The different strategies of Microsoft and Sony’s next-generation consoles

We’re just days away from the next generation of console gaming with the upcoming release of the Xbox Series X / S and the PlayStation 5. And now that we’re so close to those launches, we have a pretty good idea of how both companies are approaching this next generation.

Microsoft is building toward a future where the hardware you’re playing on almost doesn’t matter. If you want to play an Xbox game, Microsoft is trying to make that possible on many different devices. Sony, by contrast, is sticking with a more traditional approach with the PS5, where you can only play exclusive PS5 games on the console itself. But at launch, both companies are leaning heavily on the libraries of older generations to round out the first few months of their lineups.

It should be an exciting new generation. Here’s what we know about Microsoft and Sony’s strategies.

The Xbox Series X and Xbox Series S.
Photo by Tom Warren / The Verge

Microsoft Series X / S

You’ll first be able to get your hands on Microsoft’s newest consoles, the $499 Xbox Series X and the slightly less powerful $299 Xbox Series S, when they launch on November 10th. There’s no marquee launch title — that was supposed to be Halo Infinite until it was delayed to 2021.

But that doesn’t mean you won’t have a lot to play on day one. The Series X will be backward compatible with a huge amount of the Xbox back catalog, and you’ll also have access to more than 100 titles if you subscribe to Xbox Game Pass. That ability to play a whole lot of Xbox games, whether you already own them or are paying Microsoft a monthly fee for the privilege of doing so, is key to Microsoft’s approach with its new Xbox consoles.

Let’s talk first about backwards compatibility. If you still own a bunch of Xbox One games, they should work on the new consoles unless they required Kinect. And the Xbox Series X and Series S will also support backward-compatible Xbox 360 and original Xbox games. That alone gives you a huge potential library of games that you can play, and Microsoft has a list of every backward-compatible game right here.

Backward compatible games will run natively on the new consoles, which means that they can take advantage of their more powerful hardware for faster load times, Microsoft’s new Auto HDR feature, and more. In his testing, my colleague Tom Warren found that a preview version of the Series X loaded most games much quicker than his Xbox One X.

And many games are getting patches or updates to take advantage of the new hardware in the upcoming consoles. On launch day, a number of older games will have optimizations for Series X and Series S, including Gears 5, Forza Horizon 4, and Sea of Thieves. Meanwhile, Halo: The Master Chief Collection will get an update on November 17th, just one week after the new consoles launch, that adds 120fps in both campaign and multiplayer modes, among other updates.

You’ll also be able to play through any of the more than 100 games that are available on Xbox Game Pass, Microsoft’s game subscription service. And the value of that subscription will only go up over time, as the full versions of all upcoming first-party games will hit the service on their release date. With some developers pushing the price of a game to $69.99 for this next console generation, having access to brand-new games for a $9.99 or $14.99 monthly subscription is a bargain by comparison.

And an Xbox Game Pass subscription will get even sweeter with Microsoft’s acquisition of Bethesda Softworks parent company ZeniMax Media. The acquisition means that Microsoft now owns huge franchises like Doom, The Elder Scrolls, and Fallout, and any new entry from those franchises will be available to Game Pass subscribers on day one. And current Bethesda games will be added to Game Pass over time, according to Xbox chief Phil Spencer.

A $14.99 per month Game Pass Ultimate subscription also includes access to Microsoft’s cloud gaming service, known as xCloud. Right now, xCloud only lets you stream compatible Xbox games to an Android device, meaning that you can essentially play Xbox games wherever you take your Android phone (assuming that you have a Wi-Fi or cellular connection that’s capable of handling it). Some games even have touch controls, meaning that you don’t need an Xbox controller to play them on the cloud gaming service.

xCloud will be available on Windows PC at some point next year, and a web app for iOS is supposed to launch in early 2021. There’s another way to play your Xbox games on your phone, too — Microsoft offers a remote play feature to let you stream games from your own console to your Android or iOS device.

Xbox Game Pass Ultimate will also include games on EA Play starting on November 10th, which means that you play a number of EA’s biggest titles without paying for a separate subscription.

And if you aren’t planning to upgrade to Microsoft’s next-gen consoles quite yet, some Xbox One titles will support Microsoft’s Smart Delivery program, which lets you upgrade an Xbox One version of a cross-gen game to its Xbox Series X version for free.

