Xbox Series X / S vs Playstation 5, value for money?James Dodd 14th December 2020
Sony and Microsoft have finally released their next generation consoles. With retailers selling out faster than they can put units on sale, the launches appear to represent success for all. But do they?
On the one hand, Sony and Microsoft have succeeded in bringing new hardware to market on time, and have garnered quite a lot of positive coverage in the press and social media. On the negative side, there are stories citing widespread hardware and software issues, exclusive titles are scarce if present at all, and the cost of new games to the consumer has skyrocketed. So, are early adopters getting value for money, or paying a premium for unfinished games and hardware? Let’s take a look.
Let’s begin with a quick comparison between the three hardware components which are arguably going to make the most difference to gamers and developers. For now, we will just consider PS5 and Xbox Series X as they are the most comparable. We will come to Series S later (Microsoft launched not one but two consoles in November):
Looking at the GPU and CPU stats in the chart above, the Xbox Series X appears to easily outpace the PS5 in terms of raw power. Judging by their recent marketing campaigns, Microsoft appears to firmly believe this too, but as things stand all is not as it seems. More on that in a minute.
In the meantime, next up is internal storage – the all-important residence of a player’s game library. Much has been written on the speed of PS5’s internal hard drive. It is ground-breakingly fast. However, considering modern titles can exceed 100gb, it is also relatively low on storage space. Add in the fact that, at launch at least, the PS5 OS does not allow users to transfer games between internal and external storage, nor play games off external storage and it suddenly looks even more restrictive. Got a large games library? Prepare to enter a cycle of deleting and re-downloading your collection. Not great for time, those with bandwidth or download restrictions, let alone the environment.
Microsoft may have the slower drive, but – at least for now – they are way ahead when it comes to storage flexibility. Games can be stored on a cheap external drive and transferred in minutes to the internal drive. Better still, they can also be played directly off the external drive, if users don’t mind missing out on some of the new features such as the Xbox exclusive Quick Resume, and fast load times. When it comes to the Series S, texture resolutions are reduced and, in some cases, only the required sections of a game are downloaded, meaning less storage space is required.
Thus far it looks like Microsoft’s console is winning. But not so fast.
To the surprise of many, from the initial batch of multi-platform releases, several titles including Ubisoft’s Assassins Creed Valhalla and Codemasters Dirt 5 are in fact performing better, in a technical sense, on PS5. Why? There are many rumours circling, but a number of reports are citing familiarity (or lack of), with the new console’s development environments. Xbox has a brand new development environment called Game Core. Many developers and studios received PS5 development kits in late 2019. Conversely it wasn’t until summer 2020 that many studios received Series X development kits. Microsoft reportedly chose to hold out for the latest RNDA 2 from AMD before finalising their silicon, to ensure they delivered the most powerful kit, so dev tools are also in their infancy. The fact studios shipped major titles for the new console just months after receiving dev kits, in a pandemic, is testament to the sheer skill and talent within the games industry. It does however, at least initially, appear to have backfired on Microsoft slightly. Console cycles are relatively substantial, but with gamers hearing purchase-influencing stories that games look better on PS5 this early in the console’s lifecycle, it’s good news for Sony, and bad for Microsoft.
The ‘plays best on’ scenario may swing back in Microsoft’s favour, once developers get to grips with the hardware and better tools are provided. Last console cycle Xbox One almost always trumped PlayStation as the best place to play cross platform titles, if you wanted the best visuals or framerate. Series X is already serving up smoother frame rates in a number of titles for those with compatible televisions, thanks to Microsoft’s machine offering VVR. PS5 does not currently offer VVR. Whether the graphical detail on Xbox Series X catches up, or even surpasses the PS5, only time will tell.
A console lives or dies by its selection of games. Right now both platforms are missing true, must-have system sellers. Gamers traditionally buy a new console so they can play the latest games they can’t get anywhere else. PS5 launched with four exclusives, a mixed bag quality-wise, but no real system sellers. Insomniac’s forecasted system seller Spiderman Miles Morales, and Sumo’s charming Sackboy’s Big Adventure, were both released simultaneously on PS5 and also PS4.
Xbox has launched with no exclusives whatsoever. Microsoft fan favourite Halo 5 has been delayed until at least late 2021, leaving gamers with cross platform titles which are also available on PS5, and their back catalogue of backwards compatible software. But what a back catalogue.
Microsoft’s approach to next gen is entirely new. It is less about the hardware and more about access to games within the Xbox echo system, wherever you may be, on whatever Xbox, mobile or PC you may be using. Instead of next-gen platform exclusives which are only available to people who own the newest console, Microsoft believes no one should be left out. To facilitate this, Microsoft and has long since made games backwards compatible, between console generations. This generation, it is extending that by bringing pared back versions of its newest titles, to the older gen.
