Back in February, Sony first introduced the PS4 to the world as a console that put developers first. It sounded a bit like hyperbole at the time, but the more we've seen of Sony's new platform, the more it feels like Sony is sticking to its developer-centric guns. This last generation saw two consoles - Xbox 360 and PS3 - which had radical hardware architecture differences, and yet the respective approaches to the marketplace from Microsoft and Sony were quite similar.
This time around, as Microsoft scrambles to continually reverse its policies, and consumers prepare to purchase two pieces of hardware that are actually incredibly alike, one might think that the trends from the two companies in the previous generation would carry over into next-gen. Ironically, however, as close in specs as Xbox One and PS4 are, Microsoft and Sony would appear to be on increasingly different paths when it comes to content. As Microsoft looks to be doubling down on what worked best for the company on Xbox 360 (shooters, online multiplayer, Kinect) Sony is promoting unique titles coming to the PlayStation ecosystem like Tequila Works' Rime, The Chinese Room's Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, and Gaijin's War Thunder, to name a few.
While Microsoft has been making strides to offer a plan for indies with its ID@Xbox program, Sony has put a focus on developers at the core of the PS4 itself. As lead architect Mark Cerny said at Gamescom, "We've been able to architect the console that is by game creators, for game creators." Will the PS4 and Xbox One ultimately offer vastly different gaming experiences because of this? And what will the impact be on the marketplace? GamesIndustry International's staff discusses how Microsoft and Sony have evolved their strategies.
I can tell you the two systems are diverging because my decision to preorder a PS4 is looking more like a no-brainer with every passing week, while my decision not to buy an Xbox One (at least not anywhere near launch) is only becoming more concrete, no matter how many bad decisions Microsoft backtracks on.
"Consumers have three distinct options when it comes to consoles this generation. I only hope that each company's target market proves large enough to sustain this diversity"
The PS4 just has all the strange and ambitious (mostly indie) games that I want to play. N++, Rogue Legacy, Everybody's Gone to Rapture, the gorgeous Rime, Transistor, Volume, The Witness, Starbound, Octodad: Dadliest Catch, and it feels like dozens more. In light of PS Vita cross-buy on so many of those indie titles, the excellent PlayStation Plus service, and a preference for the couch-based console experience over PC gaming, the PS4 just has everything that I want. Over on the Xbox, I'll miss Below (until its inevitable move to other platforms), Dead Rising 3, Crimson Dragon, and D4. But that's about it. I don't care too much about franchises like Halo, Gears of War, Titanfall, Fable, and Forza. I care even less about Ryse: Son of Rome, and as much as I loved the original Killer Instinct, the idea of a reboot from a new development house with a bothersome new business model doesn't do much for me. However, I know a good number of gamers who would disagree with me on the above points. I also know that their tastes--like mine--are not representative of the industry as a whole. And this is one of the things making me optimistic for this coming generation of consoles. It looks like Microsoft and the Xbox One are focusing on the console market as it existed for this previous generation. And why not? The Xbox 360 did pretty well in a world dominated by shooters and sports games. On the other hand, Sony seems to be betting there's an audience for different, arguably more sophisticated gaming experiences, and Nintendo is off doing its own Nintendo thing with the Wii U. The result is that it looks like consumers will have three distinct options when it comes to consoles this generation. It's not just about which company has the better sci-fi shooter or the lower price tag. It's about which of these different approaches best suits you. I only hope that each company's target market proves large enough to sustain this diversity of offerings.
Microsoft is rapidly changing its policies to resemble Sony's policies, whether it's on used games or on working with indie developers. Just as the Xbox One and the PS4 share the same basic architecture, so too will the business models the companies use. Yes, the software lineup will have some variations, and those will be significant to gamers who are fans of a particular brand.
"The two consoles are in the same market chasing the same customers with the same basic hardware"
Ultimately both Sony and Microsoft realize the need for next-gen consoles to have a broader range of content than traditional publishers can provide, in order to compete with PC, online and mobile platforms' enormous array of choices. Both companies still have a long way to go. Sony's been trying to get indie developers on the PS Vita for a while, with some success - yet that hasn't turned into big sales for the handheld yet.
