Microsoft has been rightly celebrated for its E3 briefing this year, but it was a demonstration of both its current position of weakness and the unique strength that its great rival Sony cannot realistically match.
In the week leading up to E3, Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot predicted that there may be just one more generation of console hardware before streaming becomes the ubiquitous platform for games of all kinds. "There will be one more console generation and then after that, we will be streaming," he said. "All of us."
This thread was also picked up by EA CEO Andrew Wilson, who used the E3 stage to speak directly to the growing influence of streaming and subscriptions on how the company thinks about its future. When Xbox head Phil Spencer revealed that Microsoft was actually developing a streaming platform (possibly as a replacement for the download-based Xbox Game Pass), E3 2018 suddenly became about so much more than which games will be released in the next 12 months.
Ultimately, these far-reaching ideas tainted the view of Sony's more restrained briefing, which contained barely a word about its plans for PlayStation Now. Instead, Sony used its position of strength in the market to focus on a handful of big games - a strategy that left many (both in the room and watching from afar) feeling underwhelmed.
"It is possible that a few years from now Microsoft will be the Netflix of gaming and Sony more like HBO"
Joost van Dreunen
"With an install base of 75 million that makes sense for now," says Joost van Dreunen, CEO and co-founder of SuperData Research. "But it does not provide an answer to the question what the future holds. Worse, it is inconsistent with the direction senior management recently revealed - plans to focus on subscription revenue from online gaming and streaming music and video."
Where Microsoft surpassed Sony is in doing both: showing a slate of 50 games (most of them not exclusive, it should be noted) and doubling its first-party studio roster, while also improving Xbox Game Pass and indicating that streaming will be the next step.
"In particular, this last part is promising," van Dreunen says. "Although Microsoft has failed to win the centre of the living room as it originally set out to do, it is setting itself up to become the leader in the digital games market by equally amassing content and focusing on distribution rollout. It is possible that a few years from now Microsoft will be the Netflix of gaming and Sony more like HBO.
"But a digital future is about scale and infrastructure, which means that Microsoft may yet claim the centre."