Sony’s Greatest Asset Is Bigger Than PlayStation 5, Bigger Than Consoles

Uncharted 4

Why do you buy an Xbox instead of a PlayStation? Sometimes there’s a difference, like $100 or the Xbox One’s ill-fated commitment to Kinect. But in the modern era, the two machines are starting to look awfully similar: at times one is more powerful than the other, but they’re both usually in the same ballpark and it’s tough to actually tell the difference. For many, it comes down to what they want to play, and that’s not going to change when we get the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5.

Over the course of the last generation, Sony has made clear that its exclusive development competes only with Nintendo, and it gives the ecosystem a massive edge. Right now we think in terms of a console war, and we see what that development can do for hardware sales. We’ve seen that work, but I think people sometimes forget that this edge can push non-hardware platforms as well. As we continue to speculate about a cloud-based future, I think we need to remember how powerful exclusives can continue to be.

Today In: Innovation

Sony is not just the company that makes PlayStation, Sony is the publisher of Bloodborne, God of War, Uncharted 4, Spider-Man, Horizon Zero DawnDeath Stranding, the upcoming Ghosts of Tsushima and The Last of Us Part 2, and, most importantly, Knack. It has established itself as the preeminent source of a certain kind of expensive(to develop), involved, single-player game: call them “prestige” games, whether you like them or not.

As we move forward into a new era of gaming, whatever that era might be, this is going to be Sony’s greatest strength. This is true even in an industry focused more on cloud than on console, in an industry where platforms divorce themselves from individual pieces of hardware, or one that works basically the same as the one we’re in now. That’s because Sony’s content has become massively valuable in and of itself, and it will continue to be no matter how it’s distributed.

The value of content here is not only hypothetical, because the video streaming industry offers us a possible glimpse into what a cloud-focused gaming future could look like. There’s no such thing as hardware exclusives in the streaming wars and there never has been, because I can watch Netflix and Hulu on basically any internet-connected device on Earth with a remarkably low barrier to entry: low-enough subscription fees, no need for a controller, simple, straight-ahead apps, etc.

And yet even in that situation, exclusive content remains not only relevant, but central. Netflix spends literal billions on original content, and just recently Disney launched a new streaming service that hinged a huge part of its publicity on a single, high-budget show, and it paid off. That’s the power of premium content.

You could argue that the sorts of games Sony tends to make are not the most popular games in the world, and you’d be right: people, on the whole, spend more time with titles like Fortnite than they do with titles like God of War or even Spider-Man. But the analogy holds true here too: people spend the majority of their time on Netflix watching shows like The Office and Friends, but prestige content like The Irishman gives the service a sense of premium identity. That’s how it works for Sony, too: I probably spend most of my time with comfort gaming, but PlayStation is the only platform with Bloodborne on it, and that lets me know where I am.

There’s a reason Microsoft has been buying developers like candy recently, and that’s because it knows how important content is going to be in any future.

That we are on the verge of a larger shift in the premium console industry seems inevitable. It started, arguably, with the PS4 Pro and Xbox One X, with both Sony and Microsoft blurring the lines of the console generation to nonexistence, particularly with the backwards compatibility of the coming generation. The next major wrinkle will be the onset of cloud gaming as genuine competition to the premium market: the whole sector feels stilted after Stadia’s awkward launch, but it’s still on its way. I still expect premium consoles have a good number of years left in them, but things are most definitely changing.

Right now, premium content serves Sony’s hardware business, and it serves it well. But it could easily be adapted to a radically different landscape, even one where cloud gaming somehow managed to totally eclipse local hardware. It’s not impossible to imagine Amazon, flush with data centers but still carrying a limited understanding of the gaming industry, teaming up with Sony for a strong streaming service. It’s even not impossible to imagine Sony and Microsoft teaming up in a world where Google or Amazon have evolved into stronger competition.

The point is that over the years, Sony has built an arsenal of developers and IP to rival even Nintendo, with its own sense of style and identity. Right now and for the foreseeable future, the company will leverage those developers to sell more pieces of physical hardware, but that’s not the only way they can be used. Sony’s premium content will serve it well in any number of hypothetical futures, because ultimately gaming comes to down to games.