A Layman’s Guide to The New Console Generation

One of the bigger events to occur in my corner of society during my unplanned hiatus was E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, where developers and manufacturers of video game software and hardware show off their wares to the press, who in this day and age is mostly the niche “gamer” press. You may see a token article in the business pages of a national newspaper, but it is a show that is largely ignored by the greater public, while being the show for that demographic that actually plays video games.

This year’s was of particular note because the two titans of hardware, Microsoft and Sony were showing off the relative merits of their “next generation” systems, the XBox One and PlayStation 4, respectively. The current “generation” (The XBox 360 & PlayStation 3) have been on the market for so long that the “console wars” antagonism between the two fan bases, comparable to car enthusiasts who are either with Ford or Chevy, has mostly evaporated. But with the specter of a hardware revolution, it has surged back.

It still amazes me how there can be fans of a product, not a movie, book, or game, but an actual chunk of hardware. It’d be like being fanatically devoted to a specific TV. And like any good fan base, it is very difficult to get them to face the fact that their chosen system has some serious flaws. I see this at work all the time. You can always tell a PlayStation fan from an XBox one because they will claim that people are abandoning Microsoft in droves, while an XBox fan will claim just the opposite.

Brutally honest opinion? I see no point in drawing an antagonistic line. You like playing with your buddies in XBox Live? Fine. Get an XBox One when they do. Devotee to the PlayStation Network? Get a PS4. Neither system has that much of an advantage.

When the XBox One was first announced, however, things were very different. Microsoft, in a very naive way excitedly revealed that the XBox One would be “always connected, always ready” and had big plans for an elaborate “sharing” scheme for games. No doubt pressured by developers to do something about the used game “problem”, they had set up a one-time use system for discs, where if you played a game, then tried to play it on a different system, you would be charged an apparently nominal fee to transfer it. I say “apparently”, because I never found out how much that was going to be; the used games system, as well as the “always on” requirement were ditched within a month of their announcement, as the uproar from the gaming community was deafening.

I almost feel sorry for Microsoft, money-grabbing intentions or not, they seemed to believe in what they were doing, and were prepared to fundamentally change how we buy and play games, until the pitchfork and torches mob shouted them down. I’m fairly convinced that the real villains in all this are the software publishers, who no doubt coerced or conned the hardware guys into instituting such draconian anti-consumer measures. Honestly, they wouldn’t have helped Microsoft or the XBox brand any, even if they hadn’t tarnished their image. It all comes down to the fact that the companies who make money by selling games (the publishers) feel threatened by both illegal piracy and entirely legal used game sales (like at GameStop), and view them as essentially the same thing: people playing their games without paying them for it. And it’s true, the used game market is a closed loop. Publisher sells new game through retailer to customer, customer sells used game back to retailer, retailer sells used game to new customer, etc. The publisher gets left out after the first sale. I’m not sure there is a clear way to keep the publishers and the customers happy at the same time.

Anyway, with all the negative press surrounding the XBox One (oh-so-cleverly commonly referred to as the “XBone”), Sony did what any self-respecting competitor would do: they kicked Microsoft while they were down. At their system unveiling, they didn’t so much hype their own system as trumpet how it wasn’t the XBox One. To almost a childish extent. Go ahead, watch that actual ad from the conference. It tells us literally nothing other than, “look, used games still work, just like always!”. For a bonus, if you dare, scroll through the YouTube comments to see the undiluted bile of console warriors in a full-on pissing contest.

After facing that drubbing in the press, Microsoft was forced to remove the vilified features from the system (generating a new super-clever nickname, the “XBox One-Eighty”), and now the systems are on relatively even footing, though Microsoft’s brand has been perhaps irreparably tarnished. Honestly, both systems look kind of mediocre. Nothing about them makes me go, “Wow! I’m going to dump this obsolete XBox 360, and plunk down hundreds of dollars on a brand new system!”. Neither one is “backwards compatible”, meaning they won’t play discs meant for the XBox 360 or PS3, so ditching your old system means ditching your old games, too. The current lineup of titles is nothing particularly special, and there are still going to be new games available for the current hardware at least until the end of the year.

In short, if you are a veteran gamer, stick with what you know. Wait until there are enough games you want to play on the new systems to justify spending the $400-$500 for the hardware. If you are a doting parent buying a next-gen system for your child, the best bet is as it has always been, go with Nintendo. The WiiU has been out since October, and now that the initial rush has died down, they are easy to find, and have some great games for kids. If your progeny is older (in their teens or so) and clamoring for a grown-up console, the main factor to consider is: what system do his/her friends play on? Console wars mostly exist because Sony and Microsoft systems are incompatible. The XBox One ($499.99) is designed to be the centerpiece of the entertainment center, with Blu-ray, cable box, Internet, and game functionality, as well as vocal and gesture commands via the Kinect sensor. The PlayStation 4 ($399.99) is still more of a dedicated gaming machine (as they gleefully reminded us at conference), is significantly more ominous-looking, and almost as all-around capable as the XBox One.

Really, it’s a Ford vs Chevy thing.

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