Sony today feels a little bit like Apple did ten years ago. Both are so ubiquitous in their field that you’ll hear many people call any tablet an iPad or any smartphone an iPhone, and while parents used to call any games console a Nintendo, these days, the shorthand is PlayStation. I have no interest in getting involved in the console wars; I understand why people want the game box they bought to be the best game box around, but too many people make it too large a facet of their personality. If you look at the amount of exclusives, the sales figures, and the fact that all console shortage memes are about PS5s even though the Xbox Series X is in equally short supply, it’s obvious that PlayStation is winning.
That’s not the only way they’re similar to Apple circa 2011. That was the year Apple’s founder and figurehead Steve Jobs died, and the company switched its stance. In the decade before Jobs’ death, Apple introduced the iPod, the iPod Touch, the iPhone, the iPad, the Nano, the Shuffle, the MacBook Pro, iTunes, Siri, and Apple TV. In the decade since, it’s basically the Watch, Apple Arcade, Apple Music, and the HomePod – not only are none of its recent inventions as successful as the things from 2011 and earlier, they’re not even actually inventions.
Everything Apple has done since Jobs’ death has been a recreation or consolidation of what a competitor is doing, leveraging its position as tech numero uno to secure sales without innovation; in the case of Apple Music and HomePod, these are widely considered to be inferior products to boot. The only truly new thing to come out of Apple recently is the lightning jack.
Sony is on the precipice of this. I have already explained why MLB: The Show going to Xbox Game Pass on day one is a big blow; it’s easy to brush it off as ‘just a sports title’, but it’s an in-house Sony game that has been exclusive since 2006. It’s not the only game you can get for free at launch on Xbox either – earlier this month, PlayStation players had to shell out full price for Outriders, while Xbox players got it included with Game Pass.
Xbox is well aware that it’s not the big dog, and while it has bought Bethesda and is investing in some smaller studios to try and match Sony’s exclusive output, it’s thinking outside the (X)box too. Game Pass is not a Hail Mary thrown in desperation; while Sony narrows its focus on a small collection of established blockbuster titles (all third person action-adventure games with an emotional core), Game Pass is very deliberately giving players options. Sony is serving up steak, while Xbox is offering a buffet. But with Bethesda cooking some stuff up, new studios working on projects like the Perfect Dark and Fable revivals, and stuff like Outriders and MLB: The Show on there too, it’s not like the Game Pass buffet is avoiding steak either.
Sure, Xbox doesn’t have its The Last of Us yet. Forza, Sea of Thieves, and Gears of War stand in the shadow of God of War, Uncharted, Bloodborne, Horizon, and Spider-Man. There’s a lot of pressure on Halo to go toe-to-toe, but Xbox isn’t relying on exclusives like Sony does. It’s taking chances, pushing boundaries, and doing more for players right now than Sony’s ‘buy our machine, we have the best games’. In Sony’s defence, it’s a plan that’s working – but for how long?
A recent report revealed that Sony’s strategy moving forward will be to focus on its prestige, blockbuster titles almost entirely, that The Last of Us is getting a remake, that Days Gone failed to change the world and therefore will not be getting a sequel, and that Sony Bend asked to be removed from Uncharted and The Last of Us: Factions for fear of being absorbed into Naughty Dog. There’s a lot to unpack in there, but one of the biggest is that Sony is now fully in its post-Jobs Apple phase.
Jim Ryan taking over as head honcho in 2019 was not as monumental as the changeover at Apple, but it seems like his vision is now firmly shaping the future of Sony’s console business. That means more safe bets, more remakes of safe bets, and more television or film adaptations of safe bets. Sony has house money to play with, but it isn’t risking it. The Sony of today would not make Flower, Vib-Ribbon, PaRappa the Rapper, Tokyo Jungle, or Siren Blood Curse. Stray and Returnal, both upcoming PS games, look to be more experimental, but they feel like the exception that proves the rule. Both are being made by outside studios, and Stray is only a console exclusive; it will still be on PC.
Most of Sony’s slate is very recognisable, and that’s by design. ‘For the Players’ means ‘for the players who already play our games’. Like God of War? Here’s some more! Why bother taking a risk when you’re so far ahead? The fact Destruction AllStars flopped will be taken as evidence that titles that think differently don’t work, and whenever Xbox, Nintendo, or the PC gets a surprise hit, it’s likely Sony will either ignore it or try to copy it. There isn’t really room for it to innovate. We’re getting lightning jacks and HomePods and new iPhones from Sony this gen.
Just like the iPhones, the newest Horizon game or the next Naughty Dog title will sell out. People will (virtually) queue up for it on day one. It’ll be better than the last one, which was already the best thing ever. But it’ll be an iPhone. It’ll be a third person action-adventure with an emotional core. We’ve seen it before.
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Stacey Henley is an editor for TheGamer, and can often be found journeying to the edge of the Earth, but only in video games. Find her on Twitter @FiveTacey
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