A battle royale between the new PlayStation and Xbox consoles is kicking off. But gaming’s prospects—and millions of new users—depend on streaming
THERE IS NOTHING quite like a captive audience. When Sony, a Japanese electronics giant, reported its latest set of quarterly results on October 28th, the star performer was the firm’s video-gaming division, which makes the PlayStation line of consoles. Had it been a normal year, revenues would probably have been down, because Sony’s current model—the PlayStation 4—is coming to the end of its life.
But in a year marked by lockdowns and working from home, gaming revenue instead grew by 11.5% year-on-year (and operating profits by 61%) as housebound consumers reached for their controllers. Sony is not alone. Microsoft, its gaming arch-rival, released its own results the day before. Its Xbox One console is similarly superannuated, yet revenues jumped by 30%. The good times have been repeated across the industry (see chart).
Most forecasters expected covid-19 to boost the video-gaming business. The pandemic has given a fillip to other forms of indoor entertainment, from board games to video-streaming to books. But the scale of the surge has caught industry-watchers by surprise. Tony Habschmidt, head of consulting at Newzoo, a games-industry analytics firm, says that when the pandemic began, his company predicted a boost of around $2bn to industry revenues on top of its existing forecasts. The latest figures, he says, suggest the real figure has been nearer $17bn. Newzoo now reckons industry revenues will reach $175bn this year, a rise of 20%. Even for an industry that had been growing by 9% annually, 2020 has been a barnstorming year.
It is not over yet. Amid a blitz of adverts, trailers and PR, Sony and Microsoft are replacing their existing consoles with new, more powerful machines. On November 10th Microsoft released the Xbox Series X. Sony responded two days later with the PlayStation 5. With a locked-down Christmas looming in many parts of the world, demand for both will be high. If industry rumours about pre-orders are correct, some consumers may have to go without.
不止于此。索尼和微软正推出性能更强大的新产品替换现有老款。在一轮广告、预告片和公关轰炸后，微软于11月10日发布了Xbox Series X，索尼在今天以PlayStation 5迎战。今年圣诞期间世界很多地方可能都处于封城状态，对这两款游戏主机的需求会很高。如果有关预售情况的业界传闻是真的，那么部分消费者也许还抢不到货。
At the same time, both firms will be keeping their eyes on several big new competitors. Amazon, Facebook and Google all think the time is right to try their luck in the gaming business. Over the past decade streaming has revolutionised music, television and films. The tech giants think cloud computing, fast broadband and 5G mobile networks mean the time is right to try the same thing with video games.
Start with the consoles themselves. Sony won the previous round of the console wars, selling over 100m PlayStation 4s and more than 1bn games. Microsoft does not provide official figures, but most analysts reckon that sales of the Xbox One (confusingly, the Xbox’s third iteration) were only half as high. Most expect Sony to outsell its rival this time, too. Piers Harding-Rolls at Ampere Analysis, a media-analysis firm, thinks 5m new PlayStations will be sold in the run-up to Christmas, compared with 3.9m Xboxes.
先看游戏主机。在上一轮主机大战中，索尼是赢家，售出超过一亿台PlayStation 4和十亿多套游戏。微软没有公开官方数据，但大多数分析师估计Xbox One（名字易混淆，实际是Xbox的第三代产品）的销量仅为前者一半。多数人预计这次的销量赢家还是索尼。媒体分析公司安培分析（Ampere Analysis）的皮尔斯·哈丁-罗尔斯（Piers Harding-Rolls）认为，圣诞节前新款PlayStation的销量会达到500万台，而Xbox估计会售出390万台。
One reason is brand loyalty. “There’s very much a cult following when it comes to consoles,” says Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities. “PlayStation owners will mostly buy another PlayStation, and Xbox owners will get a new Xbox.” Another is Sony’s strategy, which focuses on existing gamers. Analysts think the firm is selling the machines at a loss—a common tactic for console-makers. Sony’s marketing has emphasised exclusive, big-budget games that are aimed at committed gamers and are not available elsewhere.
一个原因是品牌忠诚度。“游戏主机可说有大批狂热粉丝，”维德布什证券（Wedbush Securities）的分析师迈克尔·帕切特（Michael Pachter）说，“玩PlayStation的大多会再买一台PlayStation，玩Xbox的再买新的Xbox。” 另一个原因是索尼的策略专注于现有玩家。分析人士认为索尼在亏本出售游戏主机——这是游戏主机制造商的普遍策略。索尼的营销重点是瞄准死忠玩家的、在别处玩不到的独家大制作游戏。
Sony’s executives will be hoping the analysts’ projections are right, because the PlayStation 5 is vital to its future. The firm’s gaming division is now its largest. Its recent success has cushioned the impact of problems elsewhere, such as in its imaging division, which has suffered from the troubles of Huawei, a Chinese tech giant that is one of its big customers.
