A couple days ago, a Polygon article suggested that the upcoming PlayStation 4 and Xbox One could actually fail.
While those consoles’ predecessors (along with the Nintendo Wii) managed to sell more than 300 million units over the past eight years or so, the piece suggested, the next decade isn’t looking particularly good for the next-generation efforts by Microsoft and Sony: the rise of gaming on tablets and smartphones, along with the popularity of Valve’s Steam platform (65 million active user accounts and counting), could all dampen the enthusiasm for the new consoles.
Given the enormous budgets invested in the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, pundits will interpret anything less than hundreds of millions of units sold over a couple of years as an abject failure. (In fact, if the Xbox proved anything during the first decade of its existence, a bestselling console can still lose cash for its parent company.) But is the future really as gloomy as it seems?
The answer, frankly, is yes.
Microsoft is betting big that the Xbox One will appeal to a wider audience than hardcore gamers. When it unveiled the console in May, Microsoft executives played up its streaming-media, Skype, and entertainment apps—but they rarely described it as a “gaming console.”
On the other side of the fence, Sony decided to take the opposite tack and promote the PlayStation 4 as the ultimate tool for those hardcore gamers who made the PlayStation franchise such a hit.
The “all in one” approach certainly has its faults. Apple, Google and other media companies have flooded the market with relatively cheap set-top boxes and dongles capable of streaming content to televisions; if that wasn’t enough, smartphones and tablets are emerging as effective all-in-one devices, more than capable of delivering everything from instant messaging to graphically intensive games and streaming media in a single compact package. For anyone who’s not a hardcore gamer, why shell out hundreds of dollars on a console that “does everything” when a smaller device (or a pair of devices) with pretty much the same functionality is available for so much less?
There are also a lot of viable alternatives for hardcore gamers, including PCs and the aforementioned Steam; as device systems become more integrated, and ecosystems more holistic, someone who only played games on a PC a few years ago will think nothing of “tossing” their PC game onto a television screen and then picking up a third-party game controller in order to gun down some alien invaders. That evolution represents a huge danger to dedicated console-makers.
This isn’t to say that nobody will buy the Xbox One and PlayStation 4. But it’s also a very different world for consoles than a decade ago; with so many alternative platforms out there, Microsoft and Sony will have to struggle that much harder to make back the gargantuan budgets they’re expending on their latest devices, much less make Wall Street-pleasing profits. A Halo-scale franchise for either company could help sell consoles, but even that might not be enough.