Why Microsoft and Sony should be chasing after Nintendo

Published on April 17, 2017

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The competition over who can make the stronger hardware is not something new. Nintendo and Sega feuded over the 16-bit era with the SNES and Genesis. Sony blew past competition with the PlayStation iterations in the 90s and early 2000s. And eventually, Microsoft entered the battle with the Xbox to see who can reign supreme visually.

Microsoft: One Platform to Rule Them All

This week, Microsoft pushed the boundaries a bit further by releasing the specs for the Scorpio, the next release in their Xbox line. With the unveiling, it made one thing very clear: their strategy is to blow the rest of the competition out of the water. It speeds past Sony’s PS4 Pro (which was just released in November of last year), and the Nintendo Switch is a laughable toy when compared with the Scorpio side-by-side:

TVs can upscale Switch’s output to 4K, but it doesn’t support it natively.
TVs can upscale Switch’s output to 4K, but it doesn’t support it natively.

At this point, one could argue that they’re just building a high-end computer and marketing it as a console. This is not a bad thing. Looking at Microsoft in isolation, this is exactly what they set out to do when they unveiled the original Xbox. Even Bill Gates said that the Xbox is a PC and that they were striving to merge the PC and Xbox markets into one homogenous entity.

They have been able to take incremental steps towards that future. The Xbox One brought in small changes that could potentially redefine the gaming landscape. To start, the console shipped with a stripped down version of Windows 8 (now upgraded to Windows 10). This meant it was running the same OS as a PC. This lead to the release of the Universal Windows Platform, which lets developers create apps that run on any device running Windows 10. In part of these changes, it allows Microsoft to launch the Play Anywhere program, which lets players play games cross-platform (PC or Xbox One) while only having to purchase the game once. It also provides a plethora of quality-of-life features, such as saves stored in the cloud, a unified store, and more to make it as easy as possible for the consumer.

The lines are starting to blur, and my general sense is that they are going after what Valve had tried to do in the past with their Steam Machines: provide a seamless gaming experience anywhere in the house, whether you’re across the TV, or on your computer. Their long-term goal is ambitious; although the world where one can actually “play anywhere” is achievable, Microsoft’s weak grip on the mobile industry prevents them from getting there anytime soon.

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Sony: Never Stop Playing

Sony shares a similar vision and has already taken many steps toward this goal. To start, they trod into the cross-play waters a while ago. Albeit not as seamless as the one Microsoft is aiming for, they have implemented (successfully!) multi-device features between the PS3, PS4, and the PS Vita.

PS3 ↔ PS4 ↔ PS Vita cross-buy has existed since early 2013, and it functions very similar to Microsoft’s “Play Anywhere” mentioned above. Buying certain games on one platform allowed players to download a copy onto other hardware as well, with the usual cloud save and shared account features that we would expect.

Where Sony can excel over Microsoft is their portable console, the PS Vita. With the addition of the “Remote Play” feature, it allowed players to stream the video and audio of their PS3/PS4 onto the Vita. You could see how far they were thinking with this feature since the Vita also has models that can send and receive data via a SIM card + data plan. This would effectively mean that players can pick up where they left off even without having to be in the same room as the console. Although a very cool feature, there were often issues with latencies or choppy video quality even with above-normal internet connections.

On top of that, unfortunately due to their position in the household console market with the PS4 (see: doing really well), Sony has been neglectful of the Vita. Many people deny the claim, but Sony hasn’t brought up the handheld in any of their public conferences for a while, and they haven’t even developed a game for their own system since 2015. The combination of having to buy another piece of hardware for the feature ($300) and the lack of support means that progress will be very slow on Sony’s front.

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Nintendo: Best of Both Worlds + Some Caveats

Nintendo was lagging behind by a fair amount on this front. The Wii U and 3DS offered no real features that mimicked the competition. The closest thing they had was the ability to use your 3DS as a controller for Super Smash Bros. for Wii U.

But finally, with the recent release of the Switch, we can see that Nintendo is thinking the exact same problems as its peers as well. Not only that, they are able to solve it differently by combining what Sony and Microsoft were doing and making it work. The Switch one-ups Sony’s solution by simply making the handheld and home console the same thing. This inherently uses Microsoft’s idea as well, since there’s only one piece of hardware to run the software on. This brings along added benefits such as not having to implement all the complex logic required to process payments properly across platforms, sync saves in the cloud, and figure out how to run applications on different hardware.

It’s obviously impossible to come up with a perfect solution, so what’s the catch? The answer is the specs chart at the beginning of the article. But even if they opted to release hardware that was less powerful than its competitors, the compromises Nintendo made allow them to get ahead on a different front.

But even Nintendo was hesitant. They claimed multiple times that the Switch is not meant to be a replacement for the 3DS. That probably was an attempt to keep a handheld line alive in the unlikely case that the Switch was a failure. Since that is not the case (it’s the best-selling Nintendo console), it’s very exciting to see where they go with their hardware in the future.

But, as usual, some consumers will not care. All they will see are the specs and determine that the Switch is “clearly inferior.” They argue that Nintendo should play the catch-up game on hardware and they are simply behind the times.

Why Sony and Microsoft are Behind

So why does the title of the article suggest otherwise? What I’m suggesting is that the long-term goals of all three companies have changed, but they still align at a high-level. Nintendo seems to have made a head start on it.

The decisions the Sony and Microsoft have made so far makes it harder for them to pivot into an environment similar to Nintendo’s:

  • Strong household hardware like the Scorpio means it’ll be harder to build a handheld equivalent to it. Even the Switch with its less-than-stellar specs has battery issues.
  • Lower the specs to be able to do the above. That will not go well with consumers and critics.
  • The companies either don’t have solid handheld experience (Microsoft) or deprioritized it (Sony). It’s not an easy thing to ramp up into the handheld market.

Of course, there are tons of other complications and issues that I’m not bringing up, but I hope this addresses what I want to point out at a simpler level. Either way, I’m super excited to see a new type of console war start up and which strategy each of the three companies decides to employ to get ahead.

Categories: Features

Tristan Jung

You’ll often find Tristan wasting his life away at League of Legends if he’s not busy bugging the other two members about writing reviews. He’s in charge of the website and editing the podcasts, so if anything looks or sounds out of place, please yell at him.