Pass the Sticks: COVID-19’s Effect on the 2020 Consoles

Photo credit: Concept Creator via LetsGoDigital
Photo credit: Concept Creator via LetsGoDigital

Of the many disruptions caused by the outbreak of COVID-19, a notable one for me and I’m sure many other gamers is the effect that it could have on the next generations of consoles. We’ve already seen a handful of trade events get canceled or moved to digital formats as large gatherings have been shut down for the foreseeable future.

Additionally, certain launches have been pushed back, most notably Sony and Naughty Dog’s Last of Us 2, which was supposed to come out next month. There have been no official announcements of delays from Sony or Microsoft, but there are plenty of rumors flying around about changes behind the scenes.

Most of these rumors are having to do with Sony’s next console. We recently learned that the PS5 will more than likely priced at $500 at launch. This is very surprising because Sony had repeatedly suggested that folks would be very happy at the price point they arrive at. I think many expected the console to come in under $500, maybe even at $400 like the PS4. But Sony has reportedly had a hard time getting all of the components necessary to manufacture the PS5.

Due to its complicated architecture, they may not be able to build as many consoles at launch as they were planning before COVID-19 hit. Now the company is considering launching a limited number of consoles at a higher price point until they can get the cost to build back down some time after March 2021.

When I wrote about console wars a few months ago, pricing was one of the key pillars for victory. $500 is a steep price to pay, especially when the global economy appears headed towards a recession on par with the Great Depression. Sony would do themselves a huge favor in getting that number down to $450 somehow, but I actually don’t think a high price point is going to kill them.

There’s been a proliferation of zero-interest financing services that can help mitigate that high cost though. Between Klarna, Affirm, Afterpay, and offerings from other companies, customers who want the new console but are squeamish at the $500 price point can still get their hands on it if they do not want to wait.

Another key pillar to winning a console war will be launch titles. Now it’s true that backward compatibility makes this a little less important as people will still be able to play their library of games on the new devices. But nobody is plunking down $400-$500 to play God of War or Spiderman again, as great as those games are. If Sony can’t get that initial price point down, its imperative that they have one or two AAA games for people to dive into through the holidays and beyond.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how Nintendo launched the Switch with a handful of Wii U ports, the ridiculous Arms, but most notably, Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. BotW served as the perfect bridge between the console’s launch and Mario Odyssey, which followed six months later.

Sony would be smart to take the same approach. If nothing else changes, gamers will be able to sink their teeth into Cyberpunk 2077 from CD Projekt Red (developers of the amazing Witcher series) but that’s going to multiple platforms.

Sony should deploy The Last of Us 2 and ride that game’s wave through the holidays until they can get to another exclusive like Insomniac’s Spiderman or a follow up to Horizon: Zero Dawn. There’s also the intriguing Godfall, which we haven’t heard anything about since its teaser trailer leaked at the Game Awards last December.

I’ve focused on Sony up to this point because we still don’t know much about their new console beyond the super technical deep dive that Mark Czerny gave back in March. Rival Microsoft, on the other hand, has been very forthcoming with details about the Series X. In a lengthy interview, Microsoft Gaming Boss Phil Spencer said that he felt better about his console after Sony’s technical deep dive and that he feels good about price, despite not revealing anything.

It sounds like Microsoft is still planning to launch their console this holiday season and there hasn’t been any groundswell of rumors about manufacturing challenges, component shortages, or pricing issues from their camp.

Most of the questions about Microsoft are whether or not they can deliver a gaming lineup that’s on par with Sony’s, something they appear to have taken to heart by acquiring a number of studios in the last two years.

I always thought that we would learn more about both consoles, including pricing, around May or June before production starts and it feels like that’s where we’re headed. Microsoft, to put it bluntly, has their shit together for this round. They aren’t distracted with gimmicks like the Kinect or tangential goals like “winning the living room,” which helped doom the Xbox One before it even launched.

If they have a strong lineup of games at launch, it could be enough to take the wind out of Sony’s sales. The longer Sony remains tight-lipped about their console, the better it is for Microsoft.

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