Sony and Nintendo are on top right now—could anything bring them down?
The PlayStation 4 and the Nintendo Switch are currently, not just ascendant, but dominant in the marketplace—they have both exceeded all expectations with commercial performance, put their respective brands back in the limelight, dominated chatter and mindshare due to a constant stream of great games, and are currently the leading consoles on the market. The thing, though, is, that as the gaming market has shown us, gamers are fickle, tastes can change at the drop of a hat, what’s successful now doesn’t have to be successful tomorrow (and vice versa), and fortunes can change without warning.
Just look at how Fortnite went from being a flop at launch to the most popular game in the world currently, or how Rainbow Six: Siege went from an unsuccessful launch to one of the most successful shooters of the generation. Look at how the PS3 went from being a laughing stock to widely being considered one of the best consoles of all time within a span of years, or how Nintendo went from one of the most successful consoles ever to one of the least successful consoles ever to back to one of the most successful ones within the span of just six years. Look at how Microsoft went from the original Xbox, which was an underground hit, to leading the generation with the Xbox 360, to their underperformance with the Xbox One.
Fortunes can change quickly in the gaming industry, is what’s I am getting at—although, and this is the important part, it rarely happens randomly. Fortunes change when those sheering the ship go wrong—due to miscalculations or sheer arrogance. Which is to say, bad decisions, whether motivated by a misunderstanding of the market, or arrogance, or both, can reverse the course of even the most successful company or console—so even if Sony and Nintendo are doing well now, they could still find themselves looking up from the bottom of the barrel tomorrow if they’re not careful.
"On Sony’s end, a lot of issues come down to how the company treats the issue of compatibility."
Now, I have talked extensively about issues, potential and current, that face the Xbox brand extensively previously—most of them having to do with Microsoft’s lack of compelling games and exclusives for their console. PS4 and Switch more or less don’t face any pressing, immediate current issues—but there are some bubbling under the surface that could become problems for them in the future, which they would do well to address now, before that happens.
On Sony’s end, a lot of issues come down to how the company treats the issue of compatibility. With the PS4, the break in backward compatibility with the PS3 was understandable, if not desirable. But things have changed a lot in the years since—Microsoft has managed to raise the bar with its excellent backwards compatibility initiative on Xbox One, and the market has been trained by iPhones and Android devices to expect that when it purchases something digitally, it will be available there for it in the future. With Sony pushing greatly for digital purchases and its digital services, if the PlayStation 5 doesn’t maintain continuity and compatibility with the PS4, Sony could risk alienating a fair share of its audience. After all, if their present purchase won’t carry over to the PS5, why not look into the next Xbox as well? If the PS5 could play their existing content, they would have reason to stick with Sony’s ecosystem over trying to switch—but if it’s a full reset anyway, then the PS5 and the next Xbox are on even ground, which is not a situation Sony would want.
Compatibility is especially important at the beginning of a generation—it didn’t matter when Sony broke compatibility with the PS3 when they launched the PS4, because the Xbox One also broke compatibility with the Xbox 360 at first (backward compatibility didn’t come to Xbox One until 2015). But if at the generation reset, the next Xbox has backward compatibility, while the PS5 does not, then not only does Xbox have a greater chance of retaining customers than the PS5 does, but it could also potentially attract some PlayStation owners too—either with the prospect of a PS4 owner being able to pick up and play an old Xbox 360 game on the next Xbox as is without problem, or by simply inspiring confidence that their purchases, future and current, would be better respected on the Xbox side of the fence than they are on the PlayStation side.
"Sony has managed to skate by this generation well enough even in the absence of backward compatibility because Microsoft and Sony both started without it at first, and by the time Microsoft had made inroads with the feature, the PS4 was too well entrenched, with far too many great games and great momentum, for it to matter. At a generation reset, neither of those factors will hold true."
Sony has managed to skate by this generation well enough even in the absence of backward compatibility because Microsoft and Sony both started without it at first, and by the time Microsoft had made inroads with the feature, the PS4 was too well entrenched, with far too many great games and great momentum, for it to matter. At a generation reset, neither of those factors will hold true.
Compatibility, then, is the greatest challenge Sony faces—Nintendo’s is different. While Nintendo, too, has broken compatibility with the Switch, on the whole there is enough reason to suspect that the company will maintain compatibility going forward with the Switch and its successors—since it has long been a stalwart of the feature. The biggest problem Nintendo faces right now, then, is what has long been its Achilles’ heel: its weakness in the network and services area.
Nintendo has trailed in the online functionality area for far too long—with the Switch, they are arguably regressing. I’m not going to get into the whole argument about the Switch lacking Netflix or an internet browser—neither of those are important to you playing games. But basic online functionality, such as the ability to voice chat from the system, form parties, invite friends to your session, have cloud saves, or send a message to a friend, is missing from the Switch right now. If someone, for instance, with over 200 hours in Zelda suddenly loses their save file, with no way to restore it, that is an angry customer Nintendo could lose in the future.
"Basic online functionality, such as the ability to voice chat from the system, form parties, invite friends to your session, have cloud saves, or send a message to a friend, is missing from the Switch right now."
But outside of isolated cases like this, not having parity with online functionality creates another disadvantage for Nintendo—while the Switch is weaker than the PS4 and Xbox One, it is a modern system that is strong enough, and compatible with modern engines. Moreover, modern pipelines for game development are highly scalable—all of this is to say that with the Switch being a success, thirds party support for it shouldn’t be held back by its relative lack of power. That’s a good thing, and something Nintendo has been lacking for years now.
But the disparity in online functionality could end up creating a barrier for third parties anyway—most modern third party games have major online components, for gameplay as well as for their in game economies. If the Switch can’t support something as basic as the ability for a player to invite a friend to join their session natively, then either a third party has to work to program their own solution for that, or they ship their game without that functionality, leading to an inferior version. As a matter of fact, that is what happened with the Switch versions of FIFA 18 and NBA 2K18 last year. If a Switch version of a game is inferior, players are less likely to buy it. If players don’t buy it, third parties don’t support the Swich. If third parties don’t support the Switch, Nintendo ends up right back where they started.
For Nintendo, the most pressing thing it needs to address in the future is how it handles online functionality; we live in a world where online is no longer a novelty, no longer an option, no longer an add-on. It is mandatory, a necessity, an expectation—an expectation that Nintendo, thus far, has been unable to meet.
"The good news for Nintendo, and for Sony, is that they both make great games—and these great games ensure that their systems will continue to have appeal, and therefore attract buyers, no matter what."
The good news for Nintendo, and for Sony, is that they both make great games—and these great games ensure that their systems will continue to have appeal, and therefore attract buyers, no matter what. It means that they have an advantage—they can continue screwing up in areas such as compatibility and online, but people will still buy their systems for the next Last of Us or Zelda. That’s Nintendo and Sony’s advantage—great games are, ultimately, what you buy gaming systems for. Everything else is extraneous.
So for now, Sony and Nintendo are doing fine, in spite of their obvious weaknesses. But their weaknesses are weaknesses nonetheless—why leave openings at all? The best way to remain ascendant is to do everything right. That includes, in fact, requires, doing well in areas you’re not doing well in right now. Hopefully Sony and Nintendo do just that.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to GamingBolt as an organization.