Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Editorial - The Face of the Eighth Generation

With the end of Sony's E3 press conference last night, and the knowledge of both the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One being due for a holiday launch, it seems that the Eighth Generation of video game consoles is finally upon us. That is not to say that the next generation hasn't been there; the seeds were planted with the release of Nintendo's 3DS handheld in early 2011, the following year opening with Sony's PlayStation Vita handheld and closing with Nintendo's Wii U, the next generation's first home console. While there are plenty of video gamers, such as those on this blog, who have become comfortable with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3's services and ever improving game library, there may come a time where they will have to decide on a console to take them into the future. Quite a few have already made their choice, whether it was the purchase of a Wii U within its first year or the pre-order of an Xbox One or PlayStation 4 (or perhaps some combination of the three). With the new knowledge pouring in from both the press conferences of E3 and Microsoft's pre-show reveal in May, now is the perfect time to see where the two major players, Sony and Microsoft, have gone right and where they have gone horribly wrong.

Xbox One

Microsoft's Xbox One (from top to bottom): Kinect 2.0, Console, Controller.

Between the two companies, the Xbox One was first revealed at a press event separate to E3. The result was backlash from both gamers and professional journalists, though a number of people remained hopeful that Microsoft would change their tune come E3. In the weeks leading up to the event, the company revealed new information regarding the policies that had proved be unpopular, though they seemed to fail to sway anyone besides the hardcore to their side and the unpopularity has become rather memetic. I'm not going to focus on the reveal event or any pre-E3 information, but rather how Microsoft has managed to handle their new home console as a result of their press conference at E3; basically, what the system is about when all is said and done. First, I'd to take a look at the system specs:

When it comes down to specs, the Xbox One is pretty impressive. It has a good memory and seems like it would be able to process a lot of information at high speeds. The addition of Blu-ray would ensure that more forms of media would be playable and the HDMI would ensure very high quality playback. Taking other facets into account, this is overall a display of how well Microsoft can choose the innards of a device, which some have compared to a gaming PC. However, the shape of the console has earned criticism for resembling a VCR, to the point where Photoshop mock-ups were created depicting the system's games as VHS tapes.

Of course, at the reveal event, Microsoft put a heavy emphasis on how the Xbox One is meant to be an all-in-one entertainment center, which includes being a console and a cable box at the same time, with additional function as a social media center via Facebook, Twitter and (mainly) Skype video chat. With Xbox Live Gold service, you also have access to media such as the movie and video services Netflix and Hulu Plus, along with other such apps for sports tracking and fantasy football stats. While they should probably have talked a bit more about games, aside from the memetic Call of Duty: Ghosts reveal and subsequent all access event, it may have actually been a smart move for them to talk about all the entertainment features then so they could discuss more of the actual gaming at E3.

The memetic dog in question.

With their press conference ending yesterday, it is now a good opportunity to look back at everything Microsoft has said on the subject of their games, their plans for games and how they've handled the backlash to all the strings attached.

Games and Policies

One of the most important things for a system is the kind of entertainment it can provide through its games, and Microsoft made sure to drop some big names to associate with the Xbox One, implying stronger third-party exclusives and first-party offerings. Some of the games announced include Titanfall, Ryse: Son of Rome, Sunset Overdrive, and Dead Rising 3, along with first-party titles like a new Halo, Killer Instinct and Project Spark. Some of these games appear intriguing, as well as show off what sort of tech the Xbox One has in store, but those won't really mean much unless we know how Microsoft is planning to handle their games; we do, and the controversy is there for a reason.

For one thing, Microsoft revealed that, for authentication purposes, users will be required to connect to the company's servers once every 24 hours, so while you don't need a constant internet connection, you still need to have some kind of active connection in order to play single player games, which can be very inconvenient for people with bad internet connections or those on overseas army bases. If you fail to connect, then presumably the game ceases to function. The other big issue is how used games will work, which is another source of contention among prospective users. To summarize, it will be up to the publishers to decide how you will be able to trade in and sell used games to retailers, since these transfers can only be done through participating ones. In addition, you may only loan a game to a friend if they have been in your Friends list for at least 30 days, and even then they may only borrow a given game from you once.

A shot from the trailer for the upcoming Halo game.

Further still, there is the issue of the Kinect 2.0. Microsoft has made sure that Kinect is a big part of the system to the point where it is included with every Xbox One. However, a point of contention here is that the console will not function unless the Kinect peripheral is connected at all times. And while the company has stated that they will not be using it to record data, some still find it a little creepy that the peripheral can see you in the dark, detect your heartbeat and is always watching and waiting for you to wake the system up with the spoken phrase "Xbox On". Fortunately, they have assuaged the fears a little by saying that you can pause the Kinect functionality at any time. On the other hand, there are players who will refuse to use a Kinect to the point that they won't buy the system if it is required for it to function.

Microsoft plans to release the Xbox One in November at a price point of $500, with conversion of the European price points revealing that the console will be even more expensive for non-American users. This price point is pretty steep and only time will tell now if Microsoft's efforts will pay off despite their still somewhat vague stance on policy matters and price tag. Regardless, reactions from Japanese gamers, which include referring to the system as "X1" as a cultural joke, indicate that this may be the final nail in the coffin for the Xbox brand in Japan.

PlayStation 4

Sony's PlayStation 4 (from top to bottom): Console, Controller, PlayStation Eye.

