The Next Generation

With Microsoft unveiling the Xbox One yesterday, the next generation of game consoles has officially arrived. Now that we have entries on both sides, I thought I’d give some first impressions.

PlayStation 4
It could be argued that Sony has the most to gain from a new console. Their reputation was bruised multiple times during the lifecycle of the PS3, causing many to wonder if Sony had lost sight of what made the PS2 so popular in the first place.

I have to admit that the PS4 announcement didn’t excite me very much at the time. Especially since no actual console hardware was shown. Still, it is obvious that Sony has learned some lessons. The focus was placed squarely on gamers and community. There is great potential in the ability to browse realtime and recorded video feeds of your friends playing games, and then hopping directly into the same game you’re watching. I like the idea of being able to share moments from a game – mostly because it can sometimes be difficult to vocalize exactly what makes a particular game so enjoyable. Sony even talked about a scenario where you could start a game on the PS4, and then continue later on their Vita handheld. Of course, there are some important questions here: how often will these features actually be implemented? What say do publishers have in the sharing capability? How easy and straightforward is it to use?

Xbox One
After the lackluster PS4 announcement, I was looking forward to Microsoft’s unveiling in hopes that they’d have a bit more to show off. Whereas Sony may have dropped the ball with the PS3, Microsoft helped popularize many gaming concepts we now take for granted; in many ways, the PS4 was guided by the Xbox 360’s success.

Microsoft has a desire to take over the living room – they always have. It’s interesting that their first near-success is with a device that they didn’t explicitly create for that purpose. But as the realization of their achievement began to sink in, they experimented with video, music and even TV on the Xbox 360. The final result of all that messing about has been distilled into the Xbox One.

And what a disappointing result it is. All of the media they showed appeared to be exactly what they have now, just linked more seamlessly via Kinect. The only really new feature was the television integration – except ‘integration’ is being generous. It appears that no partnerships with cable providers are in place, and so what we get is a cheesy overlay and an IR blaster.

Along with the questionable improvements, there are questions about how often this new console needs to be connected to the Internet, and whether it can play used games as easily as the current generation. But these are the wrong questions. The real question is why this console, why the Xbox One, needs to exist at all.

There is no doubt that the new Kinect technology included with the Xbox One requires more horsepower. No doubt the seamless switching and integration between the different experiences require that horsepower too. But if you’re going to ask consumers to buy into an entirely new piece of hardware – one with no backwards compatibility at that – you need a more compelling reason than “you can talk to it more easily” and “we add a pretty overlay to your television signal”.

I was disappointed in Sony after their press conference, partially because it didn’t seem to go far enough, and partially because there were a lot of possibilities but not a lot of promises. But Microsoft’s press conference put it into perspective: Sony learned that they needed to focus on the gaming experience, and as a result they seem better poised to present a compelling experience. Microsoft, on the other hand, took the larger bet of integrating every device in your living room. If their gamble had paid off – most notably with integration from the biggest cable providers in the United States – there would be no competition. But instead they used thirty (forty?) year old technology – the IR blaster – as a compromise that immediately makes their solution less interesting and more cumbersome. At this point, it looks like they’ve taken their focus off gaming at the expense of a dream of living room dominance that just isn’t going to happen.

Both companies have a lot to prove, and neither console is a day one purchase. However, I believe Sony has a very slight advantage, if only because they beat Microsoft at recognizing what the next evolution of Microsoft’s gaming platform should look like.

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