The PlayStation 5.
Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

Sony’s PlayStation 5

Sony’s PlayStation 5 will be available on November 12th, just two days after the Xbox Series X and Series S. While Microsoft is focused on letting you play games from the entire Xbox family of consoles wherever you want to play them, Sony seems to be focused more on selling you next-gen games to play on its next-gen console.

The company arguably has a stronger launch lineup than Microsoft’s new consoles, with the Demon’s Souls remake and Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales as highlights, not to mention the bundled Astro’s Playroom, which serves as an ideal showcase for the new DualSense controller. And we also already know about some promising first-party titles scheduled for 2021, including Horizon Zero Dawn sequel Horizon Forbidden West and a sequel to God of War. (Microsoft has announced some intriguing first-party titles as well, including a new Fable game, but many of those games don’t have release windows yet.)

That new DualSense controller is a key part of Sony’s strategy, too. It has haptic feedback and adaptive triggers intended to immerse you more in your games, and early signs show that they can change the way games feel. Sony will undoubtedly integrate the controller’s new features with its first-party PS5 titles, but third-party games like NBA 2K21 and Fortnite have DualSense-exclusive features as well. The controller helps further that idea of exclusives: if developers support the DualSense, they’re offering an experience you can’t get on any other console.

Sony’s promise to deliver big games from its beloved franchises in the future is similar to how it approached the PS4. You could make the case that the PS4 had a limited set of launch titles — Killzone Shadow Fall was the most notable Sony exclusive — but the day before the PS4 was released, Sony revealed what would become Uncharted 4 and gave a release date for Infamous: Second Son. And over the life span of the PS4, Sony’s strategy to continually roll out big exclusive games worked out very well. Uncharted 4 was a huge success, as were titles like Marvel’s Spider-Man, Bloodborne, and The Last of Us Part II. All of Sony’s big exclusive hits were major reasons why the PS4 was the fastest home console to reach 100 million unit sales.

But Sony isn’t completely abandoning the PS4 just yet. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales was announced first for the PS5, but we learned in September that there will be a PS4 version as well. Horizon Forbidden West is coming to PS4, too.

And Sony is putting a bit more focus on cross-gen gaming this generation, as the PS5 is backward-compatible with more than 4,000 PS4 titles. (Certain games “may exhibit errors,” according to the company, though only 10 games won’t work at all.) “Select” PS4 and PSVR games will also get “faster and smoother frame rates.” Ghost of Tsushima, for example, will run at up to 60fps and have faster load times on PS5, according to developer Sucker Punch.

Sony will also offer a new game subscription service for the PS5 called the PlayStation Plus Collection. It allows paying Plus users to play any of the 20 PS4 games that are part of the collection on their PS5, including hits like God of War, Persona 5, and Bloodborne. But that’s a far more limited library than Xbox Game Pass, which lets you play games from multiple generations and has first-party games available on day one.

Sony has said that PlayStation Now, its game subscription service with PS4, PS3, and PS2 games, will be coming to PS5 at some point, but we don’t have a timeline for when that might happen. And the PS5 won’t natively support PS1, PS2, or PS3 games, so you’ll need to keep an older PlayStation console around if you want to play those.

If you’re not planning to upgrade immediately to the PS5, you’ll have some options if you eventually want to get a next-gen experience for games you play first on PS4. Some PS4 games can be upgraded to a digital PS5 version — though that will be at the developers’ discretion, and developers can decide whether that upgrade is free, paid, or only available for a limited time.

And similar to Microsoft, Sony also offers remote play functionality for PS5, though your options with Sony allow you to stream PS5 games to a PC and Mac in addition to Android and iOS.

Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

An exciting new generation of console gaming begins soon

Picking between the next Xbox or PlayStation will be less about hardware and more about Microsoft’s and Sony’s philosophies about this generation of console games. With the Xbox Series X and S, you’ll have access to a lot of older games at launch, but we have to wait and see if actual next-gen games will make a convincing case to upgrade. Meanwhile, Sony is betting on an exclusives-focused strategy for the PS5 that worked well with the PS4, but that will only work out if Sony releases exclusives that are worth buying a PS5 to play.

In the past, choosing between a console meant comparing specs and analyzing release calendars. This time, the choice is much more philosophical.

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