Battle of the next generation consoles

 
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.
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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.

Xbox One is being positioned as kind of multimedia hub that incorporates on-demand films, TV and music. 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.

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, but its position in the marketplace has already been established: this is a games console – everything else is surplus.

Many of the old arguments over which system has better graphics or faster loading times are now irrelevant. Realistically, 90 per cent of games will be produced to the limitations of the weaker system’s hardware, meaning for the most part that the gaming experience will be almost identical on both systems.

Where both systems will have the opportunity shine is with their in-house or exclusively licensed games. With the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, the difference in hardware capabilities was quickly
established with Sony’s console offering more power and more physical memory for larger games with its championing of Blu-Ray technology – but each system worked to its strengths, and that is where seemingly clear choices suddenly looked all the more opaque.

The PlayStation 3’s hardware meant that it 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 which drew on the interactions of thousands of individual players from around the world in ways hitherto seen on a games console.

But the Xbox 360 embraced, and moreover celebrated independent 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.

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 method for unknown game developers to create new titles and get them to market. Abandoning XNA software could strike a blow to innovation and entrepreneurship.

Of course, Sony have responded to this by announcing that they have been courting indie developers in an effort to secure the next generation of innovative games for their system. But with the
corporatisation of any cottage industry, the bottom line comes into play and what often starts as a creative passion can turn into another risk adverse business.

With the next generation of consoles, things are still uncertain. Microsoft have been in crisis management mode for the last few months after it was revealed that the gaming experience would be more restrictive than any system before – its core focus seemingly to be to control the distribution of content by imposing a charge on second-hand games, creating a convoluted process for lending games to friends, and making it necessary for the system to be online at least once a day.

The backlash on social media and by the gaming press over the restrictive regulations saw Microsoft announce a dramatic U-turn at the end of last week. A spokesperson for Microsoft said: “An internet connection will not be required to play offline Xbox One games – after a one-time system set-up with a new Xbox One, you can play any disc based game without ever connecting online again. There is no 24-hour connection requirement and you can take your Xbox One anywhere you want and play your games, just like on Xbox 360.

“Trade-in, lend, resell, gift, and rent disc based games just like you do today – there will be no limitations to using and sharing games, it will work just as it does today on Xbox 360.”

Though the change in policy has been touted as a victory for the consumer, Microsoft have engaged in the corporate equivalent of taking your ball home in a temper after a missing a goal.

Although the headline announcement seems favourable to consumers, in actual fact Microsoft have pulled the plug on the reselling of digital games.

Originally, Microsoft had planned to incorporate a digital trading platform into the Xbox One whereby the owner of a digital title could offer it for sale to another customer.

Throughout the controversy Sony have come across in the press as the older brother laughing at the gaffes of his younger sibling – but below their relaxed, “aw, isn’t Microsoft naïve and adorable” rhetoric, it’s clear that Sony have been biding their time.

Sony hasn’t taken the fight for the consumer (they were after all one the earliest champions of Digital Rights Management), they simply waited to see how the market would respond.

When Microsoft first announced that they intended to issue a fee to those installing second-hand games, Sony simply watched.

When asked if they would be imposing such restrictions, Sony refused to commit. Once they knew where gamers’ attitudes fell, it was simply a case of jumping on the bandwagon.

It was a cynical move – but it seems to have worked.

What could swing things for many gamers are the exclusive titles available on each system. The PlayStation 4 will boast new sequels in the Killzone and Gran Turismo franchises. Xbox One have already confirmed new titles in the Forza Motorsports and Dead Rising series.

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.

What became evident following E3 is that Sony has definitely won the PR war, with Microsoft having a lot of work to do to win back the consumer. 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.

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