Next Generation Systems are Less About Gamers, and More About Consumers
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Now that Microsoft’s Xbox One has finally made its debut, all of the console cards are on the table. And with the inferred November launch window inching ever closer, the question of the industry has finally been asked: What system will I get? Considering the estimated price tags, we can safely assume that most gamers will only pick one side initially (I know I’m not too eager to shell out four digits come holiday season), so it’s no surprise that it comes down to a heads-or-tails scenario. However, choosing between the next generation of systems is now more black and white than ever before, simply because the content focuses of their respective manufacturers are now more polarized than any prior generation. E3 is still a few weeks away, but Microsoft and Sony’s respective conferences have already revealed where their consoles will be headed.

Sony spent their reveal conference on exactly what you’d expect from the PlayStation 4: gaming. From their open support of