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.

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Latest comments (18)

Isaac Kirby Studying Computer Games Development, University of Central Lancashire4 years ago
Thanks for the great article it made a very nice read.
As a Player who is skipping launch this generation (my christmas is dooming me to a bicycle, apprently paunches will never get my a girlfriend and my mother so very wants grandchildren), i am looking at the software more and more, and as you said, the lineups arent blowing me away, but they normally don't.
I think the critical mass for both consoles will be E3 2014 and Christmas 2014. When everyone who wanted one NOW will have one and the freinds, family etc will be looking into gettting one on so-and-sos recommendation. The wider (non Hardcore) audience will ask "yes 39 gigafloppies of RAMbytes on its megadrive is all well and good but what can i play on it?" and this is the audience Sony and Microsoft will have to lure in with exciting software htrough 2014 and 2015.
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Adam Campbell Game Production Manager, Azoomee4 years ago
Well, I did say a couple of times before that Sony haven't really had to do anything, except show up with a safe console and a predictable strategy. Microsoft created all the aches and pains with confusion and uncertainty, much of which they could have avoided.

I don't think either console has ignited any particular innovation in gaming or anything else so ambitious, there will be hardly any games to start (as expected) and true 'next gen' titles will keep us waiting right into 2014.

By the end of the year there will be two boxes with similar capabilities and games though different price points. Somewhere down the line I think the console that will be more successful is not only the one which can offer the most unique games, but the one which offers a stronger ecosystem and best fit for the user's digital lifestyle. A lot more important than some would think...
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Rick Lopez Illustrator, Graphic Designer 4 years ago
I think the healthiest thing for the game industry is competition. No negative comments here. :) As much as I love SONY, we need a Microsoft to keep them on there toes.
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Show all comments (18)
Pete Thompson Editor 4 years ago
I don't see it as MS playing catch up at all.. Even before the shameful "PS4 announcement" event (where no images or a demo of the console were even shown) It was always going to be a certainty that my main console for gaming will continue to be of the Xbox Brand. For me personally, the PlayStation offers nothing to entice me as a gamer, who spends around 4-5 hours a day gaming, away from Xbox. Not only that, but the Xbox achievements system and ability to be in a party chatting with friends no matter what they are doing on the console is second to none..

Sony also need to change their firmware and title update system on PSN, as it is at the moment its tedious and just annoying..

I do think that Microsoft should offer a few different versions of the Xbox ONE though, one with all the announced features ie: ability to watch and control TV etc, along with an Xbox ONE just for those who want to play games and record them, so in essence an Xbox ONE without the TV features, with the option to purchase either version with or without a Kinect 2.0.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Pete Thompson on 23rd August 2013 6:18pm

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Richard Browne VP Production, Leyou Technologies4 years ago
The problem is what Matt Martin said yesterday : "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. "

Except he was completely wrong. Those games are all available on PS3/360, they won't sell consoles - why would I spend an additional $400 to play something I can already play on my current system?? The leap that we saw from PS2/XBox to PS3/360 with HD is just not there this time. Neither Sony OR MIcrosoft have anything that looks likely to sell these consoles beyond the initial inevitable early adopter, a branch of gamer that I suspect is dwindling.

There is always going to be competition between these two hardware manufacturers, but right now it looks like they're going to be having a fight that not that many people are going to show up for - hence Microsofts focus on the long term services side and not just games - which thanks to Sony's quick about face for a short term PR win and Microsoft's subsequent requirement to 180 are becoming more and more generically multiplayer bore-fests* and all too safe same again too expensive to fail $30-$50m blockbusters. I've yet to see anything from either manufacturer that says their consoles are going to eclipse the last generation, which in turn isn't close to eclipsing that before it.

(*) Note - yes I don't like Multiplayer games.
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Kevin Patterson musician 4 years ago
My concern isn't really for the launch of either system, but what happens afterwards.
Nintendo had a decent launch and then didn't keep up momentum with great titles constantly coming down the road.
I am hoping that Sony and MS have plans for that.
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Gregory Hommel writer 4 years ago
How is getting Forza, one of few established exclusives, any less impressive than an Infamous or Killzone title? How is Sony simultaneously lambasted for trying to be too "exotic" with the hardware or coming with a $600 price tag, and for being too plain or "straightforward" with the cheaper $400 console?

How is a list of new Microsoft exclusives no one has played "interesting" but a list of established AAA franchises plus as many games no one has played is "a little bit of software"?

There is a problem in this industry, and life, that must be addressed before we can go forward as a society or as gamers; We must stop, Cuz Hatin' is Bad!
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Roland Austinat roland austinat media productions|consulting, IDG, Computec, Spiegel Online4 years ago
This is great article, but I didn't really think the world outside of the US was leaning that strongly towards PS4.
Assumptions are always dangerous. Xbox and 360 had a hard time in Germany, too. Currently, PS4 preorders in some outlets are 12:1 over there.
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Paul Jace Merchandiser 4 years ago
There will definitely be some healthy competition between Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo(who some people seem to have forgotten). Like others have said, Sony hasn't really done anything brilliant that made them stand out. All they did was take advantage of Microsoft's many mistakes in their initial vision of the XB1. And they should have because Microsoft would have done the same thing if the roles were reversed. Microsoft has only themselves to blame for all the bad press they've gotten over the last few months.

