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Return of the Console Wars

The console wars are heating up again as Nintendo has entered the arena and Sony faces a few new challenges.

  • Text: Bengt Lemne
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Maybe you thought the console wars were over. Maybe you thought you'd entered a time of peaceful co-existence under the supreme leader PlayStation 4. It may still be the case, but things are heating up ahead of 2018...

Ground Zero

The current console generation started in late 2013 with the launch of PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. But it could be argued that Sony won the war well before the consoles arrived on store shelves as Microsoft fumbled their messaging, positioning and product design earlier that year. It's as if the Greek would have marched up to the gates of Troy presenting them with a massive wooden horse and explained at the gates that it's full of warriors that will exit the wooden horse at night while also handing the Troyans a bunch of torches if they'd like to set said horse on fire.

It's been an uphill struggle for Microsoft ever since, and all they can really hope for is to remain relevant, a live dog if you will.

As this year started it felt like the console wars were dead and buried. Sony were making one or two snide remarks, but Microsoft were mainly liking their wounds and gearing up for what was going to be Xbox One X. Nintendo wasn't really a factor. In fact, the Switch had a historically short lead up from full reveal to launch, an approach that we think Microsoft and Sony may want to copy for future reveals.

Enter the Switch

There's no way around the fact that Wii U was a monumental disaster for Nintendo. Coming off their most successful console of all times it became their least successful home console (unless you consider Virtual Boy a home console, which you might as it's hardly portable). On March 3, Nintendo's fortunes changed over night. The hype for Switch was expertly handled and what had been an uneven two horse race was now an interesting three horse race where the ultimate prize was still being contested.

For much of the year Switch has been outselling the PS4 in the major markets, even if Sony's console came out on top in the all important US November listings. Perhaps most notably Switch is clearly outperforming PS4 in Japan, where the console's portability is a massive selling point. This shift makes for an interesting dynamic as Sony needs to focus on fending off Nintendo, leaving Microsoft a bit of an opening to regain some lost momentum and set themselves up for the next generational shift (even if we don't know exactly when that will happen or how it will look).

What's interesting here isn't just the pure unit sales of each console, but what sort of users they attract. With Nintendo having found a way of attracting more core users (compared to Wii and Wii U), who buy many games for their new favourite handheld gaming system (that also plugs into the TV) it is fair to say that the big spenders are more spread out this generation than previously. Xbox typically held the distinction of having the most eager to open their wallets users, but lost many of those core users to PS4 during the early days of this generation. Momentum is another interesting point, for a long stretch PS4 was the natural choice for a gamer looking to update to a new console, but today it's not as clear cut as that. Switch has the initiative as a new and unique device, whereas Xbox One X is the most powerful console on the market offering you most of the key franchises you'll also get on PlayStation.

PlayStation 4: 70.6 million (as of early December)
Switch: 10 million (as of early December)
Xbox One: estimated to have sold somewhere in the region of 33-36 million (as of early December)

What's to come in 2018

As we enter 2018 we do so with a slightly confusing landscape. Sony are still very much in charge, but they haven't been able to push their PS4 Pro as well as they would have hoped and the PSVR sits in the dangerous area where it's too successful to be abandoned (two million units sold on the latest count), but not really successful enough to warrant much spending on software. Microsoft meanwhile has had a weak 2017, where they've only been able to claw back relevance thanks to the launch of Xbox One X and to a lesser degree to console exclusives like Cuphead and PUBG.

Microsoft's path ahead is uncertain. They've just launched Xbox One X and they need to double down on software to build on the slight momentum they've been able to build towards the end of 2017. The slate of games is looking rather uninspired and the Redmond behemoth could really use one or two fresh franchises that really captures the imagination of gamers. Even if Halo and Gears loom on the horizon, we're not sure those franchises have what it takes to attract gamers without an Xbox One in 2018 and 2019.

Compared to 2017 it sure looks as if Sony has more bankable first-party titles slated for release in 2018. Horizon: Zero Dawn did fantastically, and Uncharted: The Lost Legacy and GT Sports made for a decent second half of the year, but clearly God of War, Spider-Man, Detroit: Become Human, and Days Gone make for a powerful quartet. Then there's potentially The Last of Us: Part II and Death Stranding, even if we're not sure you should bet your house on those arriving in 2018.

Big titles like God of War and Detroit: Become Human makes PS4 a good bet in 2018.

Nintendo's 2018 is going to be very interesting. It's the sophomore year of the Switch and much of the future will be decided here. Will Nintendo be able to build a strong third-party support of the back of the success in 2017? Have they got enough heavy hitters of their own in store to mirror the rather spectacular first 9 months of Switch that included Breath of the Wild, Mario Kart 8 Deluxe, Arms, Splatoon 2, Super Mario Odyssey and Xenoblade Chronicles 2. Not much is set in stone for 2018 and the first Nintendo Direct of 2018 is sure to be very interesting. Could we see a new Smash Bros next year and a proper Pokémon? If so, it's only a matter of time until Switch passes PS4 in lifetime sales in Japan. Maybe we're overstating the importance of owning the initiative in Japan, but clearly, that's going to have an effect on where a certain category of games land in years to come.

It's going to be an interesting opening to 2018. Sony is fighting on multiple fronts to keep their lead and extend it. Microsoft is looking to try and salvage what they can from this generation, and Nintendo are riding a wave of positive buzz that they'll do everything in their power to maintain.