I expect stability and predictability from the big three (Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony) E3 pressers this year. First, we’re a year and half into this generation. It’s past the bumpy launch window, but not far enough for new hardware iterations. PS4 and Xbox One sales are already strong, which reinforces a conservative playbook. And many games for the show have been formally revealed early or leaked. Yet there are unknowns that the pressers next week could help answer.
As much as the back and forth is fun, at times insightful, I rarely consider NeoGAF as a the first source to turn to for deeply researched gaming news. But in terms of Xbox’s controversial indie parity clause, you can’t do better than user chubigans’s well researched piece on the subject. It’s a great explanation of what the clause is and why it’s ultimately hurting Microsoft on the indie front.
With Black Friday and the holiday shopping season days away, I’ve gotten questions from friends and colleagues about which current gen console to buy. I usually first point people toward Kotaku’srecent editorial on the subject; it’s well written and even handed. But I’ve got my own take that’s slightly different.
Let’s start by removing Nintendo’s Wii U from this debate. It’s got a superb outing of Nintendo first party games yet virtually no third party support. If you’re a big Nintendo fan and little from the other consoles interests you, then buy a Wii U (if you love Nintendo, you probably already have.) But for almost everyone else, especially if it’s your only console purchase, there’s just not enough game diversity.
That leaves the PS4 and Xbox One. First and foremost, both consoles are winners. Both have a decent library of quality games. Both refined their UI over the past year to make navigation fairly straightforward. Both are selling well enough to ensure wide game support for the future. Both are evenly priced. Frankly, given the general lack of exclusives this generation, I’d argue most buyers won’t regret their decision. Yet there are a few important, sometimes subtle differences that can sway you towards either Sony’s or Microsoft’s console.
Be sure to test a console’s controller in person before buying either the PS4 or Xbox One. It’s an underrated difference that’s both very personal and idiosyncratic. Visit a friend that already has a current gen console, or any retailer with demo units set up. Play a game and run the buttons and sticks through a full range of motion. Most critics rightly point out both console’s controllers have excellent handling given their refinement over multiple generations. But there are differences, especially in the triggers and the asymmetrical analog stick placement on the Xbox.
Also, if you care about multiplayer, poll your friends on what current gen system they own or plan on buying. If it’s dominated by either Xbox or PlayStation players, that could have a strong influence on which system to choose.
Finally, exclusive games and content are on the wane, but If you’re a hard core fan of certain franchises, that can make your decision much easier. Obsessed with Halo or the Forza series? Go Xbox One. Can’t wait for the next Uncharted or baseball game? That’s only on the PS4.
If the controller, your friends list, or the rare exclusive game don’t convince you which way to go, we get into far murkier territory. In short, those that regularly use their console for non-gaming activities may find the Xbox One more appealing. Sony’s strengths lie in raw hardware for games and games alone. To break that down in more detail, for the Xbox One:
Those who use a console for streaming, multimedia and other non-gaming activities will find more to love about the Xbox One. The PS4 has the usual streaming suspects like Netflix and Hulu, but the Xbox One adds Plex, DLNA, integration with Microsoft’s OneDrive for cloud storage, and much more. Granted, smartphones, tablets, and streaming boxes like the Roku or Apple TV can already provide much of this functionality. But jumping between apps on an Xbox One is fast, and if you want all of your media in one place, Microsoft’s latest has more to offer than the PS4.
Big cable TV watchers could easily find the Xbox One’s cable box integration compelling. Via the system’s “snap” UI you can watch TV alongside a game, and switch between live TV and other apps fluidly. But the integration is controversial; I know several that find the integration too cumbersome (e.g. , occasional signal lag, don’t want to boot up the full Xbox for just TV) and have since decoupled their cable box from the Xbox One.
For the PS4:
If graphics are one of your foremost concerns, many third party titles run slightly better on Sony’s console. Yet that advantage usually manifests in subtle ways, like a mildly higher resolution or more detailed textures and shadows. History suggests the gap should close as this console generation progresses, and many today can’t even notice the difference. Yet I still predict the PS4 will have a slight advantage in horsepower over the long run.
