Power

For Microsoft and Sony, it’s all about the games again

The Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 deliver superb, but different, entertainment experiences.

For Microsoft and Sony, it’s all about the games again

Astro's Playroom, which comes with the PS5, is a game about exploring the inside of a game console.

Image: Sony

You know you've got a problem when you have a song about a graphics chip stuck in your head. A high-class, next-generation problem, that is.

But that's me, mentally trapped in the lush green GPU Jungle level of Astro's Playroom, the delightful platforming game (lots of jumping) included with Sony's new PlayStation 5.

"Look at the light, it falls just right/My shadows they please, beneath the trees," so croons the earworm as you, the player, steer plucky little Astro from Renderforest through Teraflop Treetops, Raytrace Ruins and finally to the summit of Mt. Motherboard. "GPUuuuuu, tell me what to dooooooo, and I'll do it for you/I'm your GPUuuuuuu."

Yes, Sony's wonderful new video game machine comes with a video game about exploring the inside of a video game machine. How meta.

That's the PS5, to be released on Thursday, and that's Sony's approach to the next generation of interactive entertainment: self-referential, meticulously designed and proud of its distinctive brand. When you use the PS5 or play a Sony game, it often feels like the product is calling attention to itself even as you're using it. (And I'm not even talking about the PS5 enclosure's physical design.)

That's usually innovative and fantastic — for example, the new Sony controller doesn't just buzz generically in your hands; it shimmies, wiggles and throbs (known as haptics) with what can only be called personality — and perfectly reflects Sony's broader business strategy. After losing out in so many areas of consumer electronics and entertainment in recent decades — from mass-market televisions to portable music to smartphones — the last thing Sony wants is for video game systems to become commoditized.

I recently likened Sony's PlayStation strategy to an irascible hamburger shack that only does things one way: their way. I'll admit I worried that Sony executives would resent the comparison. In fact, they loved it, because they agreed with the point: When you use a Sony product, you're supposed to notice and appreciate the company it came from. As you swing from skyscraper to treetop in Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Sony's big PS5 launch game, you're supposed to think, "Only on PS5," and probably will.

This strategy of distinction makes sense for Sony because the home console market is pretty much the company's entire video game business. Sony has very little presence in PC gaming, not to mention the far larger and more lucrative mobile games segment. Even Kenichiro Yoshida, Sony's CEO, recently described PlayStation's focus on "targeting core gamers with immersive console games" as "something of a niche." Sony's goal is to make that niche as attractive and profitable as it can, and the PlayStation 5 seems well-positioned to do that.

The PS5 controller shimmies and wiggles in your hand. Photo: Sony

Meanwhile, it has been clear for a while that Microsoft's approach to the next generation of gaming is fundamentally different. That difference comes through in the Xbox Series X experience, opening to the public on Tuesday. Unlike the PS5, the new Xbox never calls attention to itself. It just works. It works so well, so seamlessly, so powerfully, that at its best it just seems to disappear altogether. What's left is the game.

My touchstone Series X moment also involved music. After all, the dank beats kept thumping even as we careened across that damp moonlit hillside Saturday night.

I'll admit we had a couple drinks before I pulled out in the Audi TTS as the sun went down. An election will do that to you. And sure enough, I lost control in the dew coming over a crest and spun out across the field's clover.

At first I wanted to get back on the road right away. But sitting there a moment, watching the moon illuminate the translucent clouds over the valley and the hot air balloons lingering over the fairgrounds beneath, the stars and the music changed our minds. "Wait a minute," my friend said from the passenger seat, touching my arm.

So we just sat in the coupe on the hillside with A Tribe Called Quest, watching the cars below traverse the moonlight.

We on award tour with Muhammad my man

Going each and every place with the mic in their hand

Chinatown, Spokane, London, Tokyo

In reality, of course, there was no luxury ride and there were no balloons. I was not surveying a fog-shrouded valley. I was just sitting on a couch, looking at a $350 Toshiba 4K television, holding a video game controller. But the music was real. The feeling was real. The friend was real. The moment was real, thanks to the gorgeous new high-resolution sheen the Series X gives Forza Horizon 4, originally released two years ago.

