The PS4 and Xbox One: cautious optimism

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.