Xbox One vs. PS4: Competition at last
Microsoft is still playing catch-up in some ways - but Sony's competent launch is finally starting to see a genuine challenge from Redmond
It is not a novel observation to note that Sony's success thus far with the public perception of the PS4 is not down to any radical, brilliant innovation on their part, but rather down to the fact that the company's relatively conservative and perhaps even unimaginative strategy is being executed competently and sensibly, which contrasts with the ungainly flailing and flapping as Microsoft attempts to turn the corner on a host of unpopular and ill-conceived platform strategies in a very public way.
The same scenario was played out at Gamescom this week, albeit in far less dramatic form than it was at E3 a few months ago. Sony turned up to the event effectively to confirm that everything is going smoothly - it announced price drops for existing products, including a desperately needed although probably still insufficient drop for the Vita, but as for the PS4, it simply went through the motions you'd expect from a company smoothly executing a standard console launch. A little bit of new software, some additional service details, confirmation of pricing, announcement of launch dates - this is not revolutionary stuff, it's just what a company in Sony's position needs to be doing right now.
"Microsoft is still playing catch-up and a huge amount of red ink remains to be repaid in terms of customer goodwill squandered by the arrogant and disrespectful initial positioning"
Microsoft is still managing to make Sony's bog-standard competence look good, though. Xbox One is looking like an increasingly appealing console, but it's still playing catch-up and a huge amount of red ink remains to be repaid in terms of the customer goodwill squandered by the arrogant and disrespectful initial positioning of the platform. Turning that situation around has contributed, no doubt, to the shaky and changeable nature of the Xbox One's release plans and to Microsoft's inability to lock down launch details by the time Gamescom rolled around. Indeed, the biggest Xbox One story of the weeks surrounding Gamescom was arguably the decision to push the launch back to 2014 in a number of countries - undoubtedly a sensible decision if it avoids launch chaos in other markets, but hardly one that reassures consumers considering a $499 purchase that there is a firm and steady hand on the tiller.
While all of this fascinating drama has played out, one might reasonably argue that we've all ended up rather too focused on platform and hardware issues to the exclusion of the thing which this industry is actually meant to be all about - software. Quite a few people have observed that while Sony's execution has been good and Microsoft's has been shambolic, this has disguised the "fact" that Microsoft's software line-up is more interesting than Sony's. I'm not entirely convinced - I think there's an enormous degree of subjectivity involved in that judgment which its proponents don't entirely acknowledge - but I can certainly see the argument that securing exclusives like Titanfall or getting a game like Forza Motorsport out in the early stages of a console (compared with the inevitable years-long wait for a Gran Turismo game on PS4) is great stuff on Microsoft's part.
This is, after all, the games industry - it's about the games, in the end, with the hardware platforms on which they operate being merely enablers for those experiences. Over the lifespan of a platform, its success is based ultimately on the software it makes available, with factors such as price and marketing being secondary by a significant margin (although still important), while aspects like hardware prowess barely matter at all. It would be quite right to say that any mistakes in Microsoft's execution up to this point will be irrelevant over the medium to long term as long as the company can wow consumers with a software line-up that drives them out to buy the hardware.
The impressive early line-up of the Xbox One is a good start down that road. It is not, however, enough to secure the console's future - and nor is any perceived weakness in the early line-up of the PS4 enough to hamper that console's chances. Software is the most important factor for any console, yes, but it's a long-term factor. With the occasional peculiar exception (Wii Sports on the Wii is probably the best example, and as a pack-in title in most territories it's very much an outlier), launch periods are actually driven by hardware rather than software. Early adopters are a curious bunch among consumers - they buy the first few million units of console hardware based on genuine excitement over the new platform and its potential rather than true anticipation of specific software titles. It's important that the software should satisfy them to some degree, since they're also a vocal bunch - witness the huge negativity around the Wii U which has been largely driven by disappointed early adopters presently suffering through a drought of high-profile software - but software is not their sole imperative. They're buying a promise, not a reality.
