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In New Haven, Connecticut, is a famous little restaurant called Louis' Lunch that fans (myself included) believe invented the hamburger. Louis' makes burgers in gas broilers made in 1898 and serves them on white toast. Options are, shall we say, limited.
On the wall is a sign: "This is not Burger King. You don't get it your way. You take it my way, or you don't get the damn thing."
The thing is, they're the world's best burgers. Every time I stop by, there's a line out the door and halfway down the block.
That's just about how Sony seems to be approaching the next generation of the $160 billion video game business. Sony's showcase online event Wednesday for its coming PlayStation 5 console confirmed the company's proudly, powerfully conservative notion of what is fundamentally important in the mass entertainment industry.
It's not ultimately about how people buy and consume your product. It's not about consumers engaging with one another. It's not about prices. It's not about technology. It is not even about innovation.
Those things can all play a role. But in the end what matters is the content. If the content — created by professionals — is objectively fabulous (whatever that means), then consumers will come. They will pay more. They will put up with inconveniences. They will take it our way.
And Sony is correct. They will.
Microsoft is trying to disrupt gaming both as a business and as a consumer experience. That's because Microsoft has long been No. 2 in this part of the market and is trying to leverage its broad technical and financial power into advantages in gaming. Sony, on the other hand, is betting that the strategy that has made PlayStation No. 1 in the console business for years — a focus on core content, the traditional couch-and-television console experience and traditional consumer spending patterns — will continue to work for at least the next several years.
For Sony, it's all about the blockbuster global franchises (obviously). This is clear to hardcore gamers, but this is what we mean by Sony's strict focus on content. Wednesday's presentation was all about demonstrating that many of the world's most important entertainment properties, from gaming and beyond, will be on PlayStation 5. That included Spider-Man, Final Fantasy, Harry Potter, Fortnite, Call of Duty, Resident Evil and God of War.
It will generally be more expensive and less flexible to choose PlayStation over Xbox, and Sony is fine with that. The entry point for the new Xbox systems is basically $25 a month. Over two years, that buys the cheaper Xbox and also hundreds of games. Retail price is $299 for the box and $499 for the more powerful version (which has a $35/month bundle option including games). On Wednesday, Sony announced that the less-expensive PlayStation 5 version costs $399 and the top-end edition also costs $499. In the United States, the new Xboxes will arrive on Nov. 10 and the PlayStation 5s on Nov. 12.
Technically, the two PS5 versions are largely identical; the $499 version has an optical drive whereas the $399 version does not. With the new Xboxes, the $299 version is less powerful than the $499 version. This will allow both companies to claim a pricing and value victory.
Sony is not offering a monthly payment plan comparable to Microsoft's and does not offer a similarly broad game subscription service. However, Sony did make the attractive announcement Wednesday that PS5 subscribers to its online multiplayer service (which costs $60 for a year) will get free access to 18 top-end games from the previous PlayStation 4.
"For us, having a catalogue of games is not something that defines a platform," Sony's PlayStation chief Jim Ryan told Gamesindustry.biz. "We are not going to go down the road of putting new releases titles into a subscription model."
Sony also announced Wednesday that at least some of its new top-end games will cost $70 rather than the $60 that has been customary. U.S. consumers seem likely to generally take that in stride, memes notwithstanding. Rumblings may be louder in Europe, however, where Sony's top game price is now €80 ($95 at current exchange).
Sony is not quite defining PlayStation as a luxury brand, but the company appears comfortable with the vision of PlayStation as a premium experience. "It's a considerable capital outlay, and we want to make sure people know they are buying a true next-generation console," Ryan told The Washington Post.
Sony's ideal is boutique quality at global scale. I don't actually know, but I'm pretty sure that the Lassen family, which has owned and operated Louis' Lunch for at least five generations, has long laughed off the idea of expanding the Louis' burger empire beyond Crown Street in New Haven. You can't build the world's top console gaming franchise like that, but Sony is trying to build and protect the values that got the company here in the first place.
And as with Louis', legions of loyal fans wouldn't have it any other way.
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Seth Schiesel ( @SethSchiesel) is a contributing editor for Protocol focused on the business of video games and adjacent industries. He is a former editorial writer for The Boston Globe, entrepreneur and business reporter, technology writer and video game critic for The New York Times.