Taking down Sony: How can Nintendo and Microsoft help each other against the king?
In the 8th generation of consoles, Sony’s PlayStation 4 is the clear leader when it comes to the video game consoles. This can be attributed to Sony’s studios pumping out critically acclaimed exclusive titles such as Horizon: Zero Dawn, God of War, and Marvel’s Spider-Man, as well as its incredible third party Japanese console support including games like Nier: Automata, Persona 5, Dragon Quest 11, and Nioh. Earlier this year at the Consumer Electronics Show, Sony touted that it had sold over 91 million units of the PS4. On the other side, Microsoft hasn’t revealed the number of Xbox One consoles sold since 2014 after it was clear that the PS4 was winning the console war against the Xbox One. However, it’s been indirectly revealed that the Xbox One is sitting around 40 million units sold, confirming the speculation that the PS4 had been outselling the Xbox One at a ratio of 2:1.
Microsoft has seemingly thrown in the towel this generation, after a string of cancelled exclusives including Scalebound, Phantom Dust Remake, and Fable Legends. However, it’s not all doom and gloom for the tech giant. The Xbox One’s backwards compatibility program is one of the advantages that it has over the PS4. Xbox Game Pass has been a great service too, offering a huge library of games, including all of Microsoft’s first party exclusives on the day of release, for only $10/month. Additionally, Microsoft has recognized why Sony was able to absolutely dominate this generation. The company announced that it had acquired several studios, including Ninja Theory and Obsidian Entertainment, in order to bolster its lineup of exclusives for the upcoming generation of consoles. Microsoft even started a studio from scratch, The Initiative, which will no doubt be one of its flagship studios moving forward. But will that be enough to take the crown away from Sony?
After the pitiful lifetime sales of the Wii U at 13.5 million (Nintendo’s worst selling console), Nintendo has bounced back with the incredibly popular Nintendo Switch, which became the fastest selling console in America. Supported by its monstrous catalog of exclusive games, such as Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Odyssey, and Super Smash Brothers Ultimate, Nintendo has finally found its footing again.
While that’s all well and good for Nintendo, there are a few sore spots that remain. Some of the biggest third party games in 2019, including Kingdom Hearts 3, Resident Evil 2 Remake, and Anthem, are not coming to the Nintendo Switch. In an interview with Hollywood Reporter last year, then President of Nintendo America, Reggie Fils-Aime, said that in regards to Red Dead Redemption 2 (arguably the biggest game of 2018) not releasing on the Nintendo Switch:
“any game from a key third-party that’s coming out now, typically that development started well before any conversations about Nintendo Switch. What happens moving forward? We’ll see. But that’s how you wind up with a situation with Red Dead not being available on our platform.”
While it certainly makes sense that Red Dead Redemption 2 was in development long before the concept of the Switch even existed, the more plausible reason in my opinion, is that the Switch is not nearly as powerful as the PS4 or Xbox One and would not even be capable of running the game smoothly.
There’s also the issue of Nintendo’s online infrastructure. Historically, players were able to access online play without charge, but back in September 2018, Nintendo rolled out its paid Nintendo Switch Online program and I wasn’t entirely impressed. While substantially lower at $20/year compared to Xbox Live Gold and PlayStation Plus $60/year subscriptions, it lacked many key features that Microsoft and Sony have had for years. Cloud Saves are locked behind the $20 subscription fee, whereas Microsoft gives it to you for free regardless whether or not you have Gold. PlayStation Plus members have the option to back up their saves via external drives if they didn’t want to pay for Cloud Saves. Nintendo offers no such option for backing up your save data locally. Nintendo’s drip feed of free NES games also doesn’t match PlayStation Plus’s monthly free games or Xbox’s monthly Games with Gold offerings in terms of quality. Personally, I was hoping that the Switch would introduce its version of Trophies/Achievements. These were introduced TWO generations ago, starting with the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. There’s honestly no excuse for Nintendo to not have this system in place that’s over a decade old at this point.
The Enemy of my Enemy is my Friend
Right now you’re wondering, “George, what the hell are you talking about? Get to the point of the article! You have such a clickbait title!” We have a just a few more pieces of context to go over. Recently, rumors have been swirling around the video game industry that Xbox Game Pass could be coming to the Nintendo Switch. This lines up with how Xbox boss Phil Spencer envisioned bringing the Microsoft platform outside of Xbox, as evidenced when they revealed xCloud, its streaming platform, at E3 2018. What do both Microsoft and Nintendo stand to gain in this partnership? Let’s break it down.
The audiences for Xbox and the Switch don’t necessarily overlap. This is purely an anecdotal point, but it seems like that mostly very casual players own just only a Switch. Most people usually have a Nintendo Switch as a complement to either a PS4 or an Xbox One. Players who already have a PS4+Switch combo are unlikely to purchase an Xbox anyway, so why not bring the Xbox platform over to where the players are? Those with the Xbox+Switch combination will now have another way to play their games on the go. This is a potential new revenue stream for Microsoft that it otherwise would have missed entirely. Additionally, the games on Xbox Game Pass will be introduced to a new audience, potentially bringing in new fans for Microsoft’s first party titles, which are more multiplayer and service oriented that rely on player count, including Sea of Thieves, State of Decay 2, and Crackdown 3. Platformer games have found a fitting home on the Nintendo Switch, with games such as Dead Cells, Hollow Knight, and Celeste. Microsoft’s own exclusive platformers, Cuphead and Ori and the Blind Forest would fit right in (when they eventually do come to Game Pass).
