Microsoft, at least for single-players, had a positive E3 this year, focusing on long-term projects, studio acquisitions, and non-reactionary business decisions—at least, until the conference closed with Phil Spencer stoking the old console war flame with a simple comment: “[Microsoft] is deep into architecturing the next Xbox consoles.” The Xbox One X is currently the most powerful console on the market; it succeeds in Microsoft’s goal of creating an entertainment hub; it is a hardware success story. That being the case, why does the company need to announce a new console? The answer lies with its rival, Sony, and the rumours surrounding the development of the PlayStation 5. Effectively, the constant back-and-forth in terms of hardware has ended up in decisions, for both companies, that have been anti-consumer and made little sense. After a positive E3, Microsoft reverts to its business Achilles heel: reactionism.

The next Xbox, according to insider Brad Sams, is codenamed Project Scarlett, with a tentative release window of 2020. Sams, who writes for Thurrott, has been breaking news about Microsoft for over a decade, with his information usually being accurate in terms of rumours. That date, 2020, in business terms, is not far away at all. On paper, the Xbox One X has everything Microsoft needs right now. A new console announcement is merely pre-empting the PlayStation 5, which, in some ways, is bad for consumers, the company, and Microsoft long-term. The whole industry culture of having to one-up, improve upon, and constantly better close rivals should, in capitalist theory, drive innovation; ordinarily, however, it leads to undercooked consoles with a poor set of games. Going back to the previous generation—to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3—both consoles, in retrospect, were not ready for the market. The Xbox 360 suffered countless hardware difficulties, whereas the PlayStation 3 endured the opposite, which was a complete lack of competent exclusives and software in its early days. Similarly, the Xbox One released without any real long-term plan of studio exclusivity, with Microsoft shoving the console out of the door a week after the PlayStation 4’s release. Why, then, is Microsoft repeating its mistakes?

Much of the issue comes down to the current culture of gaming, which thrives not on co-operation, but infantile divisions and competition. A console war, after all, is the ultimate fuel for marketers, so, by igniting a consistent, albeit disingenuous, battle between two companies, both brands stand to benefit. By persuading gamers to ally themselves with a brand, which only really succeeds if both consoles release in a similar time frame, Microsoft and Sony can safeguard a significant amount of money, relying on internet forum-bred conflict and lofty notions of brand loyalty to part gamers from their money. This whole practice, though, is not good for gamers as consumers. A poorer product is ordinarily launched and the whole contrived “console war” pushes forward a community that fragments itself. Nintendo, by opting for a separate business model, has somewhat emancipated itself from this destructive cycle for the better. Microsoft, with the stronger console, has the benefit of going for a different, more measured approach to the new generation, but has disappointedly decided to define itself through reactionism.

The current exclusive line-up can run fine on the Xbox One X, with the console not quite fulfilling its total potential yet. The PlayStation 5 releasing a significant time before the Xbox One X would not immediately sound the death knell for Microsoft. The Xbox One X would remain more affordable, boast a better catalogue of games, and the company would have more, less-deadline-focused time to produce a better long-term plan for its hardware. Generations tend to be undersold by reacting to competitors; the One X could run for many years yet, but may be cut short by Microsoft’s own impatient hand.

Of course, all of the above can be taken down with a simple conclusion: that simply is not how business works. The gaming market is still a volatile beast, and innovation needs to be constant. Any moment of reflection or pause will be read as stagnation, as the multi-billion dollar business is proven to be as cut throat as it is prosperous. However, a reaction to that reality is that the situation does not have to be this way. Why must gamers face consistent brand-motivated division in their community? Why must consumers settle for a poorer product? Why do the engineers, artists, and innovators for these consoles have to face ridiculous working hours and deadlines? The decision lays with Microsoft—and Sony—to take a step back, have a breather, and focus on their customers instead of each other; if that happens, then it will do much to heal the industry’s rot.  

Ben Newman

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