I’m far from a “hard core” gamer, but a mere two days after E3’s start this year, I preordered the PS4. I’m bullish on Sony for two main reasons: indies and focus.
E3 pressers lean on the tried and true: AAA first person shooters, racing games and sports. These are the Hollywood blockbusters of gaming, big budget games that rarely deviate from an expected template to avoid alienating fan bases. I’m not above partaking in AAA franchises with better graphics and AI, but those games will always be there. At this point diversity and originality matter more and it’s increasingly smaller budget indie developers that fill this need.
With development and distribution costs dropping, indies are a rapdly growing presence on most gaming platforms. Mobile gaming is dominated by small developer content, and indie games have become huge sellers on Steam. And it’s not just sales; some of the most critically acclaimed games last year (The Walking Dead, Fez, Journey) were decidedly indie.
Despite this, the XBox One seems tone deaf to the indie movement. The XBox E3 presser gave indies five minutes to hustle through two quick trailers, a total afterthought. Microsoft also forces indie distributers through a lot of red tape. For instance, there’s no self publishing and XBox Live often charges expensive patch fees (often prohibitively expensive for smaller dev teams) to keep games updated. It’s bad enough that several smaller studios have dropped XBox One development entirely.
In contrast, Sony has a more indie-friendly approach: a showcase of eight indies in the middle of their worldwide E3 presser. Self publishing. Aggressive courting of indie studios with PS4 dev kits. The results are almost 30 indie game console exclusives to be released by end of 2014. Sony still has to ensure their online stores are set up so gamers can discover indies easily (a major problem on the current gen XBox 360) but overall Sony has an impressive start.
Sony appears very disciplined, an about-face from their aloof stance during the PS3 debut. They’ve lined their top ranks with gaming veterans like Mark Cerny, Shuhei Yoshida and Shane Bettenhausen. The heavy gaming thrust of the PS4 is also realistic and practical. Don’t battle against Apple TV, mobile platforms or the many other web browsers and Netflix players in the living room; coexist and focus on what you do best: games.
Contrast that with Microsoft where both the personnel and vision is all over the place. Exhibit A: the DRM PR mess that’s followed Microsoft around from E3 to its 180 flip flop last week. There’s also been little added support or push around Kinect’s gaming benefits, even though it’s the main reason the system carries a $100 premium over the PS4. And XBox One’s split screen, live/cable TV focus feels dated. It’s Google TV all over again, tech effectively dead on arrival.
Issues that have dominated gaming discussion online are pretty overrated. XBox and PS4 disc DRM is now on even terms and within a year or two I suspect digital downloads will be the default anyway. Microsoft’s pre-E3 vision of an all digital future isn’t just fantasy, it’s an inevitability (the rest of the tech industry – most notably Steam – have already moved this way.) While neither Microsoft nor Sony have revealed their next gen digital download policy, I’d wager they will start on similar footing.
I won’t give either system an edge on hardware either; Sony’s supposed superior gaming architecture could easily be nullified by XBox Live’s cloud computing. That leaves the launch lineups exclusive to each console, both of which are fairly weak (though Microsoft’s Forza 5 looks incredible.) And based on previous console gens, it’s a folly to extrapolate launch titles out to the quality of a console’s library years down the road.
Regardless of what happens, the future of console gaming is uncertain as mobile and PC gaming continue to make inroads. The PS4 could soundly “win” over the XBox One in sales for its first year and still be a failure. But if I’m betting now, I think Sony will start out of the gates ahead on Microsoft.