If you’re still on the fence, I’ve noticed a small difference when it comes to the games Sony and Microsoft throw their weight behind (which may or may not match your own preferences):
Microsoft leans towards more toward traditional gaming genres like sports, shooters, and driving. If you look at Microsoft’s exclusives so far, they almost all fall within this territory. Content looks similar in 2015, including a potentially innovative “blockbuster” interactive movie experience like Quantum Break and Halo 5. With EA Access, sports fans can get a rotating set of EA Sports titles for a low subscription price; it’s exclusive to Xbox. Microsoft also has strong partnerships for timed DLC, bundles, and advertising on longer running franchises like Call of Duty and Assassin’s Creed.
Sony’s taste can run slightly quirkier and more independent. Perhaps it’s a reflection of a more globally based audience, but Sony often invests in games that have a more of a niche following, or provide a twist on an existing genre. Yes, they’ve thrown a lot of money behind the huge Bungie shooter Destiny, but they’ve also supported (and have a timed exclusive with) the 90s adventure Grim Fandango. They’re also promoting a 2015 sequel to the cartoony, humorous Everybody’s Golf series. And while Microsoft’s ID@Xbox’s has been gaining traction, Sony has a deeper, more diverse relationship with indies. Many more indie titles are available for the PS4 than the Xbox One, a lead I don’t see evaporating in the near future.
Slight philosophical differences aside, most games are coming to both platforms, big or small, regardless of genre. And remember, virtually every difference noted above comes down to taste, not objective advantages. Some love their console for streaming ripped Blu-rays alongside their game sessions. Others prefer retro side scrollers by tiny studios. Some just want to play Call of Duty and NBA2K every year. There’s no one right answer; find what works best for you.
One year into their lifespan, the PS4 and Xbox One deserve a solid B for their efforts. Both platforms enjoy strong sales and some well produced titles. Granted, there’s a sparse selection of “must have” games so far, but that’s in line with release patterns we saw with previous console generations. There’s also initiatives toward “next gen” functionality to stand out in a mobile centric tech world. But these are initiatives that have yet to become fully fleshed-out experiences. For a more casual audience, Sony and Microsoft have a big unanswered question: what makes these consoles essential for newcomers, rather than a repeat of the past?
Each generation starts slow
There’s many complaints about the PS4 and Xbox One lacking essential games, but that argument discounts history. Based on previous console generations, it takes at least a year for games to hit their stride.
To put this pattern to the test, I researched Metacritic for 2005 and 2006 – the opening year of the Xbox 360 and PS3. There aren’t that many titles with exceptionally high score averages. Both consoles had a few critically acclaimed releases during the early months (Call of Duty 2, Elder Scrolls 4: Oblivion), but it took a full year of a console being on the market for some of the most celebrated titles – Gears of War, Rock Band, and Uncharted among them – to be released.
The same pattern is playing out with the PS4 and Xbox One. Both platforms had several decent launch titles (Forza 5, Resogun), a well reviewed, AAA action game a few months in (Titanfall, Infamous: Second Son), then a long gap until the holiday season. We’ve reached a virtual saturation point of strong games over the last two months, primarily third party releases like Dragon Age, Shadow of Morodor, and Far Cry 4. Xbox One holiday exclusives – Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Forza Horizon 2, and Sunset Overdrive – also scored well.
Admittedly, cross generation games (released on both current and last gen consoles) feel more prevalent this year. Some can be weak showcases for a new generation if their feature set is held back to stay compatible with older hardware. But the current gen versions often distinguish themselves. With titles like Titanfall, graphics and frame rates are so significantly improved on current gen it feels like an entirely different experience. Some, like Shadow of Morodor, only add critical AI or gameplay systems for new hardware.
In addition, most “weak games” arguments fail to include strong indie releases that helped flesh out 2014’s slower periods, games like Transistor, Super Time Force, and Velocity 2X. They also underplay remasters of last gen games like Tomb Raider, Diablo III, and GTA V. That’s unfair to more casual gamers where a PS4 or Xbox One is their only gaming device. For them, many indies and remasters can feel like effectively “new” titles.