I really don't think the differences between the Xbox One and the PS4 are all that major, except for the $100 retail price difference. I think the two companies' policies and programs will tend to converge rather than diverge. Neither company is likely to get too far ahead of the other in terms of business models; Microsoft saw what happened when it tried to push too rapidly into the digital future. Some details may differ, but if there's a policy that results in a loss of indie developers it will be changed, sooner rather than later.
Free games monthly with your premium subscription on PlayStation? That's done very well for Sony, so Microsoft has added that. Requiring a premium subscription to player multiplayer online games? Microsoft has made billions doing that, so now Sony's added that little feature to its premium subscription. There will be some exclusive games for each console, but no major genre will be left unfilled. All the biggest third-party games will be on both consoles. In the end, the two consoles are in the same market chasing the same customers with the same basic hardware, and their policies will be very similar. If you want something really different in a console, try Nintendo or Ouya.
So we have two companies providing featureless black boxes backed by similar policies and game libraries. This means we're going to see a battle over the details.
AAA game development is too expensive for major third-party publishers to favor one platform over another, so the differences in game libraries are down to indie games and what platform holders are willing to pay for. Sony has a lead on the former matter, while Microsoft's big pockets - remember they've invested $1 billion on Xbox One games - are holding down the latter.
"If Microsoft can launch prior to or during major game releases, they could capture the interest of gamers heading to retail"
Sony may be able to gain more ground if the Vita finally takes off and I think their presentation was an acknowledgement of that idea. The number of games coming simultaneously to PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Vita, Vita Remote Play, and the price drop on the portable could make for a compelling one-two punch this holiday. The Vita is quickly becoming a portable Steam console and Sony's focus on indies is paying off... at least to those in the industry. Will the mainstream public care about a wide variety of indie games on their Sony platforms? It'll depend on the company improving the discoverability on the PlayStation Store. Sony also needs to invest heavily in Cross-Buy so that purchasing the PS4 version of a game gives you the Vita version as well; anything that greases the rails.
One area I think Sony has overlooked is the launch date. A November 15th launch puts the PlayStation 4 after a few of this year's major game releases. Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag and Battlefield 4 are the last week of October, while Call of Duty: Ghosts is releasing in the first week of November. If Microsoft can launch prior to or during those major game releases, they could capture the interest of gamers heading to retail. It's no good having all those developers if gamers have already bought into the competing console.
I still think it's Sony's generation to lose, but Microsoft's spent the past few months making the gap smaller. Both companies' paths are parallel, not divergent; it's just a matter of who's going to run faster at this point.
The only real difference I see between the consoles right now is the price. There's only a handful of platform exclusives between them, services on both consoles are looking the same, and Microsoft is catching up with the whole indie self-publishing situation. As cool, fun and innovative as N++, Resogun and Knack look to be, they're not system-sellers.
"Don't underestimate the price of these luxury items. The final decision for a majority of ordinary consumers comes down to the cash in their pocket"
In the first six to twelve months it'll be Call of Duty that sells consoles. Battlefield will sell consoles, FIFA and Madden will sell consoles and so will Assassin's Creed. In simple terms, why not just buy the cheaper PlayStation 4 and an extra couple of games for the same price as the Xbox One? Because on launch day if you're investing what is essentially a lot of money in one go, you want as much bang for your buck as possible.
Don't underestimate the price of these luxury items. Side by side, sitting on Amazon.com or in one of those old-fashioned shops, there's two very attractive home entertainment devices. I see new quirky games, I see familiar games I love and I see reassuring console brands. But then I also see those prices and I know how much I can justify spending on them. It's not about who's got the better exclusives, which console has the coolest interface and social features or where can I try out that weird indie game everyone is talking about. The final decision for a majority of ordinary consumers - not the dedicated early-adopters - comes down to the cash in their pocket. And right now, regardless of everything else, the PlayStation 4 is the better deal on the market.