The console wars aren’t a new concept. Dating as far back as Nintendo vs Sega, and even some well fought scraps from Atari, it’s been a part of the conversation forever. They’ve pretty much been a talking point between Microsoft and Sony since the 2000s, with the launch of the Xbox and the rise of PlayStation. At least initially, it all seemed like good fun; badgering about who had the best exclusives, the best graphics, the best online communities, you name it. But recent years have seen a shift in the conversation, one that is nasty, vindictive, and bizarrely, without any real net gain. Supporters of each console fiercely defend their side, and the intense rivalry continues to divide the gaming community in a way that no longer seems fun or good spirited. This is made that much worse when you consider the likely reasoning that it exists: that on at least some level, it exists solely as a marketing ploy between Microsoft and Sony. By understanding the history of these two giants of the industry, the marketing strategies employed by them, and the current climate that continues to be volatile, it’s easy to see how the industry benefits from the ongoing “war between the gamers.”
Understanding the current state of the console wars requires first understanding the history and evolution of both PlayStation and Xbox. Sony was actually first on the scene, with the launch of the original PlayStation console in 1994. To say that this was a groundbreaking moment in gaming history would be an understatement; the PlayStation ushered in a new era of 3D graphical games, and its legacy is marked with the likes of Final Fantasy VII, Gran Turismo, and Metal Gear Solid, which continue to stand the test of time. For the most part, Sony had no real serious competition during this time; Nintendo was off doing its own thing, and Microsoft was still busy with Windows. The only bona fide competition Sony seemed to face was with Sega’s Dreamcast, which came 5 years later, though the competition would ultimately be short lived.
Then of course, there is the Xbox, which burst onto the scene in 2001. Just weeks after 9/11, the Xbox landed in the hands of gamers at a time of great uncertainty and global chaos, which no doubt served as a welcome distraction from the endless news headlines plaguing the country at the time. Most memorably, Xbox launched with Halo: Combat Evolved, which continues to stand as one of the most successful games of all time. With the launch of Halo 2 just a few years later was also the Xbox Live Online service, which revolutionized online gaming and competitive multiplayer experiences. The Xbox still faced intense competition with the PlayStation 2, which was wildly successful in its own right (and one of my favorite consoles I’ve ever owned) but that competition led to Microsoft’s innovative improvements that came with the Xbox 360 in 2005.
Probably the peak of the console rivalry happened during the era of the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3, which began to see the rise of console exclusives as a bargaining chip for gamers. Xbox churned out a series of successful exclusives like Halo 3, Gears of War, and Forza. PlayStation responded in kind with God of War 3, Uncharted 2, and The Last of Us. And this was all with clear intent by both sides. The actual marketing campaigns employed by both sides, touting their exclusive games and the technical features of the consoles that set them apart, are designed to elicit an “us vs them” mentality, encouraging gamers to pick a side and defend it vehemently.
For years, we watched as the likes of Microsoft, Sony, Nintendo, and countless game developers took the stage at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) each summer and boasted about the exciting console and game launches coming in the near future. This common ground was essentially the only avenue bringing both sides together to eagerly anticipate what was coming next. Following the pandemic, Sony made the shocking decision to no longer participate in E3, instead opting to share its upcoming releases in its own controlled settings, like the “PlayStation State of Play.” Microsoft and Nintendo would soon follow, with all major gaming companies now hosting individual events. This has created a deep schism that has furthered the divide between gamers, who no longer have a unified space to come together and appreciate gaming as a whole.
There is certainly a benefit to competition and it is essential to maintaining the quality of the consoles and games that consumers can expect on the market. After all, competition fosters innovation. In an effort to outdo each other, Sony and Microsoft are constantly pushing the boundaries of what is possible in games. Sony has given us the vast, gorgeous open worlds of Horizon: Zero Dawn and Forbidden West, and Microsoft just recently gave us Starfield, with one of the most ambitious open worlds to date. Regardless of your platform of choice, all gamers benefit from the constant need of these powerhouses to outdo each other.
The real threat to the industry is not in the desire to compete fairly, it is the desire to eliminate competition and dominate the market. Neither Sony nor Microsoft is free from blame in this regard. Sony has come under fire for the motives behind its purchases of major studios like Bungie, and the same is true of Microsoft and its purchase of Bethesda, and its current attempt to acquire Activision/Blizzard. The multi billion dollar purchases stand to benefit their respective studios in spades, all with the intention of boosting record profits coming from you and me.
So why purchase game studios? Is it truly with the sole aim of monopolizing the market? Is it to further entrench gamers against each other each and every holiday cycle as console exclusives hit shelves? Is it to continue to stoke the fires of competition? Honestly, it’s a combination of all three. But the benefits that Sony and Microsoft stand to gain from gamers being pitted against each other are notable and important. While we’re busy clawing at each other’s throats about whether or not Starfield is a good game because “Xbox fanboys are just biased” or “PlayStation fanboys are just jealous,” Microsoft and Sony can continue to reap in the billions of dollars of gamers frantically trying to “prove” the mastery of their chosen console with their purchases to support them. This is exactly what they want. The greater the animosity, the greater the divide, the more “justified” each becomes in their attempts to manipulate the market to their favor.
So what do we do about it? Unfortunately there’s no mass movement or compromise that can be made, nor should anyone be expected to. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion on the best console, game, whatever. But it’s important to remember, that for how loyal you may be to Microsoft, Microsoft does not have to be loyal to you. Or PlayStation, or even Nintendo for that matter. Their sole objective is to gain your hard earned dollars. In a healthy market, that makes sense. But in this climate, Microsoft and Sony have chosen to abandon accountability in favor of dominance, and our bickering amongst ourselves is just a distraction from the greater motives that exist within the industry. It did not become a multi billion dollar industry overnight. It has been in the works for decades, and at the end of the day, the sway of the market is in the hands of the consumer. Keep that in mind the next time you’re thinking of picking a fight on Reddit, because Microsoft and Sony are hoping you won’t.