A cautious future
If there’s any concern about this generation, it’s a lack of commitment to “next gen” experiences. Sony, Microsoft, and the AAA studios have played a conservative hand; most PS4 and Xbox One releases bump up the graphics, yet provide the same gameplay under familiar genres. It’s a repeat of last generation’s promise, except it’s no longer 2005 any more. Advanced mobile OSs and cloud-powered technologies are a given. Falling back on graphics and massive multiplayer networks won’t impress us any more.
Granted, there are hints of ambition. One obvious case was Microsoft’s launch E3 presentation, one that relied on a single, convergent device in the living room tightly coupled with Microsoft’s networks. It’s a move that split the Xbox between game system, Windows PC and home entertainment center. I had concerns, and now it looks like a semi aborted effort, but to its credit, it took chances. Sony has been taking small actions as well. They’ve got a pulse on the diversifying gaming demographic by leaning more on quirkier indie releases. With Playstation Vue Sony broadens into a potentially smart twist on cable TV, if the pricing and availability structure works out (given the involvement of TV networks and Sony’s loony pricing with Playstation Now, that’s a big if.)
There’s also been a few steps toward smarter AI and gameplay. Again, Microsoft deserves credit for Forza 5’s “Drivatar” system, where the racing game analyzes a player’s racing habits and uses them as a more lifelike substitution for traditional computer-generated AI opponents. Shadow of Morodor also pushed gameplay forward with its Nemesis System. It rejects the usual, heavily scripted opponents that only exist as a fixed player obstacle. Instead, Morodor’s enemies battle each other for control independent of the player. They develop rivalries among each other, remember battles with the player and adjust their tactics accordingly.
Yet all the aforementioned initiatives feel like smaller experiments for Sony, Microsoft, and other game publishers. Staying the course of tried and true game genres will satiate the core console audience for a while, especially with an impressive 23 million plus install base this early. But I have doubts that strategy can sustain consoles for the long run.
The PS4 has ridden a wave of goodwill since its launch a year ago. Its “games first” PR, strong indie support and hardware have translated into a strong console lead. But lately Sony has faltered. There’s been a lack of feedback to users, until recently a lack of UI updates, and Driveclub, one of Sony’s only holiday PS4 exclusives, has had a disastrous release. Meanwhile, Microsoft is going all in this holiday with aggressive price drops, game bundles, and well reviewed exclusives. It’s time for Sony to shake up its approach.
Problem: Losing on AAA exclusives
Lukewarm reviews withstanding, Driveclub is an accessible racer that shows off the PS4’s graphical performance. Its promised free-to-play PS+ version had potential to gain significant word of mouth among millions of PS4 subscribers with little advertising. But even a month since Driveclub was on sale, its online performance is spotty if not unplayable. The PS+ edition is delayed “until further notice.”
Contrast that with Microsoft. By raw numbers, the Xbox One’s AAA exclusives are limited in number, but reviewed well and appeal to a wide scope of popular AAA genres: racing (Forza Horizon 2), shooting (Halo: The Master Chief Collection), and third-person action/adventure (Sunset Overdrive). For holiday buyers deciding between the Xbox One and PS4, Microsoft has a clear advantage on first party titles. Games, more than any other factor, move consoles.
Response: Tote indies and variety
A lack of first party exclusives does not equate with a lack of games; Sony is lucky that after a slow summer we’ve seen big third party releases that cover almost every traditional genre. November has releases from already popular franchises (Call of Duty, Far Cry) and interesting new IPs (The Crew). Marquee sports releases (NBA 2K15) and massively hyped MMO-like shooters (Destiny) launched earlier this fall. So it’s no surprise that Sony has stuck to marketing these titles.
But Sony rarely advertises the PS4’s indie offerings where they have a huge advantage over Xbox on quality and quantity. Granted, many indies have content that’s hard to market as “next gen” to consumers, especially when said offerings are available on PC, the PS3 or Vita. But by leaning on indies, Sony can tout a larger, more diverse game package than Microsoft. And indies do more than bump release counts; many have gorgeous, unique art direction and genres that don’t align with traditional action/shooter/sports AAA franchises. That uniqueness can appeal to a growing market that doesn’t fit into a “core gamer” demographic. Resogun, Transistor and Velocity 2X are all strong examples.
