It is an exciting time in video game world: two new consoles, the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5, are arriving this month. With a long, lonely Covid winter ahead, it is tempting to splash out. New machines bring with them the promise of new worlds, as leaps in technology unlock creative possibilities for game developers. Throughout the 1980s, 90s and 00s, there was a transformational shift every five or so years, blowing apart people’s expectations of what you could do in a game, how big a virtual world could be and how you could explore it.
It is not quite like that any more. The pace of change has slowed and this time around the advances are less immediate and more subtle, more like tinkering under the bonnet: better resolution, higher frame rates, shorter loading times, smoother online features. Look at a PS5 game next to one from its predecessor, the PS4, and – unless you have a giant expensive TV and sound system – you might not immediately see the difference. It will take a few years for the creatives behind blockbuster games to unlock these machines’ full capabilities. But whoever gains early ground in the console war gets a bigger say in the future of gaming.
The Xbox Series X (£449) resembles a futuristic computer: a squat, black obelisk of technology. When you turn it on, though, it looks just like its predecessor, the Xbox One: same menus, same Windows-esque design. Even the controller is almost identical. It is when you start playing that you feel the difference: games are prettier and play more smoothly, and you only have to wait half as long for them to load. A smaller and less powerful version, the Xbox Series S (£249), has no disk drive and won’t look quite as good on a 4K TV, but both consoles come with the option of Xbox Game Pass, a monthly subscription that lets you play hundreds of games from Microsoft’s expanding library of partners.
The PlayStation 5 (also £449) is more of a design statement, a black-and-white, enormous spaceship of a thing. Its controller has futuristic features such as haptic feedback (super-precise rumble tech) and triggers that offer variable resistance depending on gameplay. Its revamped menus and home screen are slick and soothing. It has pretty much the same technical advantages as the Xbox but more personality. A £359 model comes without a disk drive, if you would rather download your games. It will work out as more pricey than the Xbox in the long run, though, as there is no Game Pass equivalent for new games: Sony’s subscription service, PlayStation Now, only includes games from the PS4 and earlier.
These two impressive bits of kit are the latest in a long line of rival video game consoles. The competitors have changed over the years – from Nintendo and Sega to Sony and Microsoft – but the console wars have been a constant in video game history, driving innovation as well as a lot of spending from players. Things really got going in the early 90s, when Sega hired Mattel’s former chief executive, Tom Kalinske, to take on Nintendo in North America, where Mario’s makers had 90% of the market. Aggressive ad campaigns followed (“Sega does what Nintendon’t!”) and a conscious effort to paint Sega as the cool older brother’s choice of console saw its Genesis win over millions of players.
But gaming rivalries had divided playgrounds even before Sonic v Mario. In 80s Britain, kids were split between the plucky-underdog ZX Spectrum, with its rubber keyboard and one-channel sound, or the fancier and much more expensive Commodore 64. You can still see men in their late 40s sniping at each other in comments threads over the pair’s relative merits.
In part, console tribalism is a form of sunk cost fallacy. Few people can afford to own two or more games machines, and if you have just spent a lot of money on something, you are going to convince yourself the one you’ve bought is the best option. But that is only part of the story. Like record labels or car manufacturers, games consoles have cultural associations. They create and curate their own different libraries of games, and for fans, the games they play correspond to the kind of person they perceive themselves to be.
For a while, Xbox had a reputation as the jock’s console, best for shooting and racing, while the PlayStation positioned itself as an extension of club culture, something for twentysomethings to play together after a night out. If you liked Japanese culture, you had to go for a Sega Dreamcast. If you loved Nintendo, it was because its games were approachable and colourful.
Ask people what drew them to their particular console subculture and you’ll get answers that probe every corner of the psychology of fandom and brand loyalty. Sooz Kempner is a comedian who has performed several shows that revolve around her Sega childhood and her obsession with its “edgy” mascot, Sonic the Hedgehog. “I thought Sonic was incredibly cool, zany and anti-establishment, whereas I decided Mario was staid and tepid, like John Major,” she says.
“Sonic and Sega gave me licence to sass people, [arguing that] Sega’s consoles were sleek and black whereas Nintendo’s were grey and blocky, Sega’s game soundtracks were edgy and guitar-led whereas Nintendo’s were plodding and childish. None of this was true, of course, but as a kid this was what I’d decided. I used to go around saying SNES controllers hurt my hands when I’d barely held one. I would draw cartoons of Mario getting his arse kicked by Sonic. Mean Machines, the very grown-up games magazine I sometimes bought, told me that Mortal Kombat on the Mega Drive had the gore effects but the SNES version did not. I crowed about this at school for a week.”
