The time has come. After a seven-year stretch without an update to the two main prizefighters of console gaming, Microsoft is releasing its new Xbox One and Sony is releasing its new PlayStation 4. As we get more and more previews, reviews, and reports from the field, it’s clear that we’re facing a choice between two incredibly capable systems that are closer to power PCs than the game systems they evolved from. How do these new iterations differ? Are there really enough differentiators that a clear winner emerges? Which one should you pick up during the holiday season?
The PlayStation 4 got the early hype advantage, coming out of the E3 conference. Sony’s message was loud and clear, and targeted smartly toward the show’s audience: hardcore gamers. The PlayStation 4 would simply be a revved-up, beefed-up, evolutionary update of the PlayStation 3—nothing unexpected, just power, graphics, and immersion. The crowd went wild. Microsoft’s badly handled PR message for its Xbox One, on the other hand, played down actual game play and talked up convergence, a cohesive media experience, always-on Internet connectivity, mandated Kinect functionality, and—worst of all—a strict digital rights management (DRM) policy that affected the sale of used games. The crowd booed, and rebelled in the blogosphere. And just like that, the Xbox One had lost the huge first skirmish in the overall 2013 console wars.
Things got worse for Microsoft when it capitulated and reversed course on a number of Xbox One’s more forward-thinking features, returning to the way the Xbox 360 worked, particularly in regards to DRM. Customers rightly insisted that they should own games’ physical discs, and they should be able to engage in offline gaming; they weren’t ready for the supposedly inevitable future in which game media is ephemeral, cloud-focused, and always available. As the Xbox One’s director of product planning, Albert Penello, says, “Nobody debates there’s going to be a world, whether it’s this gen, or next-gen, that discs are going to go away, it’s gone away in just about every medium.” If only the company had actually communicated its vision effectively! But no, Microsoft ended up shocked by the visceral negative reaction to a console that was reaching for a new and exciting future—and about-faced.
In the process of reversing course, the Xbox One became more like the PlayStation 4, and the gaming console of the future would have to wait (perhaps another seven years). Many advocates of the “new direction” of the Xbox One felt betrayed. The end result seemed to be that the Xbox lost a lot of consumers based on its poor showing at E3—and then lost more when it appeared weak by giving in to strident voices. The past few months haven’t been great for Microsoft gaming!
We’re left at release time with two competing consoles that are more like each other than was originally intended. They’re both black bricks that are edging into the living room experience more and more—looking more like (especially in the case of the Xbox) stereo components than game consoles. They both offer unprecedented power and high-end gaming responsiveness, featuring AMD x86 eight-core CPUs, and both are using similar graphics processors. Both now sport integrated Blu-ray drives. (You’ll remember that the Xbox 360 unwisely bet on HD DVD as the next-generation high-resolution video disc, and that was even as an add-on.) And both are expensive: The PlayStation costs $399, and the Xbox One (with included 1080p Kinect sensor) costs $499. If you decide to add the Kinect-like PS4 Eye to the PlayStation, then the consoles are similarly priced. And they’re coming out within a week of each other, just before Black Friday 2013.
Which one makes the most sense in your home?