Problem: More expensive price
A PS4 that sells for $100 cheaper than an Xbox One has been a key factor in its success. There’s a compelling narrative at play: pay less for a more powerful, straightforward device that can make the third party titles that dominate 2014 look slightly better. Even when Microsoft matched the PS4’s price by unbundling the Kinect this year, Sony’s momentum was still strong enough for it to outpace Xbox One sales every month. But this holiday season, Microsoft is out for blood: there’s several Xbox bundles widely available for $50 less than the console-only PS4.
Solution: Bundle a quality AAA game
A PS4 price match is unnecessary, even unwise given Sony’s weak financial shape. But there’s more than pricing at stake, it’s Microsoft including either Sunset Overdrive, Assassin’s Creed, Call of Duty or Forza – the final three with big brand awareness – in the box. That’s too much of a differential for Sony to ignore; they should respond with a strong game bundle at the $400 base price. An obvious option would be a well praised first party title like The Last of Us: Remastered. Sony could alternatively make a more aggressive (and more expensive) move by bundling in a hyped new third party release like Destiny or GTA V.
Extras: Play up 2015, tout the hardware advantage
As noted earlier, Microsoft has a clear advantage regarding big releases this holiday. But for now Sony’s got a more interesting first party offering for early 2015. RPG/action Bloodborne and The Order: 1886 are released in February. Later in the year we’ll see cult PC hit Day Z, Let it Die and No Man’s Sky. There’s console-exclusive indie titles too: Hotline Miami 2, The Witness, and potentially Helldivers and Galak-Z if their release dates are bumped past 2014.
It’s also time for Sony to directly market their superior hardware. For the past year we’ve seen better graphics on the PS4 over the Xbox One on third party titles, usually in the form of higher resolutions or otherwise enhanced texture details. Granted, small graphical differences rarely affect a game’s quality. And like we’ve seen in a debates on other platforms – Blu-ray versus Netflix streams, vinyl versus low-bit Pandora mp3s – many won’t notice or care about the difference. Yet if a potential console buyer finds the exclusives and interface on either side a wash, better graphics on the PS4 can be a weighing factor.
Overall, I’m not expecting a bloodbath by either side this holiday. Microsoft will likely beat Sony in U.S. sales, but that’s a short term win which Sony can recover from given it’s large overall lead. Yet console battles are about momentum and perception. Without any action by Sony this holiday, combined with some recent stumbles, Sony might be forced to take actions in 2015 from a position of weakness, not strength.
Ars Technica’s Kyle Orland writes on the state of the PS4, Xbox One and Wii U now that we’ve seen some system updates, lots of game releases and had some long term impressions. As he concludes:
The choice between the Xbox One and PS4 remains an especially tough one. Microsoft has the edge in big-name exclusives, and it no longer costs 25 percent more than the competition. Sony has enough interesting indie titles to stand out itself, and its console boasts the best technical performance on a number of cross-platform games. You can make a good case for either system over the other on those differences. But if you’re going to choose, all we can really recommend is that you take a look at which of those exclusive games, including those coming in the future, best appeals to your tastes.
I’ll likely touch on this subject as part of my retrospective of owning the PS4 in an upcoming post.
It’s clear the PS4 is an unqualified sales success. It’s sold around ten million units, roughly 2 to 1 against the Xbox One. Those are impressive enough sales to be a key factor in Sony’s profitability for Q1 2014 after years of losses.
But even hit consoles need work; almost a year into its lifecycle, the PS4 needs to improve its user interface. As I’ve argued previously, the UI gets the job done as a quick, no-frills game launcher. Yet its “horizontal ribbon” layout, with every app (in this post, ‘app’ is a loose interpretation encompassing both games and entertainment apps like Netflix) on the system ordered in strict reverse chronological order, is hampered by its lack of customization (note the upcoming major UI update, as of this writing, doesn’t alter the app layout at all.)
Core gamers, often with large game libraries, have the most immediate demand for a more organization-friendly UI. Yet it’s not just a traditional fan base that may juggle between many apps. Popular premium subscription services like PS Plus, Xbox Live Gold and the recently announced EA Access offer new “free” game downloads at regular intervals as long as you’re a member. And casual gamers that only buy a few $60 AAA titles may buy more games as inexpensive and free-to-play indie titles proliferate on the PSN store.