For comparison, at time of writing Sony has made ‘most’ PlayStation 4 games backwards compatible on PS5. Owners of a new Xbox Series X on the other hand, currently have games from four generations of Xbox available to play. That totals around 2664 Xbox one games, 586 Xbox 360 games, and 39 original Xbox games. Access to many titles is also being rolled across Xbox on PC as well as on Android via Xcloud. In fact, one could argue – for better or for worse – that the only people who will want to buy a Series X right now are gamers who want to play the very best version of a game in their Xbox games library. The system is so powerful, that many titles now play at double the frame rate, with auto HDR lighting, super-fast load times, playing and looking even better than when the developers created them. And crucially, players don’t have to purchase them a second time. They just work.
This is a point of contention for many. From an industry perspective, a triple-A game can take a team of hundreds many years to make at a cost in the millions. This cost is increasing with every generation, and some of that is now visibly being passed on to the consumer. From a gamer’s perspective, it appears that the typical £49.99 for a new title during the last generation has now risen to £69.99. Some gamers have already gone on the record stating the pricing of games for the new consoles has priced them out of the generation entirely.
PlayStation offers a partial solution with its PlayStation Now and PlayStation Plus subscriptions, but both are generally very thin on entirely new releases, and new first party titles are completely absent. Microsoft, on the other hand, thinks it has the answer with Game Pass which, for a small monthly fee, does offer entirely new first party releases, from Microsoft’s ever-expanding Xbox Studios, on the day they release. That is all well and good in theory, but is only a selling point to consumers if people want to play those first party releases in the first place. Recently, Microsoft has significantly increased the likelihood of this being the case, with a spate of studio acquisitions. Let’s take a look at what each platform holder owns.
PlayStation has historically been home to some of the best, most diverse mix of first party games and exclusives from great studios. At time of writing, Sony owns 14 such studios:
|· Bend studio|
|· Sucker Punch|
|· Pixel Opus|
|· Polyphony Digital|
|· San Diego Studio|
|· Japan studio|
|· Naughty Dog|
|· Santa Monica Studio|
|· SIE London Studio|
However, the tables may be turning. In recent years Microsoft has acquired a significant number of studios. Xbox studios is now the largest collection of first party studios in the industry, at 26. Many of these studios have developed some of the most beloved titles in recent years:
|· 343 Industries|
|· Alpha Dog Games|
|· Arkane Studios|
|· Arkane Studios Austin|
|· Bethesda Game Studios|
|· Bethesda Game Studios Austin|
|· Bethesda Game Studios Dallas|
|· Bethesda Game Studios Montreal|
|· Bethesda Softworks|
|· Compulsions Games|
|· Double Fine Productions|
|· id Software|
|· inXile Entertainment|
|· Mojang Studios|
|· Ninja Theory|
|· Obsidian Games|
|· Playground Games|
|· Roundhouse Studios|
|· Tango Gameworks|
|· The Coalition|
|· Turn 10 Studios|
|· Undead Labs|
|· World’s Edge|
|· ZeniMax Online Studios|
It’s a pretty formidable list and Microsoft has so far gone on the record to state that games will be ‘first and best on Xbox.’ It will be interesting to see how long it is until ‘exclusively’ is added to that quote. Crucially though, if Microsoft continue bringing all first party games to Game Pass on release day, the Xbox ecosystem represents unrivalled value for money and access to some of the industries greatest games.. That is before you even take into consideration Microsoft’s All Access, which provides households with a console and Game Pass for a mobile contract-like monthly fee. And finally, we must include the new Xbox Series S, which trades 4k visuals for standard HD, in a smaller, lower-powered, but crucially significantly cheaper console, and one which still plays all the games.
To close; PlayStation is undoubtedly the home of some truly astounding exclusives, a particularly impressive new controller and remains exceptionally high on desirability factor. That said, in an age of coronavirus, market uncertainty and job losses, Playstation 5 represents a considerable financial investment if you want to play the latest releases. Microsoft, for now at least, are woefully low on new, desirable exclusives but, with the new-found might of their Xbox Studios empire that looks set to change quickly. They have also undoubtedly delivered a value proposition which may yet prove irresistible to casual and hardcore gamers alike, and possibly even be affordable enough to be the second console many households own anyway.
With players on both platforms already uniting thanks to cross play, and the platform holders congratulating each other on their launch successes, we are already looking at a friendlier, less polarised generation. It’s going to be fascinating to see whether perceived value, exclusivity, or something else entirely ultimately wins out.
Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work across the media, information, technology, communications and entertainment sectors including video games recruitment, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.