It’s been a busy few weeks for console war soldiers.
Tensions spiked last month when “Nate the Hate,” an industry insider with a decent track record, claimed that Hi-Fi Rush was headed to Nintendo Switch. The rumor sparked some mixed feelings among Xbox fans, some of whom expressed dismay over one of the console’s system-selling exclusives coming to another platform. Other reports at the time claimed that Rare’s Sea of Thieves could also be bound for PlayStation and Switch. That rising anger came to a head this weekend when XboxEra reported that Xbox is planning to launch its biggest exclusive, Starfield, on PS5.
Despite being entirely unconfirmed, that news is the spark that blew up the proverbial powder keg. The rumor has some betrayed-feeling Xbox fans wondering why they spent $500 on a new console when they could have bought a PS5 and gotten all the same games and more. While that’s an understandable sentiment, it’s one that perhaps misunderstands the actual selling point of an Xbox in 2024. Big-budget games that are exclusive to Xbox aren’t Microsoft’s value proposition this generation; instead, its all about ecosystem.
For almost as long as the hardware industry has existed, video game consoles have been defined by their exclusive games. Buying an Xbox meant that you’d get access to Halo and Gears of War, but you’d miss out on Horizon and God of War. That strategy gave each system a unique selling point that no other system could claim and pushed first-party studios to create high-quality games that could move hardware.
While that’s been the dynamic for decades, Microsoft has long experimented with changing the way people think about game consoles. Even as far back as 2010, the company was using precious E3 stage time to hype up the ESPN app on Xbox 360 as part of its strategy to sell the system as an all-in-one entertainment center. But Microsoft wouldn’t fully disrupt the console market until 2017 when it launched Xbox Game Pass. The subscription service would be the brand’s boldest swing yet, as it was aimed at getting players to pay a monthly fee to access a library of games instead of buying them individually. The gamble paid off, rehabilitating the Xbox brand amid a losing battle with the popular PlayStation 4.
That success is the key to understanding what buying an Xbox means in 2024. Microsoft has doubled down on the idea of Xbox as an ecosystem-driven platform linked through Game Pass. In an ideal world, an Xbox player has a Game Pass Ultimate subscription that allows them to play their games across console, PC, and mobile via cloud streaming. Players can even access their games on Samsung TVs without any extra devices. It’s less about what games you play and more about how you play them.
By that token, the modern Xbox brand has more in common with Apple than it does PlayStation. Buying an Xbox Series X is more akin to buying an iPad because you already own an iPhone. It’s just more convenient to stay within one shared ecosystem across multiple devices. Once players chomp down on the shiny hook that is Xbox Game Pass, it’s easier for Microsoft to reel them in and keep them buying its platforms. It’s not dissimilar to how I became a lifelong Apple user simply because I wanted to edit my videos on Final Cut Pro.
Xbox’s strategy bucks gaming tradition, but it’s easy to see the sales pitch: If you’re a Game Pass subscriber and you’re debating what console to buy, why wouldn’t you want to grab an Xbox to easily get the library of games you have access to on a TV?
Microsoft isn’t the only company experimenting with that strategy. Google Stadia tried, and failed, to sell players on the idea of buying into a device-spanning service. More successfully, the Steam Deck is an invaluable accessory for PC gamers that gives players more incentive to buy their games on Steam. Even Sony is starting to build out its own ecosystem through PS Plus, PlayStation VR2, and its new PlayStation Link audio tech that requires players to own specific earbuds or headsets to use wireless audio on the PlayStation Portal. Gaming companies see the value in making players feel like they’ve invested into something that would be a pain to get out of.
Through that lens, the idea of Xbox games coming to other platforms isn’t as head-scratching as it sounds. Microsoft seems confident that enough people will still subscribe to Game Pass at this point that it won’t hurt to sell its “exclusive” games on competing platforms and grab some extra cash. And though that may dilute one big selling point of the service, it’s still cheaper to pay an annual Game Pass subscription fee than it is to buy a handful of $70 games a year.
Is that smart business? That’s for you to decide. It’s perhaps a good idea in a world where every platform is playing by the same rules, but exclusivity remains a key selling point of the PlayStation brand. If Xbox drops that aspect of its business entirely, to a casual buyer, the Series X will just seem like a PS5 that can play less games. Selling players on a theoretical lifestyle is a lot harder than selling Halo. Can Microsoft convince players that a consistent gaming ecosystem has more value than the games housed within it? Xbox’s final exam may be on the horizon if the rumors come to fruition.
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