Also, in 2014, customization isn’t just a nice to have, it’s essential to the DNA of most modern tech gear. Every smartphone, tablet, or laptop allows you to organize apps into folders or across multiple home screens. If I’m paying the same price for a dedicated gaming console as I am for the next iPhone, I expect basic levels of customization to define it as my own.
There’s a philosophical argument as well: gaming is going through the same pattern as all media post-internet, splintering into fragmented, niche genres. With so many on the same base console but able to purse much more individualistic tastes, some basic UI customization helps distinguish my PS4 from somebody else’s.
A multi ribbon interface
With such a large install base, major UI changes can be tricky. Thankfully, the UI doesn’t need a redesign from the ground up, just evolutionary growth into a multi ribbon system. Users create as many additional ribbons as they want and move apps to any ribbon they choose. To keep things straightforward, like with iOS, there are no extra “shortcuts” or “aliases” of app icons, only a single canonical icon within a set of ribbons.
The original, single horizontal ribbon remains unchanged by default. Navigation and controls are identical to before, retaining the three row structure: settings, notifications and trophies are in the top row, apps in the middle, and details on an individual app or game at the bottom (figure A). Only one ribbon appears at a time.
Users tap the DualShock controller triggers (L2, R2) or speak voice commands to cycle through their ribbons. As each ribbon appears, the scrolling text region in the screen’s top left briefly displays the ribbon name (figure B).
Reordering games and editing ribbons
To reorder apps in a single ribbon or move an app to another ribbon, users enter a special “app reorder mode” by holding both DualShock bumpers (L1 and R1) down for a few seconds. This is a nod to the “hold an icon until it wiggles to edit” paradigm in most mobile OSes.
The UI’s look in this mode changes significantly: the top and bottom rows are removed and the app icon the cursor is selecting no longer enlarges the icon. In addition, new text labels are added around the ribbon to clarify the name of the active ribbon and its order (Figure C).
A new, simplified control scheme applies in this mode:
Controller bumpers cycle through the current ribbon’s order options: chronological (default), alphabetical, and manual.
X selects an individual app for movement.
Options opens up a menu to change the current ribbon’s name. Upon creation, all ribbons have an automatic, sequential ordering naming convention like “Games 4” and “Games 5”. But for users with a lot of content or who want a particular organization, custom labels are helpful.
The D-pad and analog sticks navigate between ribbons (up/down) and individual apps on a ribbon (left/right).
Square exits app reorder mode.
Once an icon is selected, a visual change (e.g. change in selected icon border color or thickness, icon appears to hover) indicates it’s available to move. Up and down always shuffles the app between ribbons. To keep things simple, the ribbons cycle with a definitive beginning and end; the first is at the top, the last is at the bottom and there’s no looping. This way, to create a new ribbon, all it takes is moving ‘down’ from the last occupied ribbon (figure D, E). Conversely, to remove a ribbon the user removes all icons from it.
Small change, big impact
Adding smarter organization isn’t going to move the needle for PS4 sales. Nor is it likely to affect Sony’s ongoing battle against the Xbox One, a fight centered on game selection, exclusives, and raw performance. Instead, a stronger UI makes users happier while improving their attachment to the device. For a dedicated gaming console in an increasingly mobile-centric world, that’s an underrated, compelling factor in the long run.
I can see how this model would appeal to a developer. Without the popularity contests that fuel the top charts, the content gets more of a chance to speak for itself. I game earns a purchase by having a good trailer, screenshots, and maybe a demo instead of “I’m #1 in the store, so you should buy me like everyone else.”
Basically Matt argues the over reliance on top download lists are a main problem on other app stores like iOS. In their absence on places like PSN, you’re forced to browse the store and buy apps that appeal to you more on a personal level versus “falling in line behind the million people who have already gotten the same thing.”
That’s a strong thesis, but even with 100% curation, the PSN store has some serious shortcomings, both in its puzzling range of information density and constant pushes for you to upgrade to a PS Plus subscription when you’re already a paid subscriber.