Microsoft, for its part, professes itself unworried about precisely how many new Xboxes it sells. It is just as focused on expanding the market as on trying to win over existing gamers. More than 3bn people own smartphones, and mobile games—smaller and more casual than console titles—are the most popular sort of app. Phil Spencer, who runs Microsoft’s Xbox division, estimates that only around 200m households worldwide are willing—or able—to splash out on an expensive piece of gaming hardware like a console.
Microsoft is therefore trying to lower the barriers to adoption. It will offer hire-purchase deals for its new Xbox. It is heavily promoting “Game Pass”, a subscription service that offers access to an online library of hundreds of games for up to $15 per month (a quarter of the upfront cost of a typical high-end console game).
The centrepiece of this strategy is a service called xCloud, which aims to remove the need to own a dedicated console at all, by running games in distant data-centres and streaming the results to smartphones, internet-connected TVs, or any screen that can be hooked up to the internet and a game controller.
In rich countries, streaming could let gamers play anywhere, not just at home—doing for games what Spotify and Netflix have done for music and films. In poorer countries, where smartphones are common and data plans are cheap, it could bring console gaming within the reach of millions of new players. “There are 1.2bn people in Africa and the average age is 20,” says Mr Spencer. “Many of them follow our games—they know the characters, the stories, even the release dates. They just lack devices on which to play them”.
Game-streaming is not a new idea. Previous attempts have been plagued by technical problems (streaming a game, which must react instantly to a player’s actions, is far harder than streaming a film or song to a passive viewer). And Microsoft is not the only firm that thinks the time is now ripe. Sony offers its own version, called “PSNow” (though it is limited to older games), as does Nvidia, a gaming-focused chipmaker, and several other firms. Other tech giants with little experience of video-gaming are also piling in. Google launched “Stadia” in 2019. Amazon announced its “Luna” service in September. On October 26th Facebook threw its hat into the ring with its own “Facebook Gaming” service.
Game-streaming sounds attractive on paper, but few expect it to transform the industry overnight. “I would describe the market as embryonic,” says Mr Harding-Rolls. Still, there is huge interest: Ampere tracks 60 firms whose offerings are either in public testing or available for use. And if streaming does take off, it is likely to prove just as disruptive as it has been in other media. “If you can make streaming work, you could grow the gaming market tenfold,” reckons Mr Pachter. The video-streaming wars have seen deep-pocketed tech giants and media companies spend billions on content. Similar jockeying may be under way in games. On September 21st Microsoft bought ZeniMax Media, which makes the best-selling “Fallout” and “Elder Scrolls” series of games, for $7.5bn.
游戏流在理论上很吸引人，但很少有人认为它会在一夜之间改变整个行业。“我觉得市场现在还在萌芽状态。” 哈丁-罗尔斯表示。尽管如此，大家还是兴致高涨。安培分析追踪到了60家正在公开测试或已开放使用游戏流服务的公司。而如果游戏流真的普及起来，对行业的颠覆可能不亚于在其他媒体领域已经发生的。帕切特认为，“如果能用好流媒体，游戏市场可能增长到原来的十倍。” 在视频流大战中，财力雄厚的科技巨头和媒体公司在内容上投掷了数十亿美元。类似的争夺也许正在游戏业上演。9月21日，微软以75亿美元的价格收购了制作过畅销游戏系列《辐射》（Fallout）和《上古卷轴》（Elder Scrolls）的游戏开发商 ZeniMax Media。
It is too early to pick out winners and losers, but most analysts think Microsoft is well positioned. Its Azure cloud business is the world’s second-biggest, giving it a reach that many competitors lack. Last year Sony, which lacks cloud infrastructure of its own, said it was exploring the option of using Azure to power its own gaming services. And unlike Google or Amazon, its only real cloud rivals, Microsoft has decades of experience in the games business.
But its competitors have strong points, too. Amazon has 150m subscribers to its Prime service, which already includes streamed video and music. Google could leverage YouTube, where gaming videos are popular. Facebook plans to pitch its service at people who already play simpler, browser-based games on its existing platform, which boasts over 2bn users a month. And Sony’s success with the PlayStation has proved that size is not everything. There is all to play for. ■