By the horns: Xbox One, PS4 and the console war

Putting things into perspective.

The ninth gen is Sony’s to lose. And how could they? Microsoft went into E3 with the blind bravado of a hedgehog on a highway. All the months and millions spent on R&D; earnest, excitable brainstorming; the ever-fickle focus groups; that wistful yearning for the kind of cross-generational appeal that only the Wii has ever managed in the history of gaming.

My way or the highway, proclaimed Mr Mattrick. The highway invariably won.

The PS4’s cheaper. It’s in more regions. It has more powerful hardware. Whatever Microsoft renege on next, the PS4 was there first, and it has the developer support and the pre-orders to prove it.

Will that make any difference? Probably not.

Eight years. That’s how long the current generation has lasted. When you’re talking about a console war, you’re measuring it in multiples of some previous battles. The original Xbox had barely celebrated its third birthday when the 360 launched in 2005.

The 360’s head start then is comparable, if not in excess of what might be predicted this time. It got a year on the PS3 even before you factored in the latter’s infamously disastrous launch. Under the stewardship of now division president Kazuo Hirai, the vastly more expensive, loss-making machine was then outsold on a weekly basis.

It’s easy to forget just how bad the PS3 was at launch. Resistance and Ridge Racer, no headset or component cables, no in-game interface. SIXAXIS (their caps, not mine). In 2009, three years after the PS3 finally entered the ring, a nine million unit deficit was considered a blessing.

The very recent history that followed should be the first warning against complacency. Damage mitigation turned into a broad strategic stroke – gut the current consoles and streamline into a mere couple of hard drive sizes.

It’s easy to forget just how bad the PS3 was at launch. Resistance and Ridge Racer, no headset or component cables, no in-game interface

The resulting products, produced at admirable speed, were a far more attractive proposition to consumers, in spite of initial gripes about lost backwards compatibility. As Microsoft’s machines faltered under the RROD, Sony offered a now affordable alternative with the same bespoke, high-end feel and features they initially pitched as unmissable advantages. And with canny investment in exclusives from the indie (thatgamecompany’s Flower and Journey) to the blockbuster (Killzone and Heavy Rain), games became less of a sticking point.

After two consoles, Sony could easily have gone the way of Sega. Instead they came back to outsell Microsoft’s console globally.

Microsoft face a far less difficult predicament than Sony in 2006. In fact pre-orders seem to indicate that the Xbox One will get off to a much better start in a much more even race. With gamescom right around the corner, they’ve announced Day 1 pre-orders will receive a free copy of FIFA 14. With the numbers who own a current console for FIFA and CoD, this is potentially a huge coup. If they even require a recovery, it will be with the great irony of learning from their fiercest rival.

A price cut would scarcely suit Microsoft’s loss-making games division, but it would be easily facilitated. With the confirmation that the Kinect camera no longer has to be plugged in at all, it stands to reason that a budget package may yet appear without it. That alone might be the difference between the UK prices long-term.

Even its inclusion need not be an insurmountable obstacle; the original Kinect showed ample consumer demand, massively outselling its Playstation rival, PS Move. The games this time around will benefit from its refinements and MS’ uncharacteristic openness to ARG and app development. Privacy concerns have been shown, time and again, to be secondary to cool new technology.

Privacy concerns have been shown, time and again, to be secondary to cool new technology

Sony also faced the wrath of consumers head-on and emerged triumphant. Backwards compatibility always seems to be trumpeted as a vital inclusion in new hardware, an expectation, yet this has hardly ever been the case. In the last generation, Microsoft slowly drip-fed comparability for a selection of popular Xbox games. Sony, with a much larger back catalogue and many more PS2 owners, ended up abandoning it altogether.

Microsoft’s stance on used games and online connectivity was beyond disappointing; it was an affront to a loyal audience, an insult to our collective intelligence. And you see if that makes a difference in the long-term. For how many people was it enough that they’d simply backed down? How many will care in a year’s time when the price comes down, and they have some sweet exclusives? The ‘Xbox 180’ blog post was a victory for consumers, but also for gaming. Because ultimately, we all benefit from having it around. Funding for new ideas, cross-media experimentation and cross-over appeal, all healthy competition and innovation. The Xbox One doesn’t necessarily deserve to be liked, but it deserves to be bought.

A good product at a good price will assuage a lot of problems. For everything else that the One now represents, it remains an impressive piece of hardware, one that’s only become more capable and agreeable since E3. The surprisingly mainstream coverage of the One’s problems is not to be underestimated, but the moral motivation of what might have been had Microsoft imposed its original ideas will hold little sway.

The Xbox One doesn’t necessarily deserve to be liked, but it deserves to be bought.

For most people, the console will be judged on what it does when it goes to market. That’s shaping up to be quite a lot. I confess to having wished I could watch TV and play a game in split screen, a more natural if less practical application of the Wii U’s key selling point, and only the tip of the iceberg for this new media centre. And the games will certainly keep coming; Microsoft have the money to make sure of that.

With Mattrick gone and the Xbone’s self-destruct sequence on standby, the best thing they can do now is have people play it. In Europe, where the price differential is even higher than the US and Xbox 360 sales lower, gamescom and Eurogamer are imminent (edit: gamescom is happening right now). PS Vita has proved, with its incremental but steadily rising sales, that hands-on can make a huge difference. Fine hardware will always have its own allure, and the Xbox has always held the advantage of one of the best controllers ever created.

What Microsoft could really do with is some common sense. In a changing economic and social climate, the console manufacturers have each fallen victim to their own arrogance and wilful ignorance. Having bossed a generation with the most underpowered but utilitarian hardware, Sony reacted with the Xbox’s overcompensation, the Dreamcast’s unnecessary invention. Nintendo forthrightly forewent every rule of branding with the Wii U’s incredibly similar name and design, in the assumption that invention is the key to success.

Sony and Nintendo both came to realise that games sell games consoles. Xbox One already had more exclusives, but as a clear counterweight to its overwhelming focus on other features. The elimination of extra publishing costs for indies is a step in the right direction, and if they can entice enough of these developers in, old attitudes will likely be forgiven.

That Microsoft’s rivals learned their lessons quickly may be to their ultimate benefit. All else aside, the Wii U’s burgeoning software library and inevitable Christmas marketing mean this race is just getting started. The PS4, by contrast, will have very few recognisable games to rely on. If Microsoft can truly acknowledge that they need to serve an audience, not create one, they’ll make a real war of this yet.


BY THE HORNS is a decidedly infrequent column by Alex Bullock, taking the latest and greatest issues in gaming and giving them a right good seeing to. Featured image via NeoGAF.