Forza Horizon 4 on the Xbox Series XImage: Seth Schiesel

Microsoft has deservedly taken some flak for not shipping an exclusive new game alongside the Series X and its less-powerful and expensive sibling, the Series S. I hardly noticed because what the Series X does on a 4K television with newly enhanced games like Forza, Gears 5, Sea of Thieves and Ori and the Will of the Wisps felt entirely fresh and engaging. I am a PC gamer by natural predisposition, but I play none of those games regularly on Windows. On the Series X and my cheap 4K TV, however, I am enjoying each of them immensely.

When I use the PS5, I feel like I'm buying into Sony's particular aesthetic of gameplay, which is disproportionately heavy on single-player, narrative-driven experiences. From Sony's first-party development slate to the collection of PS4 games Sony included in its PlayStation Plus subscription for PS5 users, you see a ton of third-person platformers and action-adventure games and not a lot of shooters, strategy games, predominantly online games, simulations or other genres.

Even Astro's Playroom, which is meant to introduce and show off the PS5's new controller, is built around a very traditional, old-school notion of gameplay. Some folks have likened Astro's to Wii Sports, the motion-sensitive cornerstone of Nintendo's Wii, but the two games are deeply different in intent. Wii Sports succeeded brilliantly by making itself immediately accessible to anyone who could swing a virtual bowling ball — meaning the whole family. Astro's, however, is quite self-consciously a dexterity-dependent platformer that requires quite a bit of gamer reflexes, eye-hand coordination and muscle memory. Grandma at Thanksgiving is not going to be having fun with Astro's Playroom, and it's not meant for her.

By contrast, the new Xbox offers a broader range of experiences more easily and affordably. That's partly by virtue of the expansive Game Pass subscription plan, which includes hundreds of games, but also rests on the creative breadth of Microsoft's first-party development (and acquisitions) and the company's commitment to updating older Xbox games so they play better than ever on the new system.

Microsoft's approach to the next generation of gaming is fundamentally different from Sony's. Image: Microsoft

It would be an oversimplification to call PlayStation a bespoke destination gaming experience while Xbox feels like a more powerful if generic gaming service layer, but not by much. (And it must be said that the petite Xbox Series S, which does not support 4K, definitely wins the new console Cutie Pie award.) While Sony polishes its vision of console gaming like a jewel, Microsoft is leveraging technology and cash to extend its vision of gaming across consoles, PC and mobile devices (via cloud).

At the start of the last console generation seven years ago, it felt like Microsoft tripped over itself before even reaching the starting gate, allowing Sony to coast by on Xbox's mistakes. The generation before that, the PlayStation 3 initially felt hobbled by its own overambitious technical design and a subpar online service.

This time, both the new PlayStations and Xboxes feel like highly refined and carefully executed expressions of the brands, consumer approaches and business strategies of the companies behind them. They each deliver superb, but different, entertainment experiences. Most important, you can tell that the teams behind both platforms fully believe that the fundamental interactivity of gaming allows games to convey emotion in a fashion unmatched by other media, whether that means humming a GPU ditty or sitting on a hillside watching the moon.

And you can't ask any more of technology than to serve basic human emotion. Everything else is just efficiency.

Full Astro's Playroom GPU Jungle lyrics (courtesy of Sony)

Composer: Kenny Young

GPU Jungle

Look at the light, it falls just right,

My shadows they please, beneath the trees.

But none of these things, happen for free,

Yeah all that you see, rendered by me.

I synthesize and rasterize immaterial things that I fabricate for you. For you.

Yes I tessellate and animate these dancing sprites and sun-lit skies for you.

I do it for you. I'm your GPU.

GPU. Tell me what to do and I'll do it for you.

GPU. Tell me what to do and I'll do it for you.

You've never wondered why, I catch your eye,

It's coz you overlook, all the choices I took.

I spend all of my time, deceiving and misleading you,

I like to surprise, with my virtual lies.

I synthesize and rasterize immaterial things that I fabricate for you. For you.

Yes I tessellate and animate these dancing sprites and sun-lit skies for you.

I do it for you. I'm your GPU.

[solo]

Yeah, I'm your GPU.

GPU. Tell me what to do and I'll do it for you.

GPU. Tell me what to do. Yes I do it all for you.

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