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Sony and Microsoft are playing different card games | Opinion

Sony and Microsoft's next-gen communications strategies tell us almost as much as the tech specs themselves

We know a lot more about both PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X this week than we did last week. Both Sony and Microsoft have started laying cards on the table; the similarities between their devices -- which both derive from essentially the same AMD-sourced CPU and GPU architecture -- have been known for a long time, but now we're starting to see the all-important differences.

The merits of the big technical differences -- the Series X has a notably punchier GPU, while the PS5 has opted for a significantly faster SSD -- are going to be hotly debated by experts for months, and even more hotly debated by clueless people for literally years. While I don't wish to understate the technical edge Microsoft's hardware has in this match-up -- about 20% more raw graphical power, it seems -- the reality is that we won't know for certain how much of a difference these hardware design decisions have made until we start seeing finished games running on production hardware, which remains months away.

What we can see for now, however, is a very real difference in the strategic approach being taken by these two companies -- not just to their consoles, but to the whole process of communicating about those consoles to the public.

Aside from price point information, there's remarkably little about the Xbox Series X we don't know

What's arguably just as interesting as the cards we're starting to see laid on the table, then, is which cards are being laid and when. Microsoft and Sony are playing very different games in this regard; the former is being extremely open, to the point of having allowed the media to play with and film a "snap-together" version of its Xbox Series X hardware showing all the internal components, not to mention having shown off final console and controller designs, and a number of core features of the new system software.

This is, as far as I can recall, a genuinely unprecedented level of openness for a system that's not set to launch until this winter. Aside from the crucial price point information, there's remarkably little about the Xbox Series X we don't know already.

Sony, by contrast, is playing a more traditional game. We know more about PS5 after Mark Cerny's presentation this week -- we know a lot more detail about its hardware performance and functionality -- but we have yet to see much of the consumer-relevant stuff about the console. We don't know about its price, of course -- muttered rumours about trouble with keeping down the manufacturing costs aside -- but we also don't know about the system software, the launch exclusives, or crucially, the physical design of the hardware.

In the face of Microsoft's openness, this is starting to look oddly reticent and even suspicious, but in reality, this is much closer to the timeline we'd usually expect for information on a new console. We're still seven months or more from launch, after all, and it would be common for the first major information dump to come at E3 (now cancelled) prior to further reveals at late summer events like Gamescom and Tokyo Game Show.

Why, then, is Microsoft opting to lay so many of its cards on the table so early in the game? The simple answer is that it's doing so because it can; its previous generation of consoles underperformed badly in the market and, as a result, it doesn't have to worry about stepping on its own long tail. It can whip up early hype for the next generation safe in the knowledge that it wasn't selling enough units of the current generation system to need to worry about deferring customers' purchases -- a rather different calculation to the one faced by Sony, which would still rather like to sell many more million units of the PS4.

In the face of Microsoft's openness, Sony is starting to look oddly reticent and even suspicious

That's not the only reason for Microsoft laying its cards out so early, though. There's also a question of first-mover advantage to some degree, especially since the company will no doubt have known for some time that it was going to have an edge on Sony in terms of raw teraflops of processing power. Microsoft showing its hand first is very smart from a communication perspective, since it means that all of the other aspects Sony sought to emphasise -- the extremely fast SSD, the innovative way it's balancing the system's power consumption to allow variable clock speeds without throttling games in unpredictable ways, the various bits of custom silicon it's building to allow unprecedented data access speeds and some very interesting sound processing -- ended up sounding a bit like excuses for why the bottom line numbers don't match Xbox Series X.

This smart bit of timing, combined with the appealing simplicity of the teraflops comparison, is likely to have established the "graphical prowess" argument in favour of the Series X already. Regardless of any protestations about the benefits of Sony's approach in other regards, Series X is always going to be considered the more powerful of the two systems.

Raw horsepower, of course, has rarely been a deciding factor in any console match-up. While it's very clear that Microsoft's hardware poses a significant challenge, "Series X is more powerful, but..." is a clause that could end up being followed by any number of statements if Sony's remaining cards turn out to be sufficiently impressive.

We even know what the new Xbox looks like at this point, but much about the PS5 remains mysterious

We even know what the new Xbox looks like at this point, but much about the PS5 remains mysterious

In that regard, another reason for Microsoft revealing its hand so early could be that it sees a benefit in letting consumers get used to the frankly very unusual (and somewhat awkward) physical form factor it has chosen for the Series X. We still don't know what Sony's device will look like -- aside from the controller, which essentially just looks like a DualShock 4, but will have some significant hardware differences under the hood -- but a few comments in Cerny's presentation hinted that the PS5's engineers have found a heat dissipation solution for the hardware which is somewhat less plus-sized than the Series X, and might permit a more conventional form factor for the device.

Success is rarely sealed at this point in the life of a console, but failure absolutely can be

If that's the case, letting people get used to the Series X before PS5's is revealed was probably a smart move. Moreover, showing off some of the features enabled by the SSD in the Series X, such as the impressive game resuming functionality, has undoubtedly taken the wind out of the sails of similar functionality enabled by Sony's even higher performance drive.

Why, then, hasn't Sony brought forward its announcement schedule to rob Microsoft of some of these early-mover advantages? Firstly, as mentioned above, Sony still finds itself somewhat restricted by the ongoing success of PS4 -- it doesn't want to wreck the existing console's last major year in the market by beating the drum too hard, too soon for its successor. Secondly, the reality remains that Sony is the market leader by a huge margin, and while it has thankfully learned not to make silly pronouncements like "the next generation begins when we say it does" this time around, it also likely doesn't want to be seen to cede that leadership position by being overly reactive to what its competitors are doing. It no doubt laid its plans for revealing and promoting the new system many months ago, and doesn't intend to divert from that timeline just because Microsoft is revealing details far earlier than usual.

One key thing to bear in mind about all of this manoeuvring on the part of both companies is that this stage in a console's lifecycle -- the months in which details are unveiled and conceptions of the system form in consumers' minds -- is incredibly important, but only in a very high risk sort of way. Success is rarely sealed at this point in the life of a console, but failure absolutely can be. Sony sank the PS3's early fortunes with foolish, badly calculated statements and decisions in the months around its unveiling; Microsoft's poor positioning of the unveiling of Xbox One laid it low for a generation.

Yet while traps litter the tracks and a misstep can mean total failure, actually getting through this pre-launch period unscathed doesn't guarantee success -- it merely allows a console to get to the starting line without its shoelaces tied together. Convincing consumers that a console is great takes a long time and a lot of great software; convincing consumers that a console is rubbish can happen in a heartbeat. Both Microsoft and Sony have been burnt by the latter in the recent past, and both companies' communication strategies can be read as an attempt to avoid that happening again, either by carefully timing the release of information, avoiding major surprises that might be taken up poorly, or simply letting the public have time to get used to changes in business model or design and thus avoid a backlash.

Thus far, despite their divergent strategies, neither firm has really committed a foul. If they can keep things that way in the coming months, this generation's head-to-head might be the most level match-up between console platforms we've seen for decades.

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