Thoughts on the Playstation 4 and XBox One

E3 2013 LogoIf you care about video gaming at all you’re probably already familiar with the recent announcements by Microsoft and Sony.  Despite that fact that both of these systems were introduced earlier I wanted to wait to until after the E3 Press Conferences to get a broader picture before I weighed in.  With exciting shows from both companies on Monday the stories are likely as clear as they’re going to be until the actual launch.  Before diving in however let me give you a little background on my current gen experience.

The Current Generation

I’ve pre-ordered every Sony console.  I remember playing the Japanese PlayStation at “Cybersmith” in Boston long before it hit North America and was completely sold.  The PS3 is still the most used system in the house by far.  We use it as a DLNA media client for video and music, for Netflix and other streaming services and of course for games.  It may not be something to be exactly proud of but with four people in the family the PS3 is powered up at least six-to-eight hours a day, everyday.  My beloved 60 Gig launch unit died only a few months ago, in fact.

Although I never did have an Xbox but I preordered the XBox 360 and got a launch unit. I remember buying “Kameo: Elements of Power” as our first game (really the only one, at the time, that I could enjoy with my young son).  Didn’t play much more until “Gears of War” and then got the Red Ring of Death.  System’s (then 90 day) warranty was up so I paid for a repair.  The repaired unit died almost immediately after it’s warranty was up.  I repaired it.  I lost two more systems in total – while playing “Mass Effect” and “Oblivion”.

I hope it won’t come as a surprise that this really soured me on the 360.  I still played the few MS exclusives that attracted me (“Blue Dragon” and the “Gears of War” sequels, for example) but would never again buy a cross-platform game on the system.  This is all in the interest of full-disclosure: Sony has a lot of inertia in this house.

Microsoft XBox One

XBox OneI’ll get the snark out of the way first: the name sucks.  It tacitly divorces itself from its ancestry while simultaneously confusing all the non-gamers.  Of course the name “XBox 360” didn’t give them a lot of wiggle room.  The new box itself is elegant if a little dull; a black slab clearly designed to blend in with the rest of your video equipment.

Integration with television is a focus of the system and the feature set that Microsoft focused on most during its first press event.  This whole initiative strikes me as interesting but not really compelling.  It seems ironic, for one thing, that Microsoft is “reinventing watching TV” when those that would buy one have generally moved on to PVRs and streaming quite a while ago.  More seriously though the entire process seems rather involved.

The XBox One does not, itself, act as a cable box or PVR  so you’ll still need your existing box (if it’s even compatible).  It drives the existing cable box with an IR Blaster or direct HDMI control (again, if it’s compatible).  Also since it seems the primary control mechanism for the functionality is the Kinect it means you’ll be waving and yelling at your TV to change channels, but presumably still using your old remote to adjust  the volume and possibly control PVR functions.  I’ve still not been able to find confirmation that the One actually has an IR port itself so controlling it via your own universal remote may also be problematic.  I’m cautiously optimistic but all told this seems like a big investment for a fancy guide.

The one feature that did attract me instantly was the promised multi-tasking capabilities.  The idea of checking the web or Skyping in a window while watching TV sounds great but I just can’t see myself actually using it.  I have a significant collection of tablets, phones and laptops easily at hand.  Again it seems like Microsoft has solved a problem that’s already been solved.

Having little interest in sports, racing or realistic war there weren’t many games on Microsoft’s roster that really interested me.  The fact that Insomniac  is developing an exclusive title has me excited, but warily so.  Their latest games have lost something in my opinion.  The most exciting announcement was “Project Spark”, a 3D world-creation title clearly inspired by the perfect “LittleBigPlanet”.  If it can even approach the same quality and versatility of it’ll be a day-one must-buy.

Microsoft was also able to steal just a little of bit of Sony’s thunder on the social networking front by announcing video sharing and streaming solutions of their own.  Microsoft is integrating a Twitch TV directly into the console but was mum about other potential services.  While each company is approaching the problem differently it does seem like the basic capabilities of each are fairly well equal in this area.

The biggest talking point overall, and one Microsoft likely wishes would go away, is the system’s rather heavy-handed attempts to control game distribution.  Disc games, in the XBox One world, are treated as much like downloadable games as possible (although this is reportedly left to publisher discretion).  One small positive to this is that once a game is installed you won’t need the physical disc any longer.  On the downside there are draconian rules for trading/selling/gifting used games that effectively make the process a non-starter.  In addition the XBox One will refuse to play any games unless it can check-in online at least once per day.

While I can honestly say that these restriction will likely mean nothing to me personally I have complete empathy for those that will be affected.  Also, as the father of a teenage boy, the inability to trade games with friends will hurt.  It’s like a small, but important, part of my childhood – trading Atari 2600 cartridges for the weekend – has been labeled as wrong.

