The video game console announcement dog-and-pony show used to be a predictable beast. Here’s the hardware, here’s what’s inside it, here’s a look at some of the games you’ll play on it. Those days are long over.
Console gaming is a very different proposition these days. With so many possible devices available that deliver media content to your TV, Microsoft and Sony rightfully aim to diversify. Any hardware powerful enough to run a modern-day video game is also more than up to the task of serving as a multimedia delivery platform. The current PlayStation 3/Xbox 360 generation reached a point where “game console” was no longer an adequate descriptor. You could watch Blu-rays (and HD-DVDs, for a time). Buy music. Stream Netflix. Access content from cable providers and subscribe to pro sports packages.
The console war of today isn’t a case of winners and losers; it’s more a question of who does what better. Few can argue that Microsoft dominated on the games side with the Xbox 360, particularly in the United States. Between social features like party chat and a first-of-its-kind Achievements framework, not to mention a year-long lead on the competition, adoption came swiftly and grew quickly. Sony, on the other hand, delivered a machine that capitalized on the still-young Blu-ray media format, and the PlayStation 3 quickly came to be considered the most capable player on the market… that could also run games.
Fast forward now to 2013. It’s February, and Sony is fresh from launching its first info salvo relating to next-gen hardware. Industry observers walked away from the PlayStation Meeting reveal with one thought foremost on their minds: the PlayStation 4 is a gaming machine. Little time was wasted during the lengthy PS4 reveal on the specifics of how other content might integrate into the device. That’s because it is a known quantity – the console’s principal killer app has always been its ability to deliver premium non-gaming content.
Games were the focus at PlayStation Meeting. Interactive experiences of all shapes and sizes, designed to cater to every age group imaginable. Not just the games, but their social integration as well. A sense of how you’ll interact with your fellow PS4-using friends online. These amounted to Sony’s principal weak points during the current hardware generation.
Now look at the Xbox One reveal. You can count the number of game reveals on two hands, and four of those titles spring from the EA Sports family. The hour-long presentation instead focused on the hardware, and on the features it brings to the Xbox brand that have nothing to do with gaming. Cable TV integration, complete with Kinect voice and motion controls. An NFL partnership that brings fantasy sports tie-ins and game broadcasts to your console. Original programming that kicks off with a live-action Halo TV series produced by Steven freaking Spielberg. Games were mostly a no-show, but holy cow look at all that multimedia.
What Microsoft and Sony have both done is turn their weaknesses into strengths – two hardware manufacturers that seem to recognize what they got right and what they got wrong in the current generation of consoles. Their strategies going forward are really the same: Correct any mistakes we made the last time around.
You can’t crown a victor here because the “console war” as we used to define it is a thing of the past. Instead, we’re asking a simple question: which device can deliver a better value that suits my own personal needs? It was easy before when Microsoft and Sony had clearly defined strengths and weaknesses; not so much anymore though. As each moves to address its particular shortcomings, we see more of a brand battle developing. Like modern games themselves, we’re comparing services rather than features. Halo TV series or a slate of inventive indie games? NFL broadcasts or Killzone: Shadow Fall?
How about this one from roughly a decade ago: a Blu-ray player or the promise of more Halo games? The more things change, right? The question now is: which will you throw your allegiance behind when fall 2013 arrives?
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