The battle for second place gets more heated.
The biggest problem with Xbox over the last 10 years, especially, has been the state of its first party titles. In an era where devices are becoming increasingly homogenized, and relying more and more on third party games that are almost always multiplatform, first party titles, which are exclusive to the platform holder’s system, are what help make a case for and differentiate ecosystems. Nintendo has always realized the value of first party exclusives, and their entire business model is built around using their hardware as an exclusive vehicle to access their desirable software. PlayStation learned the value of first party games in the PS3 era, as the third party exclusives they had enjoyed for over a decade began to quickly go multiplatform, and Sony built up an enviable, world class stable of first party games to set PlayStation apart.
Xbox, on the other hand, puzzlingly seemed to downplay the importance of exclusives around that same time, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to put at least some of the blame for Xbox One’s misfortunes over the years on the fact that there was very little impetus to pick it over a PS4. Once Phil Spencer took over, however, he resolved to address the situation. It’s taken him a very long time – the Xbox One is now last gen, and its successor is on the market – but over the last few years, Microsoft has purchased literally dozens of studios to add to their stable of developers, IP, and publishing labels. The end result is that, in terms of sheer numbers, Xbox now has the biggest first party on the market, with 23 studios (significantly more than PlayStation or Nintendo), and literally orders of magnitudes more IP than either of its competitors.
So at this point, what is the state of the three console manufacturers’ first party stable? It’s safe to say there has been a disruption of status quo, of course, but has it changed anything? Has Xbox made up the difference?
When comparing first party portfolios, we need to get the elephant in the room out of the way first – Nintendo. It goes without saying that Nintendo’s first party software is very literally in a league of its own. Nintendo has dozens of world class IP built up over the decades, and they remain the only company in history to be able to sell expensive hardware on the promise of nothing but their own games. Super Mario, The Legend of Zelda, Super Smash Bros., Animal Crossing, Mario Kart, Pokemon, Splatoon, Donkey Kong, Kirby, Metroid, Xenoblade, Luigi’s Mansion, and so many more, are franchises from varied studios that single handedly can compel people to buy new Nintendo hardware, sell so many dozens of millions of copies that the list of bestselling games is dominated by Nintendo (in spite of their games being available on just one system, unlike most other titles on the market), have routinely delivered some of the most celebrated and acclaimed games of all time, cover pretty much every single genre under the sun, and have cultural cachet that is very literally unmatched by almost any other game (and certainly by no other first party’s titles). It is obvious, axiomatic, a given, that Nintendo’s first party is the best – when people spend hundreds of dollars to buy often undesirable hardware by the millions to just play the newest Mario Kart, the point is self evident. They’re playing on a different field than the other two.
The battle, then, is not for first place, but for second place. And here is where PlayStation has ruled the roost, especially in the last decade, slowly building up a reputation for consistency and excellence, and closing the once unfathomable gap that used to separate it from first place. The value and cachet of first party PlayStation games has been slowly rising, and Sony’s traditional studio driven strategy, combined with their recent emphasis on cultivating IP, has given rise to an enviable slate of award winning games that have comprised one of the longest unbroken streaks of consistent high quality we have ever seen.
But Sony’s rise isn’t a clean upward curve – this period has seen loads of studio closures (Guerrilla Cambridge, Evolution Studios, Sony Liverpool, Japan Studio), has seen a severe contraction of output in quantity, and has seen a definite emphasis on certain kinds of games and genres over others. Where once Sony used to put out all kinds of games, including fighters, multiplayer shooters, 2D platformers, and whatever the hell Tokyo Jungle was, they now mostly seem to emphasize third person action adventure titles. This isn’t to say that those are the only kinds of games they put out, as titles such as Dreams or Astro’s Playroom will easily and readily attest to, but it is undeniable and incontrovertible that the third person action adventure title comprises a significant majority of Sony’s output, and gets all of Sony’s marketing money and push. The fact that several studios responsible for more unique titles in Sony’s portfolio, such as Studio Liverpool with Wipeout, and Japan Studio with things like Gravity Rush, are now closed means this homogeneity may be likelier to continue, especially in the AAA console space (Sony’s VR efforts are, to their credit, generally varied and unique).
On paper, Microsoft has Sony beaten. This is true, no matter how much certain people may want to gnash their teeth over it. Theoretically, Microsoft has more than double the studios, two to three times more IP, and some of the biggest and most recognizable brands, across a multitude of genres, and with decades of history, now tied to Xbox – The Elder Scrolls, Fallout, Wolfenstein, Halo, Forza, Fable, Gears of War, Minecraft are all Xbox games. Bethesda Game Studios, Ninja Theory, id Software are all Xbox studios. While without Bethesda, I think this would be a very clear PlayStation win (albeit Xbox would obviously be closer than it was before Spencer went on his shopping spree), the addition of Fallout and The Elder Scrolls alone means we are looking at some of the most popular games of all time now being Xbox first party titles.
While Uncharted, The Last of Us, God of War, and Horizon are obviously great, valuable IP with millions of fans, nothing Sony has comes close to matching the caliber of Fallout or The Elder Scrolls, except Spider-Man, and Spider-Man is a licensed IP.
Theoretically, Xbox is also covering a broader range of genres now – fighting games, racing games, RPGs, horror games, immersive sims, first person shooters, third person shooters, third person action adventure games, survival games, real time strategy games, simulation games, platformers, and more. Again, this is significantly more than Sony covers – actually it might be significantly more than even Nintendo covers at this point, especially when one considers that Nintendo has nothing, for example, in the immersive sim arena. In terms of sheer variety and breadth, theoretically, Xbox is now the top dog.
If I were to go by this analysis as painted above, then yes, Xbox takes the second place crown from PlayStation, with Nintendo still leading the pack (and Xbox actually beginning to trade blows with Nintendo in several areas, such as genre variety). This, again, is on paper. The fact of the matter is, all this is now contingent on Microsoft and Xbox properly executing and following through on all the acquisitions they have made. That means they have to manage these studios and IP well, not interfere with the creative process, and have them put out games in line with the expected quality from them prior to the acquisition. The issue is, Microsoft has not been known to do that in the past – consider how badly Rare was mismanaged, or how terribly Microsoft handled IPs with as much prestige as Halo or Gears of War. The one exception to the rule so far has been Minecraft, which under Microsoft, became bigger than it ever was prior to their acquisition, but we have far more examples of Microsoft mismanaging their game output than otherwise. And while some people might be tempted to point out that the examples of mismanagement are from before Phil Spencer took over as head of Xbox, which is fair, the bulk of them are still from a time when Phil Spencer was at the very least in charge of Microsoft’s first party lineup, if nothing else.
So has Microsoft closed the gap? On paper, sure. On paper, they are now way ahead of Sony, and within kissing distance of Nintendo (who maintain a thin first place lead). The jury is out on whether or not this actually translates into anything substantive in the real world. It all depends on how Microsoft manages its first party portfolio from here on out, as well as on whether or not Sony continues to decrease the breadth of its own first party as they have been in the past few years. In the here and now, though? Nintendo maintains first place, Sony is still second, and Microsoft is still third – but the battle is now closer than it has literally ever been before.
And that’s already a big change from status quo.
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.