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Why PlayStation beat Xbox this generation (and what it taught Microsoft)

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Why vision is so crucial

E3 2014 - PlayStation/Xbox hallway Samit Sarkar/Polygon

Sony has sold 70 million units of PlayStation 4 hardware to date, according to its own internal estimates. We don’t have an accurate way to compare this sales information to Xbox One hardware, since Microsoft stopped sharing sales information back in 2015.

No one likes to come in second place, or even third now that the Nintendo Switch is doing so well, but the ongoing lack of sales information suggests that Microsoft knows it has lost this console generation, at least in terms of hardware sales.

The difference between the two companies is that Sony always knew what it was selling, while Microsoft is only now beginning to catch up in terms of brand identity. The good news is that the Xbox One X proves that the fight between the two gaming giants is far from over.

What Sony did right

The PlayStation 4 is a game console that was more powerful than the Xbox One at launch while also selling at a lower price. The focus was always on the games, and the ability to trade or loan your games to a friend at a time when Microsoft was pushing an innovative but poorly communicated system of digital rights and limitations.

That’s all it took. Sony knew what it was selling, it executed on that vision and was willing to take direct shots at Microsoft’s weak points. The strategy did massive damage, and the battle was over almost before it begun.

Microsoft wanted to sell a box that connected all aspects of your entertainment center while pulling everyone into a digital future while also ushering in a new era of motion controls with the Kinect. Raw power was less important than voice commands, and Microsoft believed that players would be willing to pay for this strange mixture of features.

There was no unifying vision behind the Xbox One, and the slow path to dropping all the features that helped the Xbox One differentiate itself from the PlayStation 4 was painful to watch.

Sony knew what the PlayStation 4 was, and knew what it should do. It was a gaming console that was designed to beat Microsoft. And it did.

Nintendo has the same advantage with the Switch: The company has released a complicated system with advantages that are easy to communicate, visually and instantly, with players. There is a vision behind the Nintendo Switch that allows Nintendo to operate in a market without much direct competition from Microsoft or Sony.

This is also why Sony is doing such a good job of owning the VR market. The PlayStation VR looks fun, it’s affordable and it has a good software library. It doesn’t make noise about changing the face of education or training surgeons. It has a clear goal, and executes it well.

PlayStation VR

Microsoft, in contrast, is pushing something it refers to as “mixed” reality and has partnered with a series of companies on a variety of VR headsets with little that set themselves apart from each other. That lack of vision is telling; Microsoft seems to be in VR only because it feels like it should be. Don’t expect sales information to be released anytime soon, nor a product that’s anything more than a development kit. Microsoft is unlikely to be competitive in VR within the next few years.

This is how Sony won, and why Nintendo is doing so well. This is the lesson that Microsoft learned.

The return of Microsoft’s vision

The Xbox One X is the most powerful gaming console ever released. It’s the system you want to buy if you want the best visuals without going to the PC, and it plays 4K Blu-ray discs just fine. The PlayStation 4 Pro is a more powerful PlayStation 4, which is neat, but the Xbox One X feels like a full step into 4K visuals instead of a shuffle toward them.

It’s a product with vision, and that vision is easy to communicate. If you have a great display, or are thinking about buying one, and want the most powerful console to drive it? Microsoft has your new best friend. It’s available now. Go get it.

The Xbox One X is the system that changed my thinking from always getting games on the PlayStation 4 into seeing if they’re available on the Xbox One X and whether they’ve been updated to take advantage of the system. Your games will get a performance boost even if the answer is no, however. The Xbox One X will improve things without the player having to think about it much.

Microsoft has also invested in its backward compatibility program, and playing Ninja Gaiden Black in native 4K is amazing. These are features that Sony isn’t going to be able to beat any time soon, but the raw power of the Xbox One X and its dominant performance means that you don’t have to go into the weeds to sell these features to people. It’s the most powerful. Period.

The Xbox One X is the most exciting thing that Microsoft has released in some time, and it’s due primarily to the product’s laser focus on power and features that take advantage of that power.

Microsoft has released a console with vision, and the console wars are finally interesting again. That’s good for everyone, even if it took getting beaten by Sony to get there.