Unlike the Xbox One, Sony revealed information on the console gradually, beginning with a reveal of the controller and a look at the specs, then teasing the look of the console with extreme closeups shortly before Microsoft's reveal event. Following this route, they decided to basically reveal everything at E3, with the reaction being nearly unanimous praise from gamers and professional journalists, as well as a good number of previous Xbox faithful saying that they are officially jumping ship to buy a PlayStation 4 as their console for the next generation. To understand why people reacted so highly to the two-hour press conference, we must first take a look at what is an important change for Sony, that being the console specs:

Table snipped from Game Informer.

Essentially what this means is that not only is the architecture similar to the Xbox One, it is also possibly a little better. I'm not an expert or anything, nor will I claim to be, but the RAM capabilities being 8GB GDDR5 as opposed to the Xbox One's 8GB DDR3 just sounds a little better, along with some of that other stuff in there. I'm not really going to talk much more about this, but it should be noted that the PlayStation 4 resembles a parallelogram, which, while not completely amazing, does seem to stand out a little more than its competitor in the living room. Sony also made a point of saying that the system architecture was based on feedback from developers regarding how they could make games easier to program for the system and the types of features they'd want to take advantage of. In other words, this is the end result of a major company collaborating with developers; a rather important bond.

During their press conference, Sony went out of their way to explain that the system is catered specifically to support gamers, as reflected in their policies (more on that later), though there will still be other entertainment options. They spent the first bit of the conference explaining what sort of apps will be available to use, most of them Sony-related like Crackle and Music/Video Unlimited alongside Sony movies in the Video section of the store and some original content created just for the system. Users will also be able to access services like Red Box, Netflix, Flickster, Hulu Plus and Neon Alley through PlayStation 4. After also discussing what they have planned in the future for PlayStation 3 and Vita, which makes sense considering that they still have an install base to provide for, they went on to blow everyone away with what they had in store for PlayStation 4.

Games and Policies

When Sony began discussing upcoming games for the platform, they made sure to hit it right out of the gate with some highly anticipated exclusive titles; they stated that they will be getting 20 exclusives within a short time after launch, 12 of which would be original IPs. While they did touch more upon upcoming PlayStation 3 titles like The Last of Us and Beyond: Two Souls, some of the games revealed for the PlayStation 4 were, aside from a lot of indie games, The Order: 1886, DriveClub, Knack, Final Fantasy XV and Kingdom Hearts III. While all of the games on display did a great job of showing off the technical feats capable on PlayStation 4, there is still the matter of their policies on games as compared with Microsoft, which is when precisely everyone in the crowd went wild.

For a quick understanding, here is why:

Going for the throat.

Sony basically revealed that their policies are the exact opposite of Microsoft's. There will be absolutely no restrictions on used games, so you can do anything you're currently able to do with current generation games, and there will be no authentication checks of any kind. It was also further evidence that Sony wasn't going to pull any punches against Microsoft's controversial policies. On top of this, Sony announced that, although we don't have a solid release apart from the 'Holiday 2013" window, the price they set for the PlayStation 4 is $399 dollars, a full 20% cheaper than the Xbox One. This solidified the change in support for some of the Xbox faithful and put everyone's fears about the system to rest. However, it should be noted that there is one caveat to all the good news, mainly this image from the reveal:

Specifically the last line.

While there are no restrictions on Single Player content, you will now need to pay for a PlayStation Plus account in order to access Multiplayer content. Before I continue, I should elaborate that this will not prevent you from enjoying services such as Netflix, Hulu Plus or Neon Alley; none of those will require PlayStation Plus to access. Now, there are some differences between Xbox Live Gold and PlayStation Plus services, notably the Instant Game Collection, wherein you can get certain games for free by default, including Gravity Rush, Uncharted 3 (Single Player) and LittleBigPlanet Karting (granted these are more like rentals since the free games go away when you cancel your subscription, but it's enticing nonetheless). As a current user of PlayStation Plus myself, I can tell you that I think the service is very well worth the investment considering what you get for your money and the rotating sales and free game and Beta offers eventually help the service pay for itself, and it's only around $50 a year, curently cheaper than Xbox Live Gold. Plus, if you pay for it once, you can access it on PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita and PlayStation 4. Still, it's understandable if there are those who are on the fence about the fee.

Final Thoughts

One final point of contention is that neither system will be backwards compatible with previous systems, thanks to the differences in system architecture. However, while Microsoft doesn't seem to have a solution for this, Sony will be using the Gaikai cloud company they purchased in order to eventually create access to older PlayStation, PlayStation 2 and PlayStation 3 titles possible. Personally this isn't much of a problem, considering that I'm the kind of guy who keeps games and consoles even when something new rolls around, but it's still something worth thinking about.

After Sony's E3 press conference, almost everyone declared that the system had already won not only E3, but the Eighth Generation console war itself. While I support PlayStation 4, I don't think we'll really know for sure until sales for it and the Xbox One begin tallying. I said at the beginning that this editorial would look at the good and bad of both of these systems, but I honestly don't think I see that much wrong with the PlayStation 4 compared to the Xbox One, since it's $100 cheaper and much more developer and consumer friendly. Sony may not have officially won the war just yet, but unless Microsoft changes their ways or does some major backpedaling before launch, it's clear that Sony currently maintains a distinct advantage over its competition. Barring initial sales of these new home consoles, it will be interesting indeed to see how the Eighth Generation console wars will play out.

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