With the unveiling of the next generation of consoles at this month's E3 conference, Jon Cronshaw compares the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 to see which system offers the best deal for consumers.
It's been a long time since console giants went head to head with a new generation of machines in the same year, but 2013 looks to be one of the most exciting Christmases for gamers in recent memory.
But away from the glitz and glamour of the flashy trailers and inspirational speeches of E3's biggest players, many consumers are a little confused. Yes, the games will run smoother, and the blood splats will look a little more realistic – but is it a choice between Coke and Pepsi, or is there a larger value shift at play?
PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are positioned in the marketplace as offering gamers two clearly defined experiences.
Xbox One is being packaged as more than just a games console, being positioned as kind of multimedia hub that incorporates on-demand films, TV and music.
This aspect has been pushed quite hard in recent updates on the Xbox 360, but with Xbox One it will be the corpus of the system’s appeal – cue commercials of good-looking families gushing over their new machines. But with its focus on the complete media experience, it's easy to forget that the Xbox One will also be used to play video games.
With an improvement to Kinect technology, the Xbox One's video gaming experience will be more physical than ever, with the Kinect's on-board camera responding to your physical gestures and vocal commands. But to many hard-core gamers, the move beyond a hand-held peripheral is a step too far – again, cue the good-looking families with huge smiles dancing and cavorting in front of their TVs.
The PlayStation 4 by contrast wears its gaming credentials on its sleeve. In the current climate of consumers wanting electronic devices to be fantastic at everything, this is quite the gamble by Sony.
There is no doubt that the PlayStation 4 will be able to play high definition movies, and give you access to on-demand media as Xbox One, but its position in the marketplace has already been firmly established: this is a games console – everything else is surplus to requirements.
Many of the old arguments over which system has better graphics or faster loading times are almost irrelevant with today’s console market. Realistically, 90 per cent of games will be produced to the upper limitations of the weaker system’s hardware, meaning that the gaming experience will be almost identical on both systems.
Where both systems can shine is in their in-house or exclusively licensed games. With the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, the difference in hardware capabilities was quickly apparent, but each system worked to its strengths.
The PlayStation 3's hardware is far superior to the Xbox 360. This meant that the PlayStation 3 could produce visually-stunning titles like Heavy Rain, and interact online in a ways that the Xbox 360 could not with games like Little Big Planet and Demon Souls which drew on the interactions of thousands of individual players from around the world in an incredibly significant way.
But the Xbox 360's strength came from its willingness to embrace, and moreover celebrate independent game developers. Exceptional and innovative games like Braid, Super Meat Boy and FEZ would never have found the critical and commercial success they did were it not for Microsoft making it easy for indie developers to distribute their creations.
And for me, this is what made me keep hold of my Xbox 360 and sell my PlayStation 3. I wanted a system that was daring, not just one that had a better paintjob or more interactivity. When I play games, I want to get lost in another world – not, as ten minutes on any online shooter or fighting game will attest, a world full of illiterate homophobes, hormonal teenagers, or scary obsessives who have clearly spent far too many hours playing a single games.
But things aren’t all rosy for indie developers. Last month Microsoft announced that they are retiring their vaunted XNA software. This may mean very little to the average gamer, but for developers it has been a cheap and relatively simple for unknown game developers to create and distribute their creations – a move that could strike a blow to innovation and entrepreneurship.
With the next generation of consoles, things are still uncertain. Microsoft have already demonstrated its contempt towards the free market by proposing a digital rights charge for second-hand games – a move that will probably damage the business of used games retailers across the world in the process. And it’s not just the large publically listed multinationals who will suffer, independent retailers will also see a huge dip in their already diminishing profits.
Further restrictions will make it impossible to lend to a friend a game without going through an incredibly convoluted process which requires you to register the ‘transaction’ with Microsoft and have been friends with them for more than 30 days. With the Kinect's camera constantly on, and the requirement that the machine has to be kept on stand-by and connected to the internet at least once a day – it all seems a bit unnecessary, and somewhat sinister.
I wonder, will the NSA be watching on the other side? Perhaps the agent will be sitting back with some popcorn as you and a loved one are getting frisky on the sofa.
What could swing the decision for many gamers are the exclusive titles available on each system. The PlayStation 4 will probably boast new sequels in the Metal Gear Solid and Gran Turismo franchises, as well as new titles in the Disgaea and Killzone series. Xbox One will probably see new titles in the Halo and Dead Rising series, and another Forza Motorsports game to add to its exclusive blockbusters.
In many respects, it is up to some of the larger games developers to engage the consumer. But in recent years, it seems as though some of the industries biggest players have revelled in sticking their middle finger up to the consumer.
There is the tedious conveyer belt of rehashed games by the likes of EA and Activision who release sequal after sequel to popular franchises like Fifa and Call of Duty rather than take a risk with something original or different.
Then of course, there has been the downright exploitative. There was huge backlash by the gaming community when Capcom charged owners of Street Fighter X Tekken to unlock content that was already included on the game’s disc, and the controversy of Bethesda Softworks charging £3 for Horse Armour on Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.
Already confirmed for both systems are some rather uninspiring and ultimately unsurprising launch titles: Assassin's Creed IV, Call of Duty Ghosts, Fifa 14, Madden 14 and Lego Marvel Super Heroes are just the tip of a rather underwhelming iceberg.
Perhaps, more than anything else, consumers buy things based on a perception of value for money. With the release prices confirmed as £429 for the Xbox One and £349 for the PlayStation 4, it doesn't take a mathematical genius to work out which system is the most attractive prospect in financial terms.
What became evident by the end of E3 is that Sony has definitely won the PR war, with many gamers, websites and magazine reacting badly to the Xbox One. There is a tangible sense that Microsoft have shot themselves in the foot.
At the moment, it looks as though the PlayStation 4 will probably win the next console war. The system seems focused on the core activity of gaming, it's not as restrictive to consumers, and it’s priced at more reasonable level.
But of course, there are other marketing strategies beyond short-term PR that will come into force. Not only will both systems have worldwide, multi-platform advertising and viral marketing campaigns, there will be bundles offered by retailers, and consoles bolted on to mobile phone contracts. As most purchases are made by a gut decision, perhaps the victor is not so clear after all.
I suppose there's always the Wii-U.
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