2020 is going to be a transformative year for gaming. Real-time ray tracing will make hyper-realistic graphics on inexpensive hardware possible (and easier on developers). Meanwhile, cloud-based game streaming might finally go mainstream, removing the need for consoles altogether. Both offer compelling options to players and developers alike, but Sony is positioning itself to win no matter what.
For the 2020 holiday season, Microsoft and Sony are preparing to launch their next generation platforms, as they do every few years. But things will be a little different this time around. With Google’s Stadia streaming gaming service launching next month, traditional console makers will face competition from a new and unlikely source. People will be able to stream new games like Doom Eternal without dedicated hardware — so why drop hundreds of dollars on a new PlayStation 5?
High-end graphics may be the clearest reason. Both the upcoming Xbox (currently codenamed Project Scarlett) and the PS5 will support real-time ray tracing natively. While streaming platforms can technically support high-end graphics, video quality tends to get compressed when it’s sent over the internet. Gamers who want the absolute best picture they can pay for may still want to buy their own hardware.
But many won’t.
Sony seems to recognize the possibility that gamers will leave consoles behind, and it’s hedging its bets. It’s developed PlayStation Now to compete with Google’s Stadia. Similar to Stadia, it allows players to stream some games over the internet to either a PS4 or PC. Unlike Stadia, it’s available now, and just got a major, competitive price drop to $9.99 a month. While the world waits to find out if Stadia will work, you can already try PS Now. While writing this piece, I tried playing Batman: Arkham Knight using the service. It was perfectly playable over Wi-Fi — impressive for a fast-paced, highly detailed game.
Sony is fighting a battle on more than one front, and it could leave Microsoft holding the short end of the stick.
Stadia could still present a problem when it launches, though. PlayStation Now currently streams at a maximum of 720p, which isn’t even quite full HD. Meanwhile, Stadia’s paid subscription for $9.99 a month comes with 4K quality. Later, it will launch a “free” tier with 1080p streaming, some time in 2020. This tier will only charge players for the games they play, with no subscription fees. A console that’s essentially free (assuming you have a phone, laptop, or Chromecast to play it on) could be a compelling option when the holiday rush starts next year.
While PlayStation Now doesn’t have a free option, it does have a secret weapon that could draw away potential Stadia customers. The $9.99 a month (or $60 if you pay by the year) service includes a library of games from the last three generations of PlayStation consoles. While not all games are available to stream — some games are only available to download to your console — PS Now does offer an impressive library of over 800 games. That number is only likely to grow over the next year.
This structure also gives PlayStation Now some overlap with the Xbox Game Pass. The Game Pass allows Xbox owners to pay a monthly fee to access a library of games that they can download for as long as they stay subscribed, like having a Netflix subscription for games. However, Microsoft currently doesn’t have its own cloud-based streaming platform. Yet.
Microsoft has a lot of ground to make up. Some time later this month, the company is scheduled to start open betas on what it’s currently calling xCloud. This will be a streaming platform similar to Stadia, but there’s currently no info on when it will launch publicly. Earlier this year, Phil Spencer, Microsoft’s head of gaming, suggested that xCloud would be a way to play your Xbox games on a phone, but they would still expect you to buy a console to play games in your living room. While that doesn’t rule out the possibility of eventually streaming to TVs, PCs, or other devices, and allowing some players to transition to the cloud entirely, Spencer’s remarks do imply that its xCloud ambitions aren’t quite as broad as Stadia or even PlayStation Now.
And when it comes to hardware, the major console rivals are on relatively equal footing. Both the PS5 and the next Xbox will come with faster SSD drives, support for real-time ray-tracing, 3D audio, and support for up to 120fps in 4K. Both consoles even claim to support up to 8K resolutions, even though the first 8K consumer televisions are only just starting to roll out and developers might take their time to implement the feature.
On paper, that might make it seem like the two companies are even. But since Sony is fighting a battle on more than one front, it could leave Microsoft holding the short end of the stick.
Meanwhile, there’s one component that remains as crucial as ever: exclusive games. In other words, what can gamers expect to play on a console that they can’t get anywhere else? The Xbox One lacked interesting exclusives like Sony’s God of War, and as such, it sold considerably fewer units than the PS4. Even the Nintendo Switch, which came out four years later, has sold nearly as many units.
This creates a chicken and egg problem for developers. Developers don’t want to make games for a platform with no players, and players don’t want to buy a platform with no games. It’s not a new dynamic by any means, but as the next generation slowly rolls out in 2020, Sony is positioning itself to get an edge over everyone.
Without a hardware component, Stadia can only appeal to players with a strong enough internet connection to stream games. Without a robust streaming component, Microsoft can only appeal to players who want to buy an expensive console for their living room. Sony is the only company that can do both. And that’s a factor that developers will have to weigh now as they work on games for the upcoming platform.