When WIRED read PC Gamer’s headline to Spencer, he said he thought it was “probably right.” “When I think about games where ray-tracing has had a dramatic impact on my experience as a player,” he says, “it’s kind of spotty.” And while both the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 both technically support 8K resolution, don’t expect that to mean much in practice. “I think 8K is aspirational technology,” Spencer says. “The display capabilities of devices are not really there yet. I think we’re years away from 8K being—if it ever is—standard in video games.” (One tech advance with immediate, tangible benefits is a 120-Hz refresh rate, which Spencer says is “absolutely there for people to use.”)
“There’s a little bit of buzzword bingo that starts happening,” says Spencer.
Referring to data her team collects, Hamren suggests that not as many people have 4K TVs as AAA publishers might think. Nintendo hasn’t even touched 4K, and the company still stole gamers’ hearts with the cartoony The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Increasingly, and inevitably, lists of 2020’s best 8K TVs are cropping up ahead of the next-gen PlayStation and Xbox launches. IGN’s pick is $8,000.
“The leap in generations is less big than it has been in the past,” says Tom Wijman, who leads gaming research company NewZoo’s games analytics division. “I think the importance of top-of-the-line specifications has been more important in the past.” What will drive people’s holiday console decisions, he says, isn’t a slight difference in resolution or processing power, topics typically discussed when a console is announced. “In the end, what will drive people’s decision is their social surroundings, if people play on Xbox around them, their past purchasing behavior, and exclusive games that come out for a system.”
This time around, to participate in the next-gen Xbox launch, you don’t even need to buy a console. Wrapped around the arrival of the Series X and S is Xbox’s new network of play: its revamped Game Pass subscription service and its (beta) cloud gaming service for Android devices. For $15 a month, you can play a rotating roster of games, which has included Resident Evil 7, The Outer Worlds, Minecraft Dungeons, Dishonored 2, No Man’s Sky, Crackdown 3, Dead Cells, Ark: Survival Evolved, three Age of Empires games, 11 Halo games, and hundreds of other titles in the well-curated Game Pass library. And you can play a lot of them across old Xbox, new Xbox, Android, and PC. (It helps that Microsoft makes Windows.)
Xbox is jockeying for a limited number of consumer subscription dollars, already claimed by Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, and other gaming offerings. It’s a safe bet, though. In April, Game Pass had 10 million subscribers. Its latest incarnation, which adds the Ultimate option encompassing xCloud and Xbox Live Gold, has helped attract millions more for a total of 15 million. Within the content microcosm of gaming, “service” means more than easy access to content. Factors outside of commercial gaming products can create strong gravitational pull over time. Take Fortnite. Instead of the traditional $60, Fortnite is free. And instead of moving on after a month or two, unrelenting content updates—including in-game items and events or out-of-game esports leagues—might entice you to play for another three years. If you play Fortnite on PC, you can link up with buddies on Xbox, PlayStation, Switch, or smartphones. And you want to hang out with your friends, right? This is what Microsoft is attempting with Xbox as a whole, on as many platforms as it can.
“They’re deemphasizing themselves as the center of the living room and more emphasizing getting people into the ecosystem,” says Joost van Dreunen, cofounder of game analytics company SuperData and author of One Up: Creativity, Competition, and the Global Business of Video Games. Pointing out that the PlayStation 4 sold twice as much as the Xbox One, van Dreunen says that Sony’s exclusive games proved more attractive than the Xbox’s performance spectacles. “Historically, they’ve really emphasized hardware and hardware capability. Now, it’s about the availability of content.” Unless you’re a mega-fan of a particular franchise or two, Xbox’s Game Pass and cross-platform ideology easily outmaneuvers Sony’s walled-garden approach to exclusives.