It’s no secret, Microsoft lost this generation’s console war. Look at any sales chart and you’ll see that for the last few years Sony’s PS4 has constantly beat the Xbox One when it comes to both console and game sales.
There are multiple reasons for this, but one of the constant factors analysts and journalists alike keep pointing to is the PS4’s significantly better library of exclusive games.
Just look at the list: The Last of Us, Bloodborne, Dreams, Horizon Zero Dawn. All of these are amazing titles that have earned a place as some of the best games ever released, not just the best of this console generation. By comparison, what’s Microsoft got? Halo 5, Sea of Thieves and Sunset Overdrive. Three games that were, at best, underwhelming at launch.
Which is why, with industry rumblings suggesting the Xbox Series X won’t have any “console exclusives” and the PS5’s IP offering growing by the hour, many gamers are predicting history will repeat itself with the next generation.
But for me, it’s way too early to call which console will do better and, if anything, Microsoft is the best placed company to establish a long-term lead for one key reason: it’s focussing on building a platform, not a console.
We’ve known for ages that Microsoft is working to sync up Xbox with its one platform strategy. To non-techies this is the firm’s ongoing endeavour to get all of its products and services linked to its central Windows OS.
Related: PS5 vs Xbox Series X
This is why each year Xbox UI looks more and more like Windows. It’s also why any Microsoft made game you buy will now work on Windows 10 as well as the Xbox One. This may not sound that exciting – sorry Microsoft, Sea of Thieves is just as dull on PC as it is on Xbox – but it’s an early sign Microsoft’s already working on a key step it could take to beat Sony in the war for gamers’ attention: Xbox OS.
This may sound a little out there, but the console market is already in a pretty confusing, fragmented state, with Sony and Microsoft alike creating specific consoles to target different price points and user bases. This is shown with the Xbox One X and Xbox One S and PS4 and PS4 Pro separation that happened a few years ago.
Given that console gamers’ minds haven’t exploded over the added complexity, why not take this a step further and make a gaming focused OS that works on PC hardware as well?
This would be a key differentiator for Microsoft that would make good on the open gaming platform SteamOS promised many moons ago. For those too young to remember, SteamOS was an open source operating system that granted access to Valve’s Steam store. On paper it was an awesome idea that removed the need for PC builders to pay for a Windows license if all they wanted to do was game. The only downside was that, because the OS was Linux based, it didn’t play nice with Direct X. This meant that the library of games compatible with SteamOS was very limited, which is why it failed as a platform despite its opening promise.
Related: Upcoming Xbox One Games
An Xbox OS could get round this problem. Windows 10 already works with pretty much every gaming API, including Vulkan and Direct X (the two most common). So, if Microsoft learned from Valve and launched a free gaming focused operating system with access to the Windows, Steam and Epic stores it would immediately draw the attention of companies and consumers alike.
This would in turn open Xbox up to an entirely new customer base Sony doesn’t have access to.
Console gamers could enjoy the security of picking Microsoft branded Xbox consoles. But more serious gamers would be able to build custom systems to meet their specific needs without having to pay for full fat Windows. It would also make it easier for OEMs, like Alienware, to innovate and continue pushing stellar concepts like the Alienware UFO to casual console gamers, who generally get put off by the complexity around PC gaming and need to re-purchase most of their games library.
How cool would it be to have access to your entire games library and every mainstream store under the sun on one central, device agnostic platform?
In theory, Microsoft could also make some serious performance optimisations with a bespoke Xbox OS. Windows 10 is pretty demanding, and runs a variety of processes you don’t need while gaming. Remove them and the OS would have significantly lower system demands, a factor that would let companies and PC builders get way more bang for their buck from their components.
Sony could try and do the same thing, but the fact is it doesn’t have infrastructure or existing links to PC gamers that Microsoft does. It also, like Nintendo, has a track record for pushing proprietary, walled garden systems that focus on unique IP over long-term platform building – which is why backwards compatibility is still a huge issue on each new console the two firms release.
This is why I think, even if the PS5 does wallop the Xbox Series X in console sales, Microsoft may win the long game as a platform provider.