The good news is that they can still continue getting momentum on their side. It's definitely going to be a much closer race here in the US and the UK, while areas like Japan and the rest of Asia will remain pretty much the same way they are now. Microsoft still has the edge here but I still think that both are going to achieve a level of success, regardless of who sells more consoles. And once Nintendo starts releasing all of their big first party games they should do quite well also.
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Andrew Goodchild Studying development, Train2Game4 years ago
It may be worth remembering that interview with a MS exec a few years ago where he admitted part of the 360's success was down to Sony's mistakes. You could also suggest that the PS one benefited from Sega and Nintendo's mistakes with the Saturn and N64. 80's/90's Microsoft definitely benefited from Apple's mistakes.

So the fact that Sony has benefited from MS's "Screw the Pooch" reveal is nothing new, they should still get credit for not making the same screw ups, and indeed, reacting better to public feedback of Microsoft than Microsoft themselves were. I would not be surprised if Sony made sure they were on a correct track after #dealwithit, whilst MS acted like it would go away if Matrick grinned enough.
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Richard Pygott Level Designer 4 years ago
Microsofts initial approach was the right one, just at the wrong time.

I can imagine MS execs were scratching their heads after E3.

They see the iStore / iTunes / Google Play / Steam all delivering online digital content that has been adopted by millions and they cannot understand why there was such a backlash from consumers when ther digital dreams were unveiled.

All the above mentioned, all started out as digital platforms, wheras MS didnt, this is where MS went wrong, they expected wide adoption of digital media over the physical that people had become used to with the Xbox.

Sony have been playing it fairly safe, bog standard console launch, I do predict in a few years that we wish we hadnt complained quite so much about MS intial strategy!

It also begs the question, that the Core Ideology of the Xbox One is still there, as its the Core Ideology of the company itself. Core Ideologies DO NOT CHANGE, they are they as much a part of a/the company as the bricks and mortar, the next few years will be very interesting!!

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Richard Pygott on 24th August 2013 12:08pm

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Steve Goldman Journalist. 4 years ago
I still dont see much competition. Nintendo already won with 3ds. Its going to outsell ps4 and one every year

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Steve Goldman on 25th August 2013 12:38am

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Rodney Smith Developer 4 years ago
man, all these fraudulent pc demos for both systems remind me of the lies sold at the ps2 launch
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James Prendergast Research Chemist 4 years ago
@ Rodney - But these two systems are PCs! :D
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Jean-Marc Wellers Assistant Online Services, Ubisoft4 years ago
"the customer goodwill squandered by the arrogant and disrespectful initial positioning of the platform"


This kind of attitude and thinking is plain BS to me. =.=
They tried and made a mistake listening to customers this time. Now it feels like customers will be the ones to drive strategies from companies...
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Ben Campbell Graphic Designer / Freelance Games Journalist 4 years ago
This kind of attitude and thinking is plain BS to me. =.=
They tried and made a mistake listening to customers this time. Now it feels like customers will be the ones to drive strategies from companies...
@Jean-Marc Wellers - So you are saying that it is okay to deliver unfriendly, no, shove downright draconian digital rights management down customers' throats despite the fact no one asked for it, then to go on to have the [thankfully former] Game Director turn around and insult your customers because they don't live in Los Angeles where they are always connected, make trite arguments to justify his dickish, and quite frankly, very unprofessional behaviour - 'sometimes the electricity goes out. I will not purchase a vacuum cleaner'.

Then having the President of the Interactive Entertainment Business (the President of, among other things, the Xbox Division of Microsoft) , dismissing real concerns and criticisms of the system's 'always on' internet connection by saying "We have a product for people who aren't able to get some form of connectivity; it's called Xbox 360."

I think someone is a bit out of touch with reality when they start thinking that this attitude of being arrogant and disrespectful of customers is okay. I think being called arrogant and disrespectful are apt terms that can be used to describe Microsoft's initial attitude towards gamers up to the point where they reversed their policies, for which I applaud Microsoft for actually listening to their customers.

Customers have always been the ones who have helped drive strategies in terms of games sales, it is why when indie games became popular, Microsoft and Sony listened, including indie titles since they saw they were selling well, Microsoft's exclusivity (in terms of getting it first) deal with Activision for Call of Duty DLC to come out first for 360, were driven by consumers playing that game.

Strategies are all fine and good, but the moment you stop looking at customer trends and spending, seeing what they like, that is when you start to have problems, as Microsoft is now very much aware.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Ben Campbell on 26th August 2013 10:22am

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Sandy Lobban Founder, Noise Me Up4 years ago
Yay, a new PC!

Both companies would do well to introduce a software platform like Steam so they can reach markets beyond those who only purchase their boxes. Foolish not to in my opinion. Microsoft are obviously thinking that way with xbox as a platform. Sony may not be able to let the electronics go to the same degree, in favour of selling to a wider market though. Im sure time will tell.
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Micky Klugman Writer/Concept Guy 4 years ago
The issue with nintendo is they're suffering the same thing as sega and the dreamcast did, they launched their next generation console a year early, and at first it sold well thanks to some awesome exclusives and new ways of playing your old favorites. the issue is now that the launch of the Playstation 4/Xboxone are on the horizon, and nintendo is stuck with a underpowered (relative to the newer consoles) console and its main trump card (the tablet controller) has been all but eliminated thanks to sony and microsoft taking advantage of this massive smartphone/tablet market that popped up during this current generation.

Right now, as it stands most people are holding off on buying a wii u until more nintendo exclusives come out. Just like sega dreamcast, people are buying the console for the exclusive software of the console maker, and not because of the console itself.

If nintendo wishes to survive this console generation then they need to show off some more ways the customers can use the wiiu's controller, that other tablets cannot do.
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