"In the heady days of early adoption, consoles establish themselves with promises, positioning and image, not the reality of software"
In other words, while the mantra for most of the lifespan of a console must be games, games and more games, the peculiar atmosphere of those launch window months demands something slightly different. To really "win" in a launch window, to sell out in the shops and build the kind of image and even mythos around a console that's required to push it beyond early adopters and into the broad public imagination, you need to make a convincing promise, and be seen to have a strategy to fulfil it. In this regard, Sony's competence and confidence counts for a great deal - and the promises the PlayStation 4 makes in terms of its open arms approach to indie development, its gamer-friendly message, more appealing price point and so on, are enticing promises indeed. Just as with the firm's pronouncements to date, what it needs from its launch line-up is not so much shining brilliance (though that wouldn't go amiss if there's any available) as solid competence - games which are good enough to show that this is a system which will truly shine down the line, good enough to satisfy the early adopters that this is the system worth evangelising.
This has worked before, remember. Both the PlayStation and the PS2 launched with game line-ups which you wouldn't send an SMS message home about, let alone writing a letter. I may still have a soft spot for Fantavision, but the reality is that the PS2 offered a promise, not a reality, for quite a long time after its arrival - yet that promise was enough to see off all the competition and make the platform, ultimately, into the best-selling console of all time. The original Xbox launched with Halo, but struggled to avoid being relegated into third place behind the GameCube by the time the generation came to a close - while the Xbox 360's launch line-up was tepid (Kameo: Elements of Power? Perfect Dark Zero? Good lord, give me Fantavision any day!) and yet the console has been an enormous success. There were other factors at play in all of these cases, of course, but the point stands that in the heady days of early adoption, consoles establish themselves with promises, positioning and image, not the reality of software.
"The PS4 needs a real vision of the future to ignite excitement around a console which, sooner rather than later, will have to start trading punches with an opponent that's stopped shooting itself in the foot"
Both Sony and Microsoft still have a great deal of work to do. Microsoft needs to find a way to put the horrible months leading up to the launch of Xbox One behind it - to draw the line under all the U-turns and course changes it has made, to atone for poorly considered public statements that still rankle with gamers and haunt the console in media coverage and to focus on the future of the Xbox One that exists now rather than the unloved corporate dreambox that existed at E3, and the embarrassingly public strategy rethink which followed. It can't do that by ignoring what has occurred, because god knows it's going to be reminded of it at every turn - it needs humour and humility (neither of which have come naturally to Xbox executives in recent years, sadly), as well as an unrelenting focus on the quality of software and the potential of the system for the future.
Sony, meanwhile, needs to think beyond the launch period - which will be absolutely fine, thanks to the firm and superbly competent management of its console up to this point - and start fleshing out the vision for what comes next. Its launch software isn't going to set the world alight, which isn't a huge problem, but in the coming weeks and months it needs to start making bigger promises for what comes next. The PS2 had its Metal Gear Solid 2 trailer; the PS4 needs something similar, a real vision of the future to ignite excitement around a console which, sooner rather than later, will have to start trading punches with an opponent that's stopped shooting itself in the foot (think of it less as a mixed metaphor and more as a delicious metaphor cocktail).
One thing is certain - comparing the climate after Gamescom to the climate after E3, Microsoft is still limping slightly, but this looks more and more like a genuine competition by the day. That's great news for the industry as a whole and for consumers overall. The console space is still a vital and important part of this industry, and while it will change immensely in the coming years, it certainly won't disappear. Much of the new growth in gaming will come from outside consoles, of course - but billions of dollars of revenue will still pass through the AAA console space every year. That space is still in many ways the beating heart of our industry. Healthy competition between Sony and Microsoft - and indeed Nintendo, albeit a very different kind of competition - will keep that ticker running for many years to come.