Microsoft has shown grit and determination in the ongoing generational battle, but can anything overcome Sony’s lead?
The PS4 is winning this console generation.
PS4 sales vastly outnumber those of Xbox One. The Xbox One has topped sales monthly sales charts in the US, Microsoft’s home and most important territory, less than half a dozen times since the generation kicked off. There were upwards of 40 million PS4 units in the wild as of May 2016, while Microsoft just stopped talking about Xbox One sales after a November 2014 update. Just one year after launch, the Xbox One managed “almost” 10 million consoles shipped, which isn’t bad – but is a long way from the 22 million units sold Sony reported four months later.
“When Sony throws open the doors on its September PlayStation Meeting, PS4 Slim and PS4 Neo will almost certainly pull the plug on Xbox One’s brief triumph.”
Real talk: Sony’s winning, but Microsoft’s not losing. The Xbox One is a fine console, and getting better all the time thanks to frequent feature updates (how about that backwards compatibility? We’ll almost certainly never see that on PS4, because the PS3 was a Frankenstein’s monster of a console). Sony was considered the “loser” for much of the last generation, but by the end of their life cycles, the PS3 and Xbox 360 were pretty much neck-and-neck. So writing the Xbox One off is a mistake.
That said, Xbox is in a very different position to PlayStation. PlayStation is the darling of Sony, which has struggled to transition to a glorious future where nobody wants to buy its luxury tellies or proprietary music players, and now relies on its video game division as one of its most recognisable and financially successful business divisions. Sony’s CEO is former PlayStation boss Kazuo Hirai, for goodness sake; you don’t get that job heading up an underdog segment. When the PS3 faltered, Sony put in time, love and money to turn things around, building to its current success.
Xbox, on the other hand, came into this generation more than a little cocky, and has been floundering about trying to find its feet ever since its fans showed that brand loyalty was not enough to make them swallow stuff like always-on DRM. That would be rough for any console company, as it no doubt was for Sony in the early PS3 years, but Team Xbox has had to fight and fight to garner support and investment from the rest of Microsoft, rather than being cherished. Xbox not being a market leader, being a long way from a market leader even in its home territory, is bad news for a division investors already want to get rid of. Xbox needs to claw its way back to the top, swiftly and dramatically.
Microsoft’s action plan: Xbox One S, Project Scorpio
Enter: Xbox One S, Project Scorpio and to a lesser extent Play Anywhere – Microsoft’s push to integrate Xbox and Windows 10 PCs in a meaningful way. When Microsoft took to the E3 2016 stage to announce not one but two hardware revisions, one of which is essentially an admission that its previous hardware was not up to par, there was a lot of talk about how nobody would buy an Xbox now because another, better one is just around the corner, and that consumers would be confused by this multi-hardware strategy.
We’ll have to see how it plays out, but the fact is people love to buy new hardware, even when it’s just a smaller version of what they’ve already got, and the Xbox One S offers such an inconsistent performance boost that Microsoft doesn’t even want to talk about it: it really is mostly just a slimmer version of the Xbox One. But it’s new, it’s sexy, and people seem really keen on it – even some of those who already have a perfectly fine Xbox One and know Scorpio’s on the horizon.
Replacing your current hardware model with a newer, slimmer version is a tactic dating right back to the 16-bit era, and it has been proven to work over and over again. Moreover, a run-out price cut on the soon-to-be-replaced Xbox One saw Microsoft beat Sony on the NPD charts for maybe the fifth time in 32 months of competition. It’s the worst hardware sales month of the year and the worst month for new-gen consoles ever, sure – but Microsoft still won it. It’s a start.
Sony’s response: PS4 Slim, PS4 Neo
So the future looks bright for Microsoft – or did until yesterday, when the PS4 Slim began to leak like the SS Jumblies, a simile I will never get tired of. Because now PS4 owners also have a shiny new hardware revision to get excited about, and since units are already doing the rounds in the wild, it looks like it’s going to launch at or just after next month’s PlayStation Meeting.
That gives Microsoft just one month with Xbox One S on the market as the newest and best thing, and we won’t even have the NPD’s report for August by the time we’re talking about – and buying – the PS4 Slim. Judging by Sony’s tactics in previous generations, we expect the PS4 Slim to replace the original PS4 as the standard version, sliding in at the same price point. At $399, it would be more expensive than the Xbox One – but the Xbox One appears to be selling at run-out budget prices, to be replaced by the $399 Xbox One S.
Essentially, the release of PS4 Slim in September would put both platforms right back where they were a few months ago: similar price point, similar hardware, similar feature list, similar services. Sony has already conclusively demonstrated it can hold a lead in that scenario.
We’re also expecting Sony to reveal the PS4 Neo, the worst-kept secret in the games industry, next month. Unlike the Scorpio, which is still little more than a vaguely-outlined prospect, the PS4 Neo has been lovingly detailed by leaks well in advance, so we’re anticipating a full info dump in September, probably with a price and release date.
So now what? Project Scorpio and PS4 Neo
Slim consoles are a tried and tested method of refreshing hardware sales when things start to lag a bit a couple of years in. Both platform holders are sensible to do it: nobody wants huge ugly power bricks and sodding great boxes by their telly, and reductions in fan noise, heat generation and power consumption are always welcome.
“The release of PS4 Slim in September would put both platforms right back where they were a few months ago: similar price point, similar hardware, similar feature list, similar services. Sony has already conclusively demonstrated it can hold a lead in that scenario.”
PS4 Neo and Project Scorpio are altogether different beasts, and we still have questions about whether and how the new hardware will disrupt the status quo. What we do know is: Sony’s not going to let Microsoft’s early teasing of Scorpio prevent it being first off the mark with a 4K-ready box.
From initial rumblings, we expect Project Scorpio to be a bigger deal, power-wise, than the PS4 Neo. But Sony’s going to put its console on the market very soon, and it already has a huge lead on the install base – and legions of satisfied consumers who feel they’ve had a decent run for the whole generation to date.
We want to see Microsoft win back some ground this generation. Platform rivalry is good for all of us; it keeps the two companies battling to do better and offer different experiences and services, not to mention warring price points.
But it’s not looking too good for Redmond at the moment. When Sony throws open the doors on its September PlayStation Meeting, PS4 Slim and PS4 Neo will almost certainly pull the plug on Xbox One’s brief triumph.