How will Microsoft cope with the launch of not one, but two new platforms this year?
This year promises to be extremely interesting for gaming hardware- we have the long expected and rumored reveal and release of Nintendo’s NX, their enigmatic and elusive new console that is being billed as a successor to the Wii U and Nintendo 3DS, and will apparently also be Nintendo’s return to the conventional console game market. The Nintendo NX is expected to at least be in the same category, from a hardware perspective, as the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4, meaning both of those consoles are about to get some competition. And considering that third parties seem to be extremely bullish on the NX – more positive things have been said about the NX already than ever were for the Wii U – it seems like the console market is going to get a good, proper, and arguably needed shake up this year.
In October this year, Sony plans to launch the PlayStation VR, a new virtual reality headset for the PlayStation 4 that is being billed as an all new platform by Sony. While VR’s ultimate potential remains to be seen in terms of commercial performance, at the very least, it seems like Sony has something coming to refresh the PlayStation 4 line, and expand interest in their flagship console. Essentially, they have an incoming new hardware launch, which is just about the only thing that can effectively counter another hardware launch.
Which raises the question of exactly how Microsoft plans to react to Nintendo’s introduction of the NX and Sony’s PlayStation VR?
"With the NX launch, it seems like the console market is going to get a good, proper, and arguably needed shake up this year."
At this point Microsoft don’t seem to have any plans in place to counter the NX at all. The HoloLens, Microsoft’s excellent seeming augmented reality headset, could have been a great way to refresh interest in the Xbox One platform, and counter interest in the NX and especially the PlayStation VR- it would also have been a major hardware launch for them, which would have brought in some numbers and mainstream attention, too. However, while HoloLens is launching for developers soon, the consumer launch of the headset seems to be suspended indefinitely– Microsoft’s stated goal is to avoid having the kind of scarcity of compelling software for the HoloLens that was ultimately the Kinect’s undoing on the Xbox 360.
So there is nothing on the hardware front to keep the attention on Xbox- but this is not exactly a new situation for Microsoft. In 2006, the Xbox 360 was almost a year old, and faced the prospect of fighting off the impending launches of not one, but two threatening competitors in the guise of the PlayStation 3 and the Wii. And the Xbox 360 managed to hold its own, ultimately selling more than either of the competing consoles in that year, thanks to a great lineup of killer games that made the Xbox 360 the must own machine for gamers, and ensured that the console was always in the conversation- games like The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion and Gears of War.
"This is not exactly a new situation for Microsoft."
Surely if the Xbox One has a similar spate of great compelling exclusives planned, it should be able to hold off the assault of the NX and the PSVR too, right? The problem, though, is, that the Xbox One’s exclusive game lineup this year is definitely not the kind that can keep buzz for the system high in the face of two new platform launches. Don’t get me wrong – games like ReCore, Sea of Thieves, Quantum Break, Crackdown 3, and Gears of War 4 all look great, and I am sure they will be neat additions to the Xbox One library – the trouble is that all of those games are either shared with PC, or rumored to have PC versions in the pipeline. The other problem is, none of them can generate the kind of buzz that would be needed to counter the launch of two new platforms. A new platform launch is a momentous occasion, and while it is possible for a game (or two) to be able to take attention away from that, the game in question needs to be massive, essentially penetrating social pop culture consciousness, for it to be able to do so. In 2001, the PlayStation 2 got three such games to counter the launches of the Xbox and Gamecube, in the form of Final Fantasy X, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, and most importantly, Grand Theft Auto III– these games were phenomenal, and had everyone talking about them. They were also all playable only on the PS2, at least at the time. The Xbox 360 repeated the feat against the Wii and PS3 with Oblivion and Gears of War.
And that’s the problem- while I have no doubt that Microsoft’s games for the Xbox will be great, they won’t go viral, so to speak. They all suffer from problems on diametric ends of the scale, with all of them either being sequels that are too safe, to long running franchises that won’t exactly attract new fans at this point, or, if they are new, looking far too niche to capture popular imagination.
Couple this with the fact that the PlayStation VR and the Nintendo NX are both widely expected to introduce new paradigms to video games- PSVR in the form of VR gaming, naturally, while the NX is expected to, at worst, be a console with full third party support and Nintendo’s excellent first party support, and at best, a console that changes the paradigm completely again- much like the NES, N64, and Wii did. The danger to the Xbox One becomes clearer- the console, long since having taken a beating in terms of public perception due to its early PR blunders, as well as the stigma of being the weaker console,runs the very real risk of being ignored, with attention instead shifting to the NX and the PSVR- essentially, the exact same thing that happened to Nintendo and the Wii U in 2013, just a year after the console had initially launched.
"I want to hope that it will be announced this E3- an Xbox One Elite launch for this holiday season will certainly end up giving Microsoft some ammunition to keep the Xbox One competitive as it prepares to fend off the assault of not one, but two new combatants into the ring."
So yes, Microsoft needs to have a strategy in place to counter the NX and the PSVR. Xbox fans will probably want to think that neither are going to be big enough threats, and/or that the Xbox One will do fine even if the PSVR and the NX take off, but they would be lying to themselves- facts and numbers do not lie, and Xbox One sales are on a sharp trajectory downwards. Sales for the machine have stalled in all territories except the UK and US, and even there, the Xbox One sees month on month drops, and is consistently outsold by the PlayStation 4. What the system needs right now is more interest, as opposed to it losing mindshare completely, because the public eye is trained on new entrants.
So yes- the PSVR seems to be inoculating the PS4 against the NX launch, and the NX itself should be fine, because it’s a new hardware launch (and I want to point out, even if the NX does falter in the long run, it poses a very real immediate short term threat, by being a new hardware launch- even the Wii U and PlayStation Vita had extremely successful launches). There seems to be no such strategy in place for the Xbox One. Phil Spencer has discussed the possibility of introducing an upgraded Xbox One console some time, an Xbox one Elite so to speak, not unlike the rumored PS4.5 – which, incidentally, is a very sensible long term strategy, in my opinion – but we don’t know what the timeframe for that is, and when it will even be announced. I want to hope that it will be announced this E3- an Xbox One Elite launch for this holiday season will certainly end up giving Microsoft some ammunition to keep the Xbox One competitive as it prepares to fend off the assault of not one, but two new combatants into the ring. Because if not, then Microsoft faces the very real risk of completely diminished public interest in their console, much like what happened to the Sega Dreamcast, and Nintendo’s Wii U, before it.
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