As expected, the opinionated bunch that is the gamer population has already begun rallying their console morale and taking jabs at the opposition, with their manufacturer’s banner in tow. However, the solution to next-gen divisiveness cannot be reached through familiar tactics. The loyalty of even the most die-hard fanboys has been called into question given the drastic turns that Sony and Microsoft have taken; launch lineups are less first-party based than in the past, so franchise exclusivity is no longer as pivotal, and raw hardware horsepower is no longer relevant given the identical x86 infrastructures of the Xbox One and PS4. As a result, we are left with fewer values with which to critique the two competing systems. After all, we’re still several months away from being able to play them ourselves, but someone has to win, right?
I’ve touched on this topic before, saying that, holistically, next-gen systems are focusing less on pandering to the hardcore gamer in many of us, and instead look to appeal to a wider spread of demographics. However, there’s more to the importance of marketing than consumer preferences; the relative infancy of both systems places great emphasis on one element in particular. I’m talking about reception. So let’s talk PR.
As of now, Microsoft and Sony share a similar agenda: Generate as much positive attention as possible. At present, neither company can make progress in any area outside of securing software and garnering appeal—and with it, future sales. Therefore, the most reliable indicator of who is “winning” the next-gen race would be the majority’s opinion of the systems. And because solid information has come few and far between thus far, the source of that opinion is often the reveal events of the two systems.
First-grade rules apply, so Sony is up first, because they went first.
Barring a small percentage of contrarians, the response to Sony’s February press conference was overwhelmingly positive—but inquisitively so. Sure, Sony did a masterful job of portraying the PS4 in a positive light by placing the system’s more impressive promises—its Gaikai-powered network, the ease of publication for indie developers, sequels to fan-favorite series, etc.—at their presentation’s forefront, but that was little more than sugar-coated prose and smoke and mirrors. Regardless, dozens, if not hundreds, of developers reacted optimistically and wide-eyed. As a result, the majority of gamers (and nearly all PS3 fans) began to develop a positive notion of what the PS4 is. This fondness was further bolstered by lead PS4 architect Mark Cerny’s extensive unveiling of the system’s hardware specifications which put a small but crucial wedge between the technological reputations of the PS4 and Xbox One.
Microsoft, on the other hand, was not so fortunate. Actually, scratch that entirely. It’s more accurate to say that Microsoft and the Xbox One became the pariahs of the industry overnight. Whether you or I agree with this judgment is irrelevant; it’s the prevailing opinion, and it’s what has come to be known as the commonplace mentality regarding the Xbox One. As pointed out by my coworker Josh Engen, this disappointment and outrage was primarily due to Microsoft’s abrupt declaration of a change in their console strategy. After spending years acquiring television royalties and implementing them on the Xbox 360 through minor deals and product-pushes, Microsoft suddenly went all out with the Xbox One’s entertainment functions. Many saw this shift coming, but many more were outraged with the small role that actual games appear to play. Consequently, players who were in it solely for the games quickly found the exit—presumably to Sony, PC gaming, or a Nintendo system.
I’m sure you know the ending to this story: The very features that Microsoft executives so ardently praised were dubbed needless tedium by the core-gamer population, and the system was equated to nothing more than a compilation of peripheral media functions. This dismissal was only exacerbated by the slew of scandalous and antagonistic stories that quickly surrounded the fledgling system. The used-games fiasco, fake applause at the reveal event, and indie complaints did the system little favor. So, the Xbox One was shot down before Microsoft even had the opportunity to showcase the gaming side of the system (which, hopefully, they’ll be doing at E3). Microsoft’s reluctance to offer any solid information on controversial topics did nothing to repair their dire situation, and the Xbox One became the industry’s punching bag as a result.
Never in console history has there been a more drastic contrast between competing systems, in both reception and content direction. The software-focused, “develop-centric” PlayStation 4 has been all but deified, while the multi-media Xbox One has practically been excommunicated. Not a single critic has so much as touched a system or played a launch title, yet the majority has already struck a crippling blow to the Xbox One. Games and franchises decided console wars in the past, but as console gaming continues to diversify, those factors become less important. At this stage of the cycle, pre-release opinions are everything. And as it stands now, the PS4 is winning by a long shot.
Of course, I don’t expect (or want) Microsoft to lie down and die. E3 is only weeks away, and what we see there can easily swing next-gen momentum back to the Xbox One’s favor. Personally, I want Microsoft to wow everyone by showcasing a few of the 15 exclusive titles that they claim will come out on the Xbox One within a year of its release—and I hope Sony takes a similar route. Regardless, the PS4 has had a much more successful run and shows no signs of loosening its grip on developer and critic attention, so Microsoft certainly has their work cut out for them.