I rarely make a direct pitch for game downloads, but this one deserves an exception. Towerfall Ascension is a competitive platformer with up to four archers taking shots at each other. Its simple gameplay makes it a near perfect couch multiplayer game. And if you’re someone who games mostly solo (e.g. me) the Quest and Trials modes are still a blast. More than anything, there’s a level of polish to this title, from the great music to the incredibly tight controls. It’s one of my favorite titles released on the PS4 so far, and for PS Plus members it’s free for the month of July.
The “day zero” E3 press conferences by the big two console manufacturers feel like a relic of the pre-digital era: largely predictable, bloated, expensive, and with a lot more emphasis on style and spectacle over details. Yet they’re still important to set the tone and general focus of the Xbox One and PS4 platforms over the next year. In that regard, both Microsoft and Sony had solid, if unspectacular, B grade efforts. Microsoft played it safe but remained extremely polished and focused in the process. Sony had some more interesting, diverse announcements but were marred by some poor pacing and presentation.
Judged strictly by presentation alone, Microsoft handily trumped Sony this year. To answer criticism from last year, they stayed laser focused on games. Though their briefing lasted over 90 minutes, it rarely dragged, with well-crafted transitions and trailers between the larger titles. Xbox head Phil Spencer was clearly on a mission to woo core gamers back to Xbox, and it did so by playing to traditional Xbox boilerplate: racing games, first person shooters, and fantasy medieval combat.
Yet even with a solid effort, Xbox’s exclusives felt underwhelming and almost completely unsurprising. Forza Horizon 2, Crackdown, Fable Legends and The Master Chief Collection are sequels or reboots on existing IP. They’ll likely be fun, but it felt like safe genre territory Microsoft has heavily covered in the past. Also, as more third party publishers go multi-platform, we’ll see Microsoft’s genre reboots overlapping with other publishers (e.g. Ubisoft’s The Crew in the same space as Forza Horizon 2, Bungee’s Destiny competing with Halo 5). Die hard Xbox 360 fans now have stronger reasons to make the jump to the Xbox One now versus last year. But without a clear exclusives victory on sheer numbers or originality, I don’t expect Microsoft to sway those on the fence between the Xbox One and PS4.
In contrast to Microsoft’s showing, Sony, at least on paper, presented a more interesting set of games. Their exclusives were fewer but packed serious punch: Grim Fandango is a classic, cult adventure game from famed designer Tim Schafer and was potentially the biggest surprise of the day. No Man’s Sky is a very unique, indie sci-fi darling and potentially more ambitious than any game shown at E3. Then there’s Bloodborne, a gory RPG from the creators of Demon’s Souls. Round that out with a few anticipated indie exclusives for 2014, most notably Hotline Miami 2, and Sony showed off an exclusive (albeit occasionally timed or console only) roster that was more diverse and daring than Microsoft. And Sony was able to go toe to toe with Microsoft on their own set of exclusive betas and DLC for a few big name AAA games—likely a reflection of Sony’s stronger momentum and sales heading into E3.
Almost all those news was revealed in the first hour. Then came a lackluster middle section that dragged with a scattershot focus and left viewers with more questions than answers. They hawked a graphic-novel TV series with only concept art to show; its ten minutes on stage killed the presser’s momentum. A firm date was set for an “open beta” for the Playstation Now streaming service but few details on games and pricing were offered. The Project Morpheus VR platform was glanced over while Sony’s Andrew House punched down at the Xbox’s Kinect. The PS Vita was mostly ignored; no bundle with the PS4, no price drop, and few standout games.
Overall, Sony’s presentation felt like a slightly larger missed opportunity compared to Microsoft, but neither side was particularly earth-shattering. One factor this E3 has made clear is that many hyped games have been pushed back well into 2015, so it’s unlikely Sony or Microsoft will have a big system seller on its hands this year. There are two notable exceptions: Destiny (a strong performance could overshadow the Halo series and thus help Sony) and The Master Chief Collection (which, if Halo fanatics show up in droves for, could help Microsoft close the gap.) Either way, it’s going to be fascinating to see how each company positions their consoles this holiday season. It’s smaller, intangible factors that could now make a deciding difference among those that haven’t jumped in this console generation.