As the launches of Sony and Microsoft’s new consoles approached last year, it was easy to feel a bit cynical about the extent to which Microsoft was focusing on backwards compatibility and on the idea of Xbox as an ongoing, evolving platform rather than a series of sharply divided hardware generations. We all knew, after all, where Microsoft’s big weakness lay.
Having failed to effectively manage and invest in its first-party studios for many years, the company was racing to cobble together a development and publishing operation that could eventually rival Sony’s — but these things take time, and the Xbox Series consoles were set to have a relatively barren launch window in terms of major exclusive games. Given that inevitability, the extent to which the company was trying to shift attention to just how good the new systems were at playing old games seemed like a pretty transparent attempt to distract from this major weakness.
Almost a year down the line, a lot of things about the new consoles haven’t panned out as we might have expected. They’ve both had successful launches in many regards, for sure, but that success is tempered by the weirdness of the year in which they’ve launched. Facing a significantly elevated demand for games and consoles due to the pandemic which neither company has been able to match due to an ongoing crisis in semiconductor supply chains, and with many major titles being delayed out of their initial launch windows, the new consoles have faced an extremely unusual start in the market.
One consequence of that unusual start is that Microsoft’s bet on backwards compatibility and its focus on smoothing the transition between generations now looks remarkably prescient. In many regards, there’s not much to choose between the XSX and the PS5; they’re both solid, well-executed consoles in hardware terms, and the various performance aspects which fans obsessed over prior to launch have, predictably enough, turned out to be more or less irrelevant in most real-world scenarios.
“The work Microsoft did on smoothing over the generation transition is also something that increasingly sets its console experience apart from the PS5”
What stands out to me often when I pick up a controller, however, is that Microsoft’s service offering is significantly more well thought-out and expertly implemented than Sony’s. And while Game Pass is a very significant part of that, the work Microsoft did on smoothing over the generation transition is also something that increasingly sets its console experience apart from the PS5.
Part of that is simply that Microsoft executed very, very well on this aspect of the offering. The combination of its backwards compatibility work and its Smart Delivery technology makes for a seamless experience that’s exactly as uncomplicated and straightforward as a console game experience ought to be — for the most part, you can simply play games without having to think about whether you’re playing the correct or best version, confident that the console is handling all of that on your behalf.
The less praiseworthy side of it is on Sony’s end of the equation, because unfortunately, Sony has made poor decisions on this front from the outset and continues to make unforced errors even now. Its most recent mess-up involved announcing and then promptly backtracking on a fee for upgrading the PS4 version of Horizon: Forbidden West to the PS5 version. Despite the backtrack on that specific title, however, the $10 fee to move from a PS4 version of a new game to the PS5 version will remain in place as a general policy.
This little storm in a teacup, and the consumer backlash it provoked, is a terrible look for the PS5, putting a pretty major spotlight on what’s arguably the console’s biggest weak point compared to its competition. The PS5’s handling of cross-generation titles has been downright bad from the outset, a facepalm-worthy intersection of bad technical decisions and bad business decisions that leaves consumers facing a confusing mess of PS4 and PS5 versions of the same game. Upgrades to the PS5 version are generally hidden behind weird menu options, PS4 and PS5 versions of the same game co-exist on the console for no clear reason, and transferring save games between generations is a weird, fiddly process. This would be bad in and of itself; it’s all the worse because Xbox provides a graceful, simple and well-executed example of how to implement this properly.
“The PS5’s handling of cross-generation titles has been downright bad from the outset, a facepalm-worthy intersection of bad technical decisions and bad business decisions…”
The fuss over charging by default for PS4 to PS5 upgrades lays bare the motivation for a lot of the choices which led PS5 down this road; some of the frustrating, badly executed handling of cross-generation software makes more sense if you assume that the default for all cross-generation titles is that the PS5 version will be an optional paid-for upgrade. That makes a kind of sense, at least if you reason it out from the perspective of a time-traveler from 2019 who doesn’t know how things have changed in the interim. We’ve known for some time that this generation of consoles would see a software price hike; that’s eminently justified, in fact, with the $10 rise in sticker prices not even fully covering inflation since the last time game prices changed. Sony’s 2019 reasoning would have been that the $10 price gap between PS4 and PS5 games should be covered by a $10 fee to upgrade. The company promised to upgrade launch window games for free — a move designed to ensure its launch window games don’t flop as PS4 owners hold off on buying them until they’ve got a new console in their hands — but long-term, they’d pick up their $10 toll to cover the price differential between platforms.
That’s still not a policy that would have looked great stacked up against Microsoft’s offering — especially given the technical and UX problems it’s led to — but at least it’s somewhat justifiable when you’re talking about PS4 owners who are holding out on upgrading to PS5 for now. They’re buying games primarily for their PS4; the $10 upgrade is an option that’s open to them down the road if they decide they’d like to play the game again on their shiny new console. It’s not an ideal strategy when your competitor has a more consumer-friendly one, but it’s at least a defensible position.
It’s an entirely different thing to pursue that strategy, unchanged, when a huge swathe of your consumers aren’t “holding out” on upgrading; they simply can’t buy a new console for love nor money right now because of serious supply issues which (according to comments made by Toshiba this week) might persist into 2023. These are users who are unwillingly stuck on the last gen, and pretty damned frustrated about it already; they’re only going to be further frustrated and alienated by pursuing a policy which means that when they finally do manage to get their hands on a PS5, there’ll be an additional hefty price tag to move over any recent games they’ve bought.
“This whole affair risks [Sony] being seen as arrogantly taking its consumers for granted, and even trying to nickel and dime them the very second they finally manage to fork over hundreds of dollars for a new console”
Sony’s policy seems predicated on the idea that there are a lot of consumers out there sticking with PS4 for now out of choice, whereas the reality is that there are a ton of consumers who are buying PS4 versions of games simply because Sony has failed to deliver sufficient stock to meet PS5 demand for almost a full year now. I know that’s not entirely Sony’s fault — there’s a pandemic, a semiconductor shortage, etc. — but the buck stops with them. It’s their brand, their product, and it’s their would-be consumers who are stuck haplessly refreshing Amazon product pages in the dimming hope of getting their hands on a system this side of Christmas. These consumers are the company’s most loyal, in many cases, and certainly the most outspoken sources of word-of-mouth sentiment. Above and beyond drawing unwanted attention to one of its console’s weakest points by comparison with the Xbox, this whole affair risks the company being seen as arrogantly taking its consumers for granted, and even trying to nickel and dime them the very second they finally manage to fork over hundreds of dollars for a new console.
Ultimately, while the weird conditions of the launch window have played strongly to Microsoft’s favour by emphasizing the very areas which the Xbox Series X excels at in terms of back catalogue functionality, Sony likely believes – with some justification – that once its first-party pipeline starts pumping out high quality software for PS5 on a regular enough basis, all of these launch issues will fade into the background.
Perhaps that’s correct; but this abnormally long launch window is also a longer window in which consumers’ perceptions of the consoles and their parent companies are being cemented into place. Sony has a bad, albeit not terribly recent, track record with being seen as arrogant and taking its consumers for granted; Microsoft, for all its trillion-dollar might (and multi-billion-dollar acquisitions) seems to have done a pretty good job of positioning itself as a smart, scrappy underdog and all-round consumer champion in this race, and that positioning suggests a pretty major public perception trap that Sony could fall into all too easily. Avoiding unforced errors and being a bit less tone deaf regarding the many, many consumers who feel let down and frustrated by the company’s supply problems would be a good start in terms of avoiding that trap.