Smith: Second Place is Better

Video games Courtesy of MaxPixel.com

When it comes to the video game business, second place is usually better.

Just ask Microsoft. After three years of handily losing the sales war to the competing PlayStation 4, the giant tech company looks to rebound with a consumer-friendly approach to its video game business in 2018.

All it took was three years of eating Sony-served humble pie.

The fall

I still remember the night Microsoft lost the current generation console war.

It was the Tuesday of the 2014 Electronic Entertainment Expo, and Microsoft was still reeling from their disastrous press conference the previous day. They introduced the Xbox One at a $499 price point — $100 more than anyone expected. That was due mostly to the inclusion of the (then) required Kinect motion sensor, which no one wanted.

That wasn’t the worst of it. At the time, game publishers were panicking over the used-games business. Game publishers don’t see a cent of second-hand sales, and were looking for a way to restrict the practice.

Microsoft came up with a perfect plan — not for consumers, but for game publishers. They originally designed the Xbox One to be constantly connected to the Internet, which would allow the console to continually verify the player is playing their own game. That means you couldn’t lend a game to friends. You couldn’t rent a game. And if your system lost its online connection, you couldn’t even play your own games.

The anger and ridicule that followed was monumental (I was part of the howling pack), forcing Microsoft to change those features before the Xbox One launched in November. But by then, it was too late. Not only was the Xbox One slightly less powerful than the competing PlayStation 4, it had less exclusives.

It also cost $100 more than the PlayStation 4.

Unless you were a brand loyalist, there was no reason to buy an Xbox One. Sony was the pro-consumer good guy, while Microsoft represented corporate greed.

Now it seems those roles are reversing.

Taking a cue from Nintendo

The PlayStation 4 has acted as my entertainment hub for the past three years. I watch Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime shows on it. I keep up with the latest gaming news with the YouTube app. I even watch Blu-Rays on it.

But now that I have the more powerful iteration of Microsoft’s console — the Xbox One X — that’s about to change.

Sony has grown complacent on its throne, engaging in the anti-consumer practices that formerly plagued Microsoft. The once pristine online storefront is littered with cheap, scam-oriented games that are free on the mobile market. While Microsoft now allows gamers to play with their friends, no matter which system they own, Sony doesn’t want to participate

Meanwhile, Microsoft has been taking lessons from its other competitor — Nintendo. Despite being much less powerful than the PlayStation 4 or the Xbox One, the Nintendo Switch recently became the fastest-selling video game console in history. And that’s coming in the wake of Nintendo’s disastrous Wii U console.

The Switch’s online connection is minimal. It doesn’t play Netflix or Hulu. You can’t even watch Blu-Rays or DVDs.

What it does have is the best launch line-up ever seen on a first-year console — an exclusive line-up that can’t be played on any other system. Gamers want good games, not another device to stream media.

The resurrection

I didn’t plan on buying the much more powerful Xbox One X, mostly because you need a 4K TV to get the most out of it. But when my in-laws surprised us with a 4K TV this past Christmas, I figured, ‘What the hell.’

What gaming nerd wouldn’t want the most powerful console ever produced?

I bought the $500 machine on the hunch that Microsoft will finally rebound. Last week, they confirmed my positive outlook by announcing that its first-party games will be free at launch day for Xbox Game Pass subscribers.

That’s monumental news. The kind of news that could shift the entire console war. Game Pass is a relatively new service best described as a Netflix for video games. Sony has a similar subscription service with a larger library for the PlayStation 4, but the games are streamed instead of downloaded. Unless you have a monster Internet connection (I don’t), it’s useless.

I signed up for Game Pass shortly after getting my new console, impressed by eclectic selection of games that go well beyond mainstream regulars such as “Halo” and “Gears of War.” There are niche, Japanese fighting games I’d never heard of. Original Xbox classics like “Ninja Gaiden Sigma,” which I hadn’t played in years. Racing games I usually wouldn’t bother to rent, but can’t help but try.

It’s free, after all. Once you’re a subscriber.

Giving away new games on the service is nearly unfathomable, and will undoubtedly shake up the games retail business. Some have called the tactic desperate. I call it good business — at least for gamers.

Will Smith is a reporter for The Hawk Eye—a GateHouse Media Company—in Burlington, Iowa. His weekly column is printed in the Sunday edition of The Hawk Eye.