With Microsoft's recently-announced reversal of its anti-consumer DRM policies for the Xbox One, the next gen console war has suddenly been brought back to a level playing field. It's no longer a battle of who had the upper hand at E3 this year, who does/doesn't require impractical internet connectivity 24/7, or whose specs are better on paper. The most hated DRM underpinnings on the Xbox One have been unequivocally rescinded, meaning that we can finally have an honest discussion of what the two next gen consoles will offer apples-to-apples.
While Sony has been squarely riding its momentum on cruise control since E3 this year, trying to keep the debate on its terms after usurping Microsoft in the opinion war, reality is coming back into the middle ground finally. And seeing that we are just months away for these hotly anticipated console launches, Microsoft is slowly unraveling its winning plans for the Xbox One.
Microsoft's vision for the next gen console war isn't concerted on a single area. Instead, its putting its money on a holistic approach to winning the hearts and minds of gamers and media consumers alike. Here's my take on why Microsoft's on track for making it happen.
#4: Hardware Specs Alone Won't Win A Console War
The PC gaming culture is used to dueling it out for bragging rights. Better video cards, more memory, faster processors -- in general, it usually equates to better in-game performance. And rightfully so: PC gamers lining up spec sheets against one another, like car enthusiasts of the digital realm, are engaging in an apples-to-apples debate. That is, PC gaming and subsequent performance is all being measured along a level playing field representing the same underlying platform.
Unlike consoles, the guts of any gaming PC can be overclocked, decked out, and expanded because in the end, we're usually talking about the same software experience. Whether it be Crysis 3 or Call of Duty or any other PC game, computer gamers are all purchasing the same bits and running their titles on some flavor of Windows (yes, I know MAC gaming exists - but it's still the exception). When one set of variables is relatively stable (i.e. software platform), raising and lowering countering variables (i.e. hardware specs) will have measurable effect that has meaningful impact on what a gamer sees.
So why are all the online discussions that describe each bit or byte that the PS4 outpaces the Xbox One at essentially hot air? Because of the very plausible reality that the Xbox One will be able to do 'more with less' just like the Xbox 360 has been consistently offering up against the PS3.
Just as a few examples, NowGamer ran a head to head comparison of the multi platform title "Rage" and found that the 360 version looked better in most instances. VideoGamer.com came to similar conclusions about the 360 version of Grant Theft Auto IV. And CVG rounded up comparisons of four other hot titles, including Call of Duty Black Ops, and offered up reasons why the 360 versions just plainly looked and played better.
Hold on a minute: wasn't the PS3 and its Cell processor dubbed as being upwards of 3x more powerful than the Xbox 360 when it came out? Even more troubling for Microsoft should be the fact that the PS4's GPU is being claimed as being 7.5x more powerful than the Xbox One's GPU chip. But if the current 360-PS3 generation console battle has taught us anything, it's that internal specs are little more than cannon fodder for fanboy wars. Xbox executive Albert Penello was absolutely right when he called the spec-war of upcoming consoles "meaningless".
Does a more powerful game console lead to better games? Even though the PS3 has more internal horsepower, this isn't translating into a better gaming experience -- at least one that shows in the sales charts. The Xbox 360 represents a full 60% of the top 10 best selling console games in the USA Jan 1-Aug 3, 2013. Of these 6 Xbox 360 titles, 4 of them have PS3 versions, further leading credence to the notion that hardware specs have little correlation with great games.
Multiple big name game developers have stated just as much publicly. John Carmack, the mastermind behind the engine powering the Doom series, let it be known that PS4 and Xbox One are "close" and "common" in capabilities based on his early experiences with the consoles. So even with a superior spec sheet, this doesn't necessarily translate into everyday performance or graphical advantages.
This is further exacerbated by Sony's unorthodox viewpoint towards allowing for easy development on its consoles. The PS2 was notoriously difficult to develop for, and the PS3 was no different -- with the CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment actually defending the practice back in 2009. Kaz Hirai of Sony CE said: "We don't provide the 'easy to program for' console that (developers) want, because 'easy to program for' means that anybody will be able to take advantage of pretty much what the hardware can do, so then the question is, what do you do for the rest of the nine-and-a-half years?"