Sony PlayStation 4

PS4Where Microsoft is clearly aiming to become central to your your living room Sony, on the other hand, seems to be running down a checklist of past mistakes and addressing them.  Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, they’ve completely abandoned the exotic architectures of the past in favor of a plain-vanilla (if nicely souped-up) off-the-shelf PC architecture.  This precludes any hope of direct backwards compatibility but opens up every possible door for developer adoption of the system.  The box itself is an attractive but simple angled rectangle; both Microsoft and Sony are stackable this time around.

In the development space Sony has clearly worked hard to eliminate their reputation for arrogance.  The E3 show presented a lengthy montage of exciting independent titles and announced that the PS4 will provide a self-publishing solution for developers (something that I believe is a first for consoles).  The PlayStation 3 has become the console for interesting and experimental games and Sony clearly wants to transfer that title to the PS4.

In the same vein Sony’s clearly taken the complaints about the PS3’s anemic social features to heart.  The PS4 will feature cross-game chat, game streaming via uStream and even controller sharing (allowing a remote friend to play parts of your local game).  It’s unclear how but Sony also promises integration with your “real world” communities using existing social media platforms.  Via the new, dedicated “Share” button players can instantly upload (with no preparation) game videos and screen shots to popular services like Facebook and YouTube.

Speaking of new buttons the new controller is a thing of absolute beauty.  I understand that personal preference reigns supreme but I’m solidly in the camp that the Dual Shock is the ultimate in controller design.  The PS4 controller wisely maintains the best features of the past while improving the oft-maligned triggers and adding a sizable multi-touch surface.  With the addition of a speaker and media jack the new controller has adopted every major advance in controller design from the last generation (with the exception, of course, of a built-in screen).

While Microsoft has spent the past few years divesting themselves of studios Sony has been collecting them and now has more than a dozen first and second party studios dedicated to PlayStation development.  While they, like Microsoft, showed mostly games that didn’t interest me the sheer volume of material was definitely impressive.  I’m not sure who’s going to be playing all of these racing games (across the press conferences there were no less than five major ones presented) but I guess there has to be a market.  I know I’ll be in the minority here but I think I’m most looking forward to “Knack”.  The gaming world needs some old-fashioned fun.

More interestingly Sony seemed much more willing to revel in the basic joy of playing.  The Media Molecule presentation in February, “Our Dream“, gave me actual chills.  If you’ve not seen it go right now and do so.  You can’t watch that and not be happy about gaming.  I know I’m in a small minority, but I will buy a system for that kind of experience.  At E3 we also got to see Quantic Dream’s latest cinematic tech demo, “The Dark Sorcerer“, which also captured much of what makes games fun.  These tech demos may not be

Sony took aim at Microsoft directly with their announcements that the system wouldn’t implement any kind of used game restrictions or online pass-checks.  Of course other publishers might implement them however but the core system provides no common model as the XBox One does.  The one significant negative they did slide in was that a PS Plus membership now be required to play multiplayer online, just like XBox Live.  However, unlike Live, media services like Netflix will not require a membership (it frustrates me to no end that I have to pay Microsoft to use the Netflix membership I’ve already paid for on the broadband account I’ve already paid for on a console I’ve already paid for).  Plus is an amazing value no matter how you slice it so this is a minor issue but it does represent a singular reversal for Sony.

The Winner?

At this point there really isn’t a winner if I’m being honest.  While we have a huge amount of information the devil is in the details and we still have remarkably few of them.  Arguments are raging across the Interverse but are based on assumption and speculation.  Although the PS4 has a slight edge the two consoles feature, for all intents and purposes, nearly identical architectures and capabilities.  I do think that that Sony made a mistake not including HDMI pass-through if only for the potential of it compared to cost.  I also would have liked to see the new Eye camera included in every box to prevent fragmentation but not including it was likely the primary reason they were able to undercut Microsoft by $100 on the price.

For my part, while I can intellectually weigh the unknowns against expectations and say that it’s still a crap shoot I can’t help but be more impressed by Sony.  They simply seemed to capture the fun and excitement of gaming better than Microsoft who, instead, seemed to be listlessly running down a checklist of features and genres.  Microsoft’s material was impressive but Sony’s gave me chills; more than once.  I’ll probably end up with both in the end (yes, having a decent career is nice sometimes) but I’ve already preordered a PS4.

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  1. I haven’t been excited by a console since Dreamcast, I finally picked up a PS3 last year to pick up cheap games by the shovelful. I would like to see a modern equivalent of the NES or Genesis, we don’t seem to have that though. Out of the new systems I will probably go with PS4, more power, no kinect, no crappy tv/voice interface gimmicks, smaller/better looking case. Boo on only 2 front USB ports. MS seems to be chasing a shrinking demographic and if that demo isn’t shrinking, it is a demo that usually doesn’t care much about gaming aka the Jay Leno demo. As far as launch games goes, I am not too excited, shadow of the Beast looks interesting for PS4, too bad Psygnosis isn’t around anymore. Whoever resurrects Chakan for DC and Landstalker for PSP that were both cancelled, will get me excited. Soldier of Fortune 1 was my favorite fps, so if someone gave Raven a chance to be king of the FPS again, I would definately take interest.

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