For me, the first real shot of the Xbox Series X/PS5 console war was fired in March of 2016. That’s when Microsoft’s Chris Charla wrote an open letter about cross-network play, both highlighting what the company was doing an extending an “open invitation” to other networks that might want to utilize cross-play as well. “Other networks” was widely read to mean “PSN”, and most interpreted it as a kind of a challenge: crossplay was a perpetually demanded user feature, but stood to damage Sony’s network advantage as the leading console of the generation. As both the second place console and the owner of Windows, Microsoft found itself in a position to make an unconventional move.
It was an early moment in what’s become a defining part of the gaming world in the last few years. The old divisions are melting back a little bit, and platform holders are both seeing the wisdom in loosening their grip on players and games, as well as simply reacting to the demands of modern gamers. Microsoft has been the most vocal and active about this kind of thing by releasing games on other platforms, bringing all Microsoft Studio games to PC and announcing that all first-party Xbox Series X games would work on Xbox One for the first year or two. The company has been clear about it’s platform-agnostic ambitions, but it’s not the only one hedging its bets.
Sony developed a reputation as a walled garden kind of platform holder/developer in the past generation, and it’s served it well. It followed a kind of Nintendo model, defining the PS4 by a succession of high-profile “prestige” exclusives like Uncharted 4, Bloodborne, Spider-Man, God of War, Horizon Zero Dawn, Death Stranding and the upcoming The Last of Us Part 2 and Ghosts of Tsushima. It’s served Sony well: if you’re a gamer that likes to play a certain kind of high budget, story-driven game, there’s really no excuse for going with any platform besides PlayStation.
Which is why it’s interesting to see Sony pursuing some of the same strategies that Microsoft has been so vocal about. The biggest announcement it’s made in recent months has been that it will be bringing MLB: The Show to all platforms, arguably giving up a powerful system seller for baseball fans in favor of casting a wider net. Recent rumors that Horizon Zero Dawn will be coming to PC show more moves towards a platform agnostic future, as does the ability to play something like God of War on a PC through PlayStation Now streaming. There are more rumors that Death Stranding will come to PC as well, and maybe even The Last of Us Part 2. PC is the largest gaming market in the world, and Sony seems to be keen to show up even if it means sacrificing some elements of its always valuable exclusivity.
I talked to Magid analyst Matt Bertz a little bit about Sony’s plans, and he said that like other companies in the space, it’s beginning to make plans for a future that might look very different from the console-focused worlds we’ve had for so long.
“These exercises in dissolving borders is smart preparation, and when we’re looking at the disruptors like a cloud-based future, or when subscription services become the norm, all of these companies have made plans,” he says.
“One thing we always understand is that consumer demand is what shifts, and consumers have definitely demonstrated an interest in convenience. Netflix is more convenient than blockbuster was, Uber and Lyft are more convenient than taxi dispatch.”
Even Nintendo has gotten in on the action a little bit, moving into mobile with titles like Super Mario Run and Mario Kart Tour.
This is likely to continue when the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 release in the fall. In many ways, those machines are still part of an older narrative in gaming, and one that’s still very much alive and kicking. But I expect we’re also going to see Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo continue to make preparations for a different kind of future, loosening restrictions on cross-play, cross-save, cross-buy, exclusivity and all those other features of a world that’s less defined by platforms and more defined by ecosystems.
Sony is still almost definitely going to bring its powerful exclusive development to bear with the PlayStation 5, and I expect to see some shiny new exclusives intended to drive people to the new machine. But I also expect the company to loosen things up elsewhere and maybe even make a big move like The Last of Us Part 2 on PC. Stadia’s troubled launch makes it clear that the future isn’t here quite yet, but that’s sort of the thing about the future. It’s coming.