Now, what about Nintendo? Remember Reggie’s comment about Red Dead Redemption 2 not coming to Switch? Well, okay, maybe it’s going to be a while before we see Red Dead come to Game Pass, but there are few big budget third party AAA games on it. In particular, Shadow of the Tomb Raider and Fallout 4. These games were never going to have actual Switch versions due to the hardware limitations of the system (and the intensive graphics requirements would probably melt it). However, with Game Pass and the power of streaming with xCloud, playing Shadow of the Tomb Raider and Fallout 4 on the Switch is definitely a possibility. It’s still up in the air whether or not games such as Anthem or Resident Evil 2 will even come to Game Pass down the road. But if Microsoft and Nintendo are able to hash out some sort of deal that allows for a separate xCloud app itself on the Switch, players could be able to buy Xbox versions of those games through the Microsoft Store and simply stream them on their Switch. But that seems like more of an evolution of the Game Pass app on the Switch, and also a wet dream right now.
We already established that the Nintendo Switch Online ecosystem isn’t very good. While I don’t think that Microsoft would be bringing the entirety of Xbox Live over to the Switch, just having Game Pass would be enormous for Nintendo Switch Online. I would imagine that in order to access Game Pass on Switch, you would need a Nintendo Online subscription. That $20/year just got a hell of a lot more valuable with the incredible catalog of Xbox titles available on Game Pass to play on the Switch. I’m not sure if Microsoft would still charge an additional $10/month for Game Pass itself on the Switch, but that’s assuming my first speculation of it being locked behind Nintendo Switch Online is even correct. Streaming has been one of the biggest trends in the video game space recently, and Nintendo doesn’t even need to worry about the technology and infrastructure behind it as Microsoft can provide the backbone with xCloud.
Players might also be able to earn Xbox Achievements on the Nintendo Switch through games on Game Pass. While this doesn’t solve Nintendo’s problem of having no Trophy/Achievement system for its own games (Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey Achievements would have been amazing), I guess it’s close enough…for now…as I can’t keep giving them a pass forever. Overall, I do think that Nintendo has slightly more leverage than Microsoft does in this partnership. The Switch is doing just fine without any help from Xbox, but what Microsoft can bring to the table can benefit Nintendo immensely while also helping to expand Xbox’s presence.
So, where does this leave Sony? Sony does have its own streaming platform, PlayStation Now, which recently added the feature of being able to download PS4 and PS2 games locally to the PS4 system. However, PS3 games are still available to stream only. This is obviously a response to Game Pass’s ability to install games directly to the Xbox system. Additionally, recent job postings have been popping up at Sony for Cloud Engineer roles, suggesting that Sony is looking into cloud streaming for the upcoming PS5. However, I would imagine that Microsoft has much more expertise in this field and that Sony is still trying to catch up here. As I said before, Nintendo doesn’t have to worry about this as Microsoft is there to carry the heavy burden of game streaming. Sony also has to look out for both Amazon and Google, with the latter already having Project Stream and also is set to reveal its own console later this March at the Game Developers Conference.
It seems like Sony might be the loser here when it comes to the streaming space. Not only that, but Microsoft and Nintendo have been playing nice with each other even before the rumors of Xbox Game Pass coming to Switch. Microsoft has been a big proponent of cross play between other platforms including PC, Switch, and mobile, but Sony has been unwilling to let its competitors have access to its massive user base. And while exclusives absolutely are important in defining the console platform (as Microsoft learned the hard way this generation), Nintendo has its own suite of high profile franchises, and Microsoft has been looking to close that gap through its studio acquisitions.
Consoles have become more than just a simple box under your TV and are now ecosystems that players are invested in. It’s still unknown whether or not the PS5 will have backwards compatibility; signs point to the system at least having the feature for PS4 games. Along with the games as a service trend, many players are not going to simply abandon their PS4 versions of Overwatch, Fortnite, Apex Legends, or PUBG when the next generation rolls around. I would think that players would be very angry if they couldn’t be able to transfer their progress or would have to spend extra money for a PS5 copy of a game they already own. Backwards compatibility is one of the biggest advantages of the Xbox One. I doubt Sony would want to give up any ground to its main competitor as it’s safe to assume that the next generation Xbox will have this feature.
As the future becomes more digital, Microsoft is thinking ahead about expanding the Xbox brand as a platform rather than just a box in your room that you play games on. Xbox also understands the importance of looking back into the past and preserving its legacy content with Xbox 360 and original Xbox backwards compatibility. Nintendo seems to understand that the industry is changing, and that if it wants to experience Wii era levels of success again, it can’t do it alone. The PS3 struggled against the Xbox 360 due to a myriad of reasons, but its solid line of exclusives as well as Japanese support allowed Sony to go toe to toe with Microsoft in the end. As Microsoft is preparing to release more exclusives to match Sony’s output, Sony is seemingly making more baffling decisions such as no backwards compatibility and its reluctance to allow crossplay. This generation, it was Microsoft’s turn to learn a lesson and to a lesser extent, Nintendo, with the commercial failure of the Wii U. However, Sony needs to check itself before it falls into hubris again.