Opinion: It’s Not a Console War, It’s a Content War

By | January 18, 2022

The notion of a “console war” is outdated, and has been for years now. What began as a silly rivalry between fans of different game systems secretly jealous of the games they couldn’t play has been a significant element fueling games community toxicity for 25 years. Because of that, one might think Microsoft’s bold intended acquisition of Activision Blizzard for $68.7 billion is cause for vitriol – no more Call of Duty on PlayStation consoles? – and proof that the conflict is still raging. In truth it’s the signal that it’s over, and the real fight has been revealed.

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Ultimately, nobody “won.” You could argue that perhaps all of us did, because the drive to secure increasingly impressive games pushed the capabilities of multiple generations of PlayStations and Xboxes, but there was never going to be an all-conquering singular console. The notion was always preposterous, and leaders like Microsoft’s Phil Spencer have been saying so for years. Back in 2018, Spencer called toxicity in gaming a threat, and noted in 2020 that “console tribalism” was “one of the worst things about our industry. “We’re in the entertainment business,” he said. “The biggest competitor we have is apathy over the products and services, games that we build.”

The staggering sum that Microsoft is paying for Activision Blizzard is the boldest signal yet that content is the future of gaming. Until recently Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo had focused on owning their entire console ecosystems. They make the boxes you play on, and they exert control over the games that get made for those boxes. The model dates back decades. Atari did it, Nintendo did it, Sega did it – because it worked.

The staggering sum that Microsoft is paying for Activision Blizzard is the boldest signal yet that content is the future of gaming.

Over the next few years, though, the box under your TV will become irrelevant. With faster networks and increasingly powerful technology, singular custom gaming hardware is already less important if you just want access to games. Sure, if you want the best possible experience they’ll still be consequential – just as Blu-Ray players can provide a better experience than streaming movies – but for the vast majority of people, all that matters is convenience and access. So, if any device – like your phone or tablet, or the TV in your living room – can provide access to a gigantic library of games through a built-in app with a subscription service like Game Pass, the most important thing is stuffing that service with lots and lots of really good games. We can cynically point at failures like Google’s atrocious Stadia user experience or Amazon’s half-assed Luna service as proof that this idea is “bad” – but underneath the layers of licensing bullshit and incomprehensible payment plans, the fundamental problem with both of those (and others) has been that the game selection sucks. Game Pass does not have that issue.

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