PS4 Vs Xbox One, and why it could all have been different

The bellicose phrase “console wars” has been used since at least the 1990s for the competition between manufacturers of videogame machines. Right now, however, the warfare is looking unusually asymmetrical. I write this five months before the release of PS4 and Xbox One, and I don’t remember there ever having been such a consensus as to the winner before launch. Sony has better specs. Developers, given a system architecture that wasn’t designed as an ingenuity test by some alien civilisation, have fallen in love with Sony all over again. And the PS4 looks cooler: those snazzily angled slabs shout ‘black ice sandwich of pure head-melting technology’.

All that, plus the PS4 will be cheaper. If this is a war, though, the model is not a years-long face off in the trenches, but instead Germany’s mechanised penetration of the Maginot Line, resulting in the rapid collapse of France’s defences.

Microsoft does have the USP of its HDMI input. My co-op shooter comrade-in-arms announced sarcastically that he was going to buy an Xbox One just so that he could plug his PS4 into it, and play only PS4 games through the Xbox interface. I’m not quite sure how this would stick it to The Man – after all, Microsoft would still get one more sale out of it – although if a console was capable of feeling humiliation, an Xbone used exclusively in this way would probably want the ground to open up and swallow it up.

I don’t want to harsh poor Microsoft’s buzz too much, though. It had a tough job to do, even before it had to perform that humiliating climbdown over the suspicious requirement for the console to phone home every day (I hope the PRISM guys at the NSA aren’t too angry with them now) and those onerous plans for game DRM (which always means Digital Restrictions Management) – a climbdown that will forever be known, thanks to the insta-wit of the Internet hivemind, as the Xbox 180.

They even had a difficult job with the console’s name. The Xbox 360 had to be called that rather than Xbox 2 because it was going up against PlayStation 3, and 3 (as Nigel Tufnel from This Is Spinal Tap might say) is obviously one more than 2. Xbox 720 just wouldn’t have made any sense. But Xbox One? It sounds as though they are trying to reboot the Xbox brand. Just like you have to reboot your Xbox 360 when it crashes.

And going all out with the ‘own the living room’ approach is brave, even if the way they are going about it is stupid. People are already accustomed to the interface and EPG of their current box from Freeview or Sky. No one wants to have to learn how to watch TV all over again – unless the payoff will be lots of extra new channels of reality TV sexual frottage and cooking shows teaching you how to prepare the latest fashionable snack, roasted guinea pig.

I ought to mention Nintendo: poor Nintendo. There you go.

Perhaps the general willingness to declare victory on behalf of Sony denotes a pervasive war fatigue among longterm videogame aficionados. Wouldn’t it be simpler, after all, if there were just one console to buy?

At certain points in videogame history this has effectively been the case. During the first few years of the original PlayStation – when it had seen off the Saturn and before the first Xbox appeared on the market – it was the console that non-videogamers had heard about. ‘PlayStation’ became a generic term. The current pre-launch dominance of PS4 brings us closer to that state of affairs than at any other time since.

We usually think that more hardware manufacturers makes for a richer and more exciting ecosystem, driving experimentation and innovation in game design. But against that argument must be set convenience and comprehensibility to the general public – the ability to just buy ‘the thing that plays videogames’, just as you would buy a Blu-ray player without worrying about whether some Blu-rays will work on it or not.

If you squint a bit, you can even look at the boom in smartphone gaming in this way. Of course, lots of different manufacturers make smartphones, and there are four more-or-less major – and mostly incompatible – operating systems. But consider: hardly anyone chooses an iPhone or a Samsung or a Blackberry on the basis of what games are available for the system. They choose a phone they like the look and feel of, one whose marketing causes a pleasant warmth and perhaps a little moistness in the groin. Then, once they have the device in their pocket, they discover that it is also (as far as they are concerned) a generic videogames machine.

It’s all so easy. All the games from the phone’s marketplace just work on the phone. So the phone users just buy games, or play free games and become victims of the sorcery of in-app purchases. They don’t have to bother with formats or platform-exclusive content, or wonder enviously whether the game runs better on someone else’s phone. They can just enjoy and appreciate what they play. How relaxing! Maybe one day all videogaming will be like this.

Illustration: Marsh Davies