudden popularity of games like Among Us, the market for mobile gaming is still massive—especially tapping into the casual gamer and even the typically non-gamer markets. Bringing the possibility of AAA games to your mobile device is a huge chance to expand further than ever before, especially with a subscription model that, much like Netflix, could be shared within a household.
As happened with Netflix, allowing you to access your library on a massive range of platforms gives you the choice to watch (or, in this case, play) however you want. This can only help an app eventually become synonymous with its media form. Netflix is TV now. Microsoft wants Game Pass to be similarly synonymous with gaming.
Controlling the Landscape
To become the Netflix of gaming also requires a highly buffed library of quality titles, and the last few years for Microsoft have been a gradual process of making that so. Since 2014, Microsoft has been buying up many promising smaller studios to work under the Xbox umbrella and eventually find a home on Game Pass. The most notable of these was Minecraft developer Mojang.
It wasn’t until this year, however, that Microsoft really brought out the big guns to declare loudly that Game Pass was their way forward. ZeniMax Media, the huge umbrella studio holding the likes of Bethesda, Arkane and id Software, was bought out by Microsoft for a whopping $7.5 billion. This, of course, gives Microsoft the not-to-be-understated ability to put any ZeniMax title on Game Pass. That includes huge staple franchises, like Fallout, Doom, Elder Scrolls and Wolfenstein.
What’s more, EA and Xbox came to an agreement to envelope EA’s subscription service, EA Play, within Game Pass earlier this year, too. This, again, fills out Game Pass even more, with all of EA’s sport franchises, Star Wars titles, Bioware games like Mass Effect, the Battlefield and the Titanfall series, etc.
At the rate we are moving now, it might as well be assumed that, by some point, if you ever want to play a game again, you’ll need to go to Game Pass. Dramatic? Maybe. But it is what Microsoft is signalling toward.
PlayStation Content to Hold
Okay let’s leave Microsoft for a moment because, of course, there is still Sony’s new generation to explore. The PlayStation 5, however, is more simply sticking to what has worked already, which is why it isn’t quite as in need of investigation.
After the success of the PS4, all Sony has needed to do is retain the moniker that it is the premier platform “for the gamers.” High-quality, first-party exclusives have been the very successful driving force behind the PlayStation, and this model is likely to work again.
While Microsoft puts all hands to the deck of Game Pass, the Series X has launched with very few new titles to warrant its purchase at the moment. With Halo delayed, there are none of the big flagship titles normally needed for a console launch, and more worrying for Microsoft is that there haven’t really been any for the last few years either.
Meanwhile Spider-Man swings us into Sony’s new generation with Miles Morales and a PS5 remastering of Insomniac’s Spider-Man, too. Earlier this year, we also had the incredible follow up to The Last of Us with Part II, and God of War: Ragnarök has been teased for later next year. The high calibre of these titles is enough to bring consumers to the PS5, and their high sales do justify Sony’s stance for remaining focused on what they’ve already been doing—bringing out games “for the gamers.” Their “Play Has No Limits” tag for the PS5 is indicative of the premium quality that they want to be attached to their console and its exclusive titles.
However, with Sony’s penchant for keeping everything in house, as gaming evolves going forward, they may mistakenly be crippling themselves unnecessarily. Game Pass signals accessibility and open ways to play, and the other current avenue for that is in the growth of cross-platform play, which has been supported by Nintendo, Microsoft, and PC libraries like Steam and Epic, but largely resisted by PlayStation—though they are slowly conceding.
This is where Sony may start to find itself left behind somewhat when every other platform is working in harmonious synchronicity in the name of just letting people play. If Sony truly is for the gamers, they need to adopt a more open approach, too, rather than continuing to hold rigorously to the ball as an act of thinly veiled defence of their current lead on their competitors.
What Does the Future Hold for Gaming?
Personally, I think Game Pass is such a strong prospect going forward that the industry is going to move more in the games as a service direction. The same has happened dramatically for film and television of late, so there is little reason to think gaming will be any different.
However, the questions, then, are “How should competitors react to this, and what may the eventual evolution of games as a service be?” PlayStation does have its own Game Pass in PS Now—the key difference being that PS Now has you stream games directly from a server rather than downloading them beforehand.
In theory, this may be a better selling point; the games don’t take up storage on your console; you spend no time waiting for a download to complete; etc. But, unfortunately, PS Now requires the type of internet bandwidth that many just don’t have yet. Unlike streaming a TV show, a game requires a much stabler and faster connection, since, by the very nature of games, things are constantly changing on the fly, meaning information must be transferred far more readily. That might be fine for a gigabit connection to handle, but most of the world is not there yet.
Case in point. I am in the UK, and, when testing PS Now with God of War II (a PlayStation 2 game, bear in mind), the app and my internet could not handle the higher intensity combat sequences and would frequently boot me out of the game. This reliance on a tech power that isn’t widely available is the same reason Google Stadia hasn’t quite taken off either.
Without a guaranteed, stable connection there is little advantage to streaming over just downloading first, since more could go wrong. Hence, for the moment, Game Pass is the more viable option.
However, and this is crucial, that is not to say that somewhere down the line the race won’t change hands. Streaming does seem like the logical progression to the territory we’re just breaching into now, and, at a certain point hereafter, we’ll have to come back to the question of whether consoles are still needed at all then. If you can already stream to your phone or PC, then what need remains for the console anymore?
The death knell of the console has rung for a while now among many industry critics, perhaps prematurely, but this new generation may very well be its true genesis.