Despite Nintendo and Sega’s jostling, the next entrant in the console wars – Sony’s PlayStation in 1994 – blew both out of the water. By the end of the decade, Nintendo’s N64 was on the back foot while the Dreamcast flopped so badly that Sega stopped making consoles altogether. Since the debut of the original Xbox in 2001, it has been Microsoft and Sony at the forefront of the console wars, releasing competing devices within months of each other: first with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in the 00s, then with the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 in 2013, and now with the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5. Nintendo, meanwhile, decided that warring over the cutting edge of entertainment was for suckers, and instead put out a series of comparatively underpowered consoles, most recently the Nintendo Switch, that cheerfully sold hundreds of millions of units.
“You can distinguish each firm’s strategy by looking at their DNA,” explains Joost van Dreunen, a professor at NYU Stern School of Business and the author of One Up: Creativity, Competition, and the Global Business of Video Games. “Nintendo is a toy company, Sony makes consumer electronics and Microsoft is a software firm. Nintendo has always excelled at accessible content. Sony has historically emphasised high-end spectacle that showcases the capabilities of its consoles, TV and audio systems. And Microsoft has dedicated itself to making games available to the largest possible audience on PCs, consoles and phones.”
Enormous sums of money await the victor in these battles. The best seller by far in the most recent console wars was the PS4: between 2013 and 2020, Sony sold 113m PlayStation 4s and more than 1bn games. Add in online gaming subscriptions and the amount of profit generated by that is … well, let’s just say that Sony’s games division is by far the most successful part of the entire company. The PlayStation’s biggest rival can’t match those numbers: estimates put the Xbox One’s total sales at around 50m, and Microsoft stopped reporting them years ago.
“Despite having been in the shadow of Sony, Microsoft’s second place has still allowed it to be hugely successful,” says Van Dreunen. “Bear in mind that Microsoft only relies on its gaming activity for about 10% of its overall revenue, compared to 27% for Sony. That makes Sony much more vulnerable to, and therefore motivated to invest in, its success in gaming.”
The stakes are high: video games are expensive to make and expensive to buy, and as Sega proved with the Dreamcast, failure can nearly wipe out a company. And, like music and film before it, the industry is facing huge changes to the way it does business. We have already seen some games become so big that they transcend the console wars entirely: think Fortnite or Minecraft, which people can play for years on end on whichever PC, console or even phone they have to hand. Instead of buying new games, plenty of players are just buying endless new content for the same games they already enjoy.
The real disruptive force, however, is Netflix-style game streaming, which could eliminate buying individual games entirely; instead, you’ll have to pay a subscription, like the Xbox Game Pass. It is telling that Microsoft has been on a huge spending spree in the past few years to build up a stock of tempting titles. Most recently, it bought the Elder Scrolls, Doom and Fallout publisher Bethesda, for an eye-watering $7.5bn (£5.8bn).
Google and Amazon have also been sniffing around the industry, buying up studios and launching subscription services of their own. This is not necessarily good news; these are giant companies known for barging in and undercutting everyone else, and if they upend the economics of the games industry then it is bound to have an effect on its creative output. Still, so far, they have not been successful. Google Stadia, which lets you stream games in high-end PC quality to any Chrome browser or TV, has been met with a big “meh” by consumers, and despite investing tens of millions in development, Amazon’s only game so far – competitive shooter Crucible – was such a failure that it was pulled just weeks after its release this May. The video game business is not for the faint-hearted, and throwing money around has historically rarely worked.
The thing is, despite all the fuss that surrounds the launch of new consoles, video games are not just about the hardware. They are about the entertainment that the technology enables. A console can have as many teraflops as it wants but without fun, envelope-pushing games to play on it nobody cares. Outside of the early adopters, most gamers are not that techy. We don’t buy a console because it has better specs; we buy it because it has the games we want to play. This is why Nintendo’s consoles sell like gangbusters despite their relative lack of power, and why millions more people play games on phones and ageing laptops than on cutting-edge machines.
Pent-up excitement will drive millions of sales of the PS5 and Xbox Series X in the coming months, but as history has proven several times over, in the end their success or failure will always come down to what you can play on them.
How the consoles compare
XBox Series S/X£249/£449.Models The cheaper Series S has reduced performance and no disk drive. The Series X is the pick for those with a 4K TV.Technical stuff 4/12 teraflops.Standout games Shooter sequel Halo Infinite, realistic racer Forza Motorsport, mysterious fantasy Everwild.Buy it for The Xbox Game Pass, offering access to hundreds of games for £10.99 a month.UK release date 10 November.
PlayStation 5£359/£449.Models A standard edition, and a cheaper digital edition with no disk drive.Technical stuff 10.28 teraflops.Standout games Dark fantasy Demon’s Souls, giant adventure Horizon: Forbidden West, Spider-Man: Miles Morales.Buy it for Exclusives: the creators of The Last of Us, God of War and more are making games only for the PS5.UK release date 19 November.
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