Sony's (NYSE:SNE) Playstation 4 has gotten off to an impressive start, selling over a million units in North America on the first day. That figure easily tops the company's previous console sales record, set in 2000 by the Playstation 2, which sold 980,000 units over three days in Japan.
However, two things have overshadowed that robust launch -- hardware issues, which I discussed in a previous article, and a lack of quality launch titles.
The Playstation 4's launch titles are seriously underwhelming -- most of its top titles like Assassin's Creed 4, Battlefield 4, and Call of Duty: Ghosts are also available on other platforms. Other games like Need for Speed: Rivals, NBA Live 14, FIFA 14, and Madden NFL 25 are tired rehashes of aging franchises.
An uninspiring exclusive lineup
Sony's strategy to connect with North American gamers has been to offer DC Comics titles like DC Universe Online and Injustice: Gods Among Us -- two games that are both old and uninspired.
DC Universe Online is a free-to-play MMO originally released in 2011, which shares many similar qualities with Activision Blizzard's World of Warcraft. Injustice: Gods Among Us is a fighting game previously launched for seventh-generation consoles, PCs, and mobile devices. Both games have undergone graphical upgrades for the Playstation 4 -- but they fall well short of being impressive.
Sony added some first-person shooters, like Killzone: Shadow Fall and Blacklight: Retribution, to tap into the American love for Call of Duty. Unfortunately, critics aren't loving either game -- on Metacritic.com, Killzone currently holds a metascore rating of 73, and Blacklight's PC version has a rating of 75.
Unfortunately, this lack of love for the launch titles is going to be especially painful for Sony when Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Xbox One launches later this week.
Let's take a deeper look at the importance of launch titles, and study the past lessons that Sony overlooked.
Why exclusive launch titles matter
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Nintendo (NASDAQOTH:NTDOY) was a master of impressing gamers with its launch titles.
In 1985, Nintendo's pack-in launch title for the 8-bit NES, Super Mario Bros. & Duck Hunt, kept gamers glued to their TV sets for weeks. In 1991, it packed Super Mario World with its 16-bit SNES consoles, showcasing the hardware's new capabilities, like Mode 7 scaling (where 2D images could be seamlessly shrunk or enlarged), a massive color palette, and high-quality 8-channel audio.
Nintendo continued offering quality launch titles like Super Mario 64 for the N64 in 1996 and Wii Sports for the Wii in 2006. Both titles properly showcased the consoles' power and helped them stand out from their competitors.
Why Microsoft matters
Nintendo is most often associated with excellent launch and bundled titles, but Microsoft's efforts should not be overlooked.
In 2001, the original Xbox's most memorable launch title, Halo: Combat Evolved, did everything right -- it showcased the console's raw graphical processing power and introduced gamers to Master Chief, a character who is now as easily identified with Microsoft as Mario is with Nintendo.
Microsoft also went after Japanese gamers, albeit unsuccessfully, with exclusive games from Sega, such as Jet Set Radio Future, Shenmue 3, and Panzer Dragoon Orta, which were all sequels to popular Sega Saturn and Dreamcast franchises. Microsoft hoped that these titles would validate itself as the rightful heir to Sega's hardware empire, which was abandoned in 2001 after the discontinuation of the Dreamcast.
In 2002, Microsoft purchased U.K. developer Rare, one of Nintendo's key allies during the SNES and N64 eras. Rare was the creator of acclaimed titles like Donkey Kong Country, Conker's Bad Fur Day, Banjo Kazooie, and Perfect Dark.
The acquisition of Rare led to the release of Perfect Dark Zero (2005) -- which on paper looked like a perfect launch title for the Xbox 360, but fell flat after mediocre reviews.
Why Microsoft's exclusive launch titles are looking better than Sony's
That brings us back to the present.
Considering Sony's lack of compelling launch titles, Microsoft now has a golden opportunity to make an impression similar to what it did with the original Xbox over a decade ago, and the key lies in three titles -- Killer Instinct, Crimson Dragon, and The Fighter Within.
If you're a kid of the 1990s like me, the name Killer Instinct should send shivers down your spine. Killer Instinct was a revolutionary title at the time, since it featured pre-rendered 3D characters created by Silicon Graphics computers battling it out in front of a pre-rendered CGI background. The result was a game much more graphically advanced than competing fighting games at the time, such as Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat.
Microsoft is cleverly tapping into that nostalgia with Killer Instinct, just as Nintendo does with every new Mario, Zelda, or Metroid title. Indeed, Killer Instinct was once a Nintendo property -- the game was developed by Rare, and published by Nintendo and Midway for the arcades.
Meanwhile, Crimson Dragon could appeal to the hardcore gaming crowd that's familiar with Japanese games as well as Western ones. The game is the spiritual successor of the Panzer Dragoon series from Sega, a rail shooter featuring upgradable dragons.
The original Panzer Dragoon was released in 1995 for the Sega Saturn, and was followed by two more titles before Microsoft brought the title to the Xbox in 2002 with Panzer Dragoon Orta. Although Crimson Dragon has met with mixed reviews, it's a title, like Killer Instinct, that demonstrates Microsoft's understanding of what older gamers might find appealing in a next-gen console.
Last but not least, The Fighter Within could be to the Xbox One what Wii Sports was to the original Wii. It's a fighting game that uses Kinect motion controls for one-on-one combat -- which could breathe new life into the Kinect, which has often been dismissed as a gimmick.
As Playstation 4 gamers sit on their couches playing Injustice: Gods Among Us, Xbox One gamers will get a much fresher fighting game that requires them to battle it out in real life.
A final thought
In closing, let's think about two facts -- Sony is selling the PS4 at a loss, while Microsoft will either break even or make a profit on the Xbox One. That means that Sony will have to sell a lot software to make up for the estimated $60 loss that it's taking on each console.
Yet I'll be honest -- Microsoft's exclusive launch title simply appeals more to the inner kid in me, and I suspect that many gamers across America feel the same way.
Do you agree or disagree? Please weigh in below with your opinions!