I'm perplexed with his reasoning of making Sony's consoles so tough to write code for. If game development in Sony's eyes is an exclusive Club Med only for the select few, then they are going to continue fostering a culture of sub-par development for the PS3 and soon to be PS4. Unlike the Xbox 360 and Xbox One, which are built with a knack for bringing in development knowledge from the PC game arena (where many budding game developers have their initial experience), Sony's approach is to give game developers a completely new 'vision' to develop for with each new PlayStation release.
Is this working for them? Some people would say yes, but I'm going to disagree -- especially with how many vocal developers are speaking out against Sony's arcane development requirements.
Am I necessarily saying that there aren't titles which can leverage the power of Sony's systems? Crytek, for example, publicly admitted that it was harnessing the prowess of the PS3 a bit better for Crysis 2 back in 2010. And other titles out there are in the same boat. But the truth of the matter is, there is no chorus of developers coming out and talking about the easy time they are having working with Sony's systems. Some development shops may have much greater people-power to dump into learning the ins and outs of Sony's development style, and for those that do, the results shine. I find them to be more of the exception then the rule after scouring opinions from developers across the industry online.
For its part, it seems Microsoft isn't immune from wanting some of its own share of the bragging rights. It has been reported that Microsoft is upping the GPU core clock speed by about 53MHz, from 800MHz to 853MHz. It's to-be-seen how much of an improvement this will have, but this late in the game, Microsoft internally probably had good reason to call the audible and tweak the internal Xbox One hardware specs. This speed increase doesn't take it over the top against the PS4's GPU, but it should add some extra kick in the long run.
Clock speeds and bandwidth pipelines aside, history has already told us: if you can't effectively utilize the hardware you're given, spec sheets are worthless. As far as gaming consoles go, of course -- PC gamers need not apply here.
#3: Toppling the Leading Incumbent is Easier Said than Done
The scene for the upcoming console war between PS4 and Xbox One doesn't represent a traditional election in most respects. But if you look at it another way, they are both vying for your vote -- albeit a dollar vote. And in this light, just like an election, Microsoft and Sony are both vying for mindshare, the best titles, and any other edge that will give one side a leg up.
Yet if the console war can take anything away from political life, it's that toppling incumbents is a hard thing to do. Just ask Mitt Romney. He was riding waves of positive signs before the 2012 US Presidential Election, from highly-accurate college researchers predicting certain victory down to polls which were showing Obama falling flat due to the economy and the rising Benghazi scandal. Even former Bill Clinton confidante Dick Morris predicted a huge victory for Romney.
They were all wrong. Incumbency, it seems, blindsided everyone and once again proved how large of a mountain the underdog has to climb in order to unseat a sitting leader. When it comes to current generation gaming consoles, Xbox 360 is by all accounts the leader of the pack (in the States, specifically - which is where I'm focusing on). According to all official sales data from NPD, as of the end of June 2013, Xbox 360 has held the Wii U and PS3 at bay for nearly 30 consecutive months in the United States. That's 2.5 years of leadership in the sales charts; a remarkable feat for a relatively amateur console maker (especially compared to Sony) that only made its debut with the then-newcomer Xbox just over a decade ago.
And being the best selling game console for that long carries quite a bit of 'good karma' so to say. I already showed above how 360 is carrying 60% of this year's best selling USA console game titles so far, and may finish the year even stronger if the 360's holiday season delivers on hot up-and-comers like the new Assassin's Creed, Call of Duty, and Battlefield games.
Gamers in the States have a clear affinity for the 360 and its game selection. Where the PS3 carries a hardcore gamer stigma, and the Wii (and Wii U) are a bit on the younger and gimmicky side of gaming, the Xbox 360 has been able to carve out a following of the "average" gamer. One that enjoys a wide variety of titles, and happens to leverage their console for more than just gaming.
#2: Microsoft's Online Gaming Backbone Puts Sony (and Nintendo) to Shame
For the longest time, Sony's one-up on Microsoft in the online gaming arena was the fact that PlayStation Network on the PS3 was always free. Why pay for something that someone else can give you for the price of nada?
Yet, unfortunately, Sony learned a long hard lesson with it's laissez-faire approach to online gaming: a free service that happens to be fairly cruddy may as well not exist in the first place. This reality came full circle back in 2011 when Sony had to keep PSN out of commission for nearly an entire MONTH after what was later called a security breach. The full truth about this incident likely has still not been exposed, and I fully believe there is more that happened behind the scenes then Sony wants to publicly admit to. It's hard to believe that the second largest online console gaming infrastructure is brought to its knees for three weeks.
Regardless of what was or wasn't at play in Sony's PSN-cleanup-of-a-lifetime, the fact that they have made a full 180 degrees on their promise of a "free PSN" speaks for itself. Back in June, Sony did some careful word treading in describing why it finally decided that PS4 owners would be charged for online gaming in the form of PS Plus subscriptions. The equivalent to what the Xbox 360 has had since inception, Xbox Live Gold, is going to be a requirement to play any PS4 titles online when the console launches.
I'm calling it a silent admission that the "free to play" approach to PSN just wasn't working. The month-long outage of 2011 aside, the whole PSN experience is a disjointed, half-baked interface which barely scrapes the surface of what Xbox Live offers in contrast. Sure, it delivers the same access to Netflix and other streaming services like Xbox Live, but households and gamers alike are yearning for more. A clean experience that ties in an online community with seamless integration with game purchasing, app usage, and everything else that a modern console can offer. I just don't see it out of PSN today, and I'm truly hoping that the PS4 iteration of this ecosystem improves to where it should be. Especially if Sony is putting a price tag on the functionality.
Sony spent years chirping on Microsoft for charging gamers on what it was "giving away for free" on the PS3. After a less than stellar showing by PSN since the PS3's launch, and a blistering month-long outage that exposed its flaws back in 2011, Sony changed course: paid PSN Plus will be required to play online with the PS4. While PSN is playing catch up, Xbox Live has been growing and thriving for Xbox owners since its release in 2001. Anyone calling PSN a better ecosystem than Xbox Live clearly hasn't been on XBL lately. (Image source: The Verge).
And let's not forget that Microsoft has also let slip that self-publishing on the Xbox One will be made easier than it ever has before. Details are still scant, but it seems that Microsoft wants to unleash the game developer in each and every one of us. Microsoft's Corporate VP for Xbox, Marc Whitten, explained the basics to Engadget. "Our vision is that every person can be a creator. That every Xbox One can be used for development. That every game and experience can take advantage of all of the features of Xbox One and Xbox LIVE. This means self-publishing. This means Kinect, the cloud, achievements. This means great discoverability on Xbox LIVE."
Streaming video? Check. Enhanced TV DVR functionality? Check. Online gaming? Check. And now making your own games right in your living room? You bet.
#1: Modern Consoles are Entertainment Hubs -- And the Numbers Prove It
Let's face it: console gamers that consider themselves 'pure gamers' which only use their consoles for gaming and nothing else are the clear minority this day in age. Market research firm Ask Your Target Market (aytm.com) released some numbers in November 2012 which prove game consoles are becoming a central aspect of the modern living room. And not just for gaming, but for doing many other things like watching videos, listening to music, etc.
To put things in perspective, only 30% of those who responded to the AYTM study claimed to use their consoles just for gaming. A whopping 69% of respondents claimed to use their consoles for much more, either to watch videos, play DVDs, or use internet connected apps available to them. Is Sony' approach as marketing the PS4 as the "gamer's console" necessarily the best approach then? I truly don't believe so if studies such as the one above are an accurate depiction on what we're doing with game consoles today.
Another influential body in gaming, the Entertainment Software Association, released its yearly "2012: Essential Facts" report which looks at trends in the video gaming industry. For starters, nearly half of US households (49%) own some sort of dedicated gaming console. The average age of gamers today is 30 years old. And there is almost no gender gap when it comes to gaming today in the US -- 53% are male and a full 47% are female. These demographics further reinforce the notion that hardcore gamers are not the one controlling sales charts these days. It's the lower-thirties family, likely with kids, leveraging their game consoles for the all-around media experience. Gaming is just one slice of the usage pie these days; far from the sole activity it used to represent back in the Xbox and PS2 era.
Another article, this one a CNN news posting, quipped that 40% of all activity on the Xbox 360 is non-gaming related. The author correctly notes that much of this is from Netflix and Amazon's respective video streaming services, which are dirt cheap compared to going out for a night at the movies. That 40% of non-gaming activity, Microsoft states, translates to about 30 hours of video watching per month.
Think those numbers are off? Nielsen has already told us that 65% of game consoles sit in the living room today. If you can connect your own dots, it's not hard to imagine why video watching has become so popular on game consoles.
And the same CNN piece above touches further on something I alluded to above: the 'War of Graphics Capabilities' is becoming ever less relevant to most casual game players. "Gamers that care intensely about graphics will continue to do so, but I think there are fewer now than there were in the past," said the Creative Director of Zynga, Paul Neurath. "Big leaps in graphics no longer exist. Unless there's some futuristic holographic display or direct brain implement we don't know about, it's hard to get a lot better."
Which leads me to my next point. While Apple and Google are fighting tooth and nail to get their first party devices into the living room, Microsoft comfortably already has the attention of many households. In terms of value, the disparity couldn't be any greater. Sure, I could get an Apple TV device for $100. It's surely a cheap price point, but considering that I could opt for a low end Xbox 360 for only $200 -- double the price tag of the Apple TV -- and get three to four times the return on entertainment value, is there any comparison anymore?
The Xbox 360 can do everything the Apple TV can (barring some Apple-specific functions) plus gaming, web browsing, Skype for video chat, and a growing array of access to live streaming TV events. The Apple TV looks more like a paperweight in contrast to the 360 when you pin them head-to-head, especially on price and value.
Microsoft has been suspiciously silent about it since the Xbox One touched down, but the recently revealed IllumiRoom technology has some exciting potential. This Kinect-enhanced projector would enable players to light up their whole wall with fluid game experiences that are literally larger then life. It could very well be the ace in Microsoft's pocket that gives the console a decisive edge in the race of meaningful technology innovation. (Image Source: Microsoft)
Today's households are increasingly yearning for an all-around media device, and the Xbox 360 has been carving out its digital strategy for a number of years. But the head start Microsoft has over Sony is going to reap its rewards tenfold as Microsoft's content partnerships continue getting more numerous, and the justification for keeping the cable line continues to shrink.
And in the same way Microsoft's ingenuity led to the Kinect camera (which Sony quickly copied to stay from looking out of touch), they are busily preparing other neat innovations for the living room. While it likely wasn't ready for a primetime showing at E3 this year, Microsoft's research team has already released video of its upcoming IllumiRoom technology. Those wanting to expand their gaming horizon past the 50 or 60 inches that max out on most 'affordable' consumer level TVs will be happy to know that IllumiRoom is looking to take the game experience onto your entire living room wall. You really have to see it for yourself, as words cannot do this new technology justice.
Whether or not IllumiRoom will be the killer Xbox One feature that gets tacked-on after the fact, like the Kinect was for the 360, is still to be seen. But on the whole, it's utterly clear that Microsoft is dedicated to becoming the all-inclusive console choice.
Holiday 2013 Sales Will Tell All
The console war will be quite interesting as it heats up for the holiday season. Sony is aiming its sights directly on its most loyal following, hardcore gamers. Microsoft is going all-in with giving families a console that is just as appealing to the frequent game-a-holics as mom who just wants to kick back to a few hours on Netflix. While some analysts are already bold predictions about next-gen console sales, I'm going to take a cautious tone and play the wait-and-see game. When it comes down to it, no one will remember what happened at E3 this year, and holiday shoppers will certainly not be carrying around spec sheets comparing hardware between the giants. Instead, choices will be made on what provides the immersion and breadth of experience households are looking for today.
I'm not a hardcore gamer anymore. I'm looking for the next gen console that gives me the most value for the money. At least so far, Xbox One seems to be the device that will deliver on my needs this holiday season. Here's hoping Microsoft can merely bring that price tag down a bit -- my only gripe so far with the Xbox One.
Derrick Wlodarz is an IT Specialist that owns Park Ridge, IL (USA) based technology consulting & service company FireLogic, with over 8+ years of IT experience in the private and public sectors. He holds numerous technical credentials from Microsoft, Google, and CompTIA and specializes in consulting customers on growing hot technologies such as Office 365, Google Apps, cloud hosted VoIP, among others. Derrick is an active member of CompTIA's Subject Matter Expert Technical Advisory Council that shapes the future of CompTIA exams across the world. You can reach him at derrick at wlodarz dot net.