So Sony apparently ‘won’ E3. But as I was writing at the time (until MS screwed my article by pulling a big fat one-eighty), that was a hollow victory. Sony started last gen behind, not because their console was inadequate, but because their strategy was off. Over time they responded, with PS+ and price drops and new services, whilst making great first party games, that’s what drew them level with their competitors. What Microsoft has done that Sony didn’t, is change tack before launch. Don Mattrick has left the company after a string of apologies, and a new head is leading the way toward something that is much closer to the better received PS4. Their pre-owned policy is shot to bits, and now MS have announced that not only can developers self-publish, but any Xbox One can be used for development. These two things are aimed straight at Sony’s most attractive selling points. So with the consoles beginning to look more and more similar, here’s a breakdown of all the main differences between the two new big-hitting living room hogs:
PS+ has gone the way of Xbox Live and become a necessary expense to play online with PS4, but it will still be continuing to give away a ludicrous selection of games across three consoles. So really the question is already ‘why aren’t you on PS+?’ rather than ‘Why pay?’ Xbox Live is moving over to real currency, but reports from beta testers say it’s led to huge price hikes of up to 33%. Let’s hope they fix that before launch. MS’ free game program is a mumbled answer to PS+, and it’s on a much smaller scale. The difference being that the games are yours to keep even if your subscription lapses. But why would your subscription lapse when the subscription is so integral and necessary to get the most out of your console?
Xbox One’s always online policy is at odds with most of the world’s internet. Add that to the mandatory camera and it’s a recipe for some serious paranoia that isn’t entirely unjustified. Unless it’s unplugged, it will always be in a ‘low power connected state’. I guess all those public information videos about turning your appliances off at the wall weren’t for nothing then. PS4 needs no such constant connection, which will make little odds to us in the west but in developing territories where the infrastructure is weaker or simply non-existent, the decision will be a no brainer.
The quality of the services themselves remain to be seen but the indications are that both will be advanced and fast with comparable features, like sharing videos, streaming gameplay and playing a game as you download it. Sony has made a bigger deal of their network because they know that after this generation they have to sell it harder and support it more fully, and they’ve announced more features than MS, like being able to take over a PSN friend’s game in real time to help them, but it’s likely that they’ll end up with a very similar feature set.
E3 2012 saw Microsoft make a big deal of Smartglass, a mobile app based system that added basic control of your Xbox to your phone or tablet. They boasted lots of second screen functions for games which never appeared, and, like Kinect, I’m yet to know anyone that uses it at all. Xbox One is making a bigger noise about Smartglass with some great asymmetric coop game play demoed at E3 2013. Again, it remains to be seen if it’ll catch on. Regardless of anything else, the huge amount of extra work and money it takes to build in features like that is likely put most developers off, especially having seen how successful the Wii U hasn’t been.
Sony appear to have an advantage in their newest handheld console, which, with Sony’s recent acquisition Gaikai, can stream PS4 games directly to the console, controlling them fully in much the same way you would with a Dualshock. This is a feature that Sony promised with PSP years ago and it never materialised. So no one is holding their breath, but signs are good, and the Vita’s obvious power advantage makes it seem all the more possible. There will be a mobile app that will function much like Smartglass, but it’s smarter for Sony to push their own handheld in to that space, lord knows they need to shift a few more.
From what’s been trailed so far in the jumpy-roundy-lounge stakes, it seems like both companies are sticking with a ‘more of the same but better’ approach. So much so with Sony that the existing PS Move wands are compatible with PS4, albeit with an upgraded 3D camera. You might ask why they’ve not enhanced PSMove for the next gen, the answer is interesting. Under international law, the gyroscopic technology in PSMove cannot be any more accurate because if it was it could be used in missile guidance. So whilst games and consistency may be improved by the new camera, it will essentially be the same interface. The advantage for us, and Sony, is cost. Move wands are as inexpensive as Wii Remotes now, so by lowering that financial barrier, we take less risk as consumers and are more likely to take a punt on a new idea.
The new Kinect sensor will be powerful expensive and mandatory, but unlikely to be used any more than this generation’s one, no one likes to talk to machines. Microsoft’s Kinect 2.0 is basically the same but apparently ‘ten times’ more sensitive, more intelligent and able to see much smaller gestures. It’s also coded in to Xbox One at kernel level, Xbox won’t work without it. MS have integrated its wavy talk-to-the-machine tech in to every facet of its functionality, they’re really pushing it with an almost pathological ignorance of the basic failure of Kinect as an interface. It’s true that they sold by the bucket-load at launch, at least enough to pay their titanic marketing bill. But if you want to see what happened to all those Kinects that were bought for £130 just go look in your local second-hand shop, they’ve got them all, and you can pick one up for £25. That’s not to say Move has sustained any more success, there’s plenty of those hanging around the store rooms too.
What’s clear is that motion control isn’t the lightning that Nintendo bottled back in 2006, and what it takes to guarantee success (besides a spectacularly saturative marketing campaign) is software. In 6 years Nintendo have built a library of over 1700 titles for Wii, about 17 of which have been genuinely great games. Now, just one of those 17 games is likely worth more than the console itself. Kinect and PS Move are faring much worse currently, MS have taken the choice from the consumer with this add-on and made it essential, it’s up to Sony to prove that their eccentric yet elegant light-up wands are relevant, and they can’t rely on Media Molecule alone to do that for them.