The Xbox One is lagging behind the PlayStation 4. This has been true since the two consoles launched last November, and the distance has been widening with every month that passes. Microsoft corporate vice president Phil Harrison already spoke at length about the Xbox One's unenviable position, brushing aside many concerns as he brought up the old "marathon, not a sprint" analogy. Although I do agree that it's too early for Microsoft to throw in the towel, there are serious detriments to getting off to such a slow start. And if the Xbox One doesn't gain ground soon, the problems could snowball so quickly that there's no hope of catching up.
Dwindling third-party exclusives
Microsoft doesn't rely on its first-party studios nearly as much as Sony and Nintendo do. That disparity hasn't been a concern in the last decade, since Microsoft has secured exclusive deals with external teams to bolster its lineup. Look no further than Gears of War to see how smart strategic partnerships can boost the popularity of a system. Did it matter that Microsoft didn't develop Gears? Of course not. Most people were focused more on fending off the nasty locusts than worrying about who put a chainsaw on a gun. Epic agreed to keep Gears off Sony's and Nintendo's systems, and even sold the franchise rights to Microsoft earlier this year.
You can see why Microsoft has been so keen to establish these types of relationships. Microsoft Studio boss Phil Spencer spoke about their tactics last year, saying, "I think to some out there there's a fixation with which studios you own, which studios you work with, and for better or worse I'm not fixated on that." Microsoft has to either pay a first-party studio to make a game or contract an outside team, so either way it's shelling out money, right?
Unfortunately, this mindset that could spell trouble for Microsoft. If a game is being kept away from other platforms, that developer has to be compensated for lost potential sales. When the Xbox 360 shot out ahead of the PlayStation 3, it established itself as the leader in the high-definition race, so it was easy for Microsoft to convince publishers to partner up with them. And the same was true early this generation, when no one was sure how the chips would fall. But now that the PlayStation 4 is much more popular, Microsoft will have to pay more and more money to keep games away from Sony. And that price will only rise as the gap widens. It's not easy to negotiate when you're no longer in a position of power. That means we'll see more games land on multiple platforms, and there will be added pressure on 343 Industries, Turn 10 Studios, and Lionhead Studios to carry the load.
Titanfall is already being kept away from the PlayStation 4, as are Sunset Overdrive and Quantum Break, but who knows how willing those teams will be to do the same with their next games knowing that they're ignoring a huge part of their potential audience.
Follow your friends to the end
Remember when you could play games in your basement for hours without ever encountering another person? Well, the days of video games being an escape from social commitments have evaporated, and it's not as bad as my teenage self would have thought. Games are now digital hangouts where friends, strangers, and enemies square off, so even when there's no one else inside your house, there are still people playing with you somewhere in the world. It's kind of scary, kind of magic, and has dramatically changed how I play games.
As more people purchase a PlayStation 4 in favor of an Xbox One, the communities of multiplayer gamers will subsequently gravitate toward Sony's console. So when you're figuring out which version of Evolve to get later this year, part of that decision process will involve which system has a larger player base. It makes sense, right? If you buy a multiplayer-centric game, you're going to want as many people as possible to play with. That idea extends further when your friends play games as well. Once one friend decides to buy Destiny on the PlayStation 4, the others will invariably follow suit. It takes only one domino being pushed to start a chain.
Maybe you're like me and prefer playing alone. Well, if you have friends who also play games, you'll still have to make the same choices as those people who crave multiplayer. Last week Trials Fusion came out, and my colleagues and I have been vying for leaderboard supremacy. High-score chases are my favorite part of the game, so having as many times to chase as possible exponentially improves my fun. That's just science. Well, just about every person in the office is chasing my ghost on the PlayStation 4. And as more people jump on the PlayStation 4 train, that will soon become the default choice for any game with a with a connected environment. If Microsoft doesn't turn things around, Call of Duty, Madden, and every other competitive game is going to sell better on the PlayStation 4, making it even harder for the Xbox One to come back.
Words speak louder than actions
There are many reasons why someone would purchase a video game console. Price is a large part of the equation, and everything else related to that system either makes the cost seem reasonable or much too high. What's the current library of games look like? And what are you interested in buying in the near future? Are there enough streaming apps for when you'd rather watch a movie? Do you have friends who favor one system over another? We take a look at all of this stuff. But there's one other element that could be the biggest factor of all.
Word of mouth matters. Any discerning person out there probably rolls their eyes at marketing. Sure, we may like some commercials, but we're never felt compelled to buy an energy drink or specific toilet paper brand just because we've been inundated with billboards, right? No one would admit that ads sway their buying habits (even though they totally do), but word of mouth isn't so easy to disassociate yourself with. It's been proven to be far more effective than traditional marketing, and once popular opinion slides in one direction, it can be difficult to change that momentum.
This is a dangerous situation for Microsoft. As the PlayStation 4 becomes more and more popular, it will become the default console. Remember last generation? The Wii exploded in large part because every mainstream publication was talking about it. It graced the covers of magazines and found its way into popular sitcoms, and eventually, it became the thing that everyone wanted. Even Microsoft admits they've been struggling with messaging since the Xbox One reveal last year, and even though they've backtracked on many of their restrictions, it's much harder to change people's minds.
Microsoft is right in that the race is still in the early going. But they have to realize that once you fall too far behind, it gets incredibly difficult to come back. There are just too many elements the second and third place platforms have to fight against to remain relevant. We'll see how things play out, but Microsoft has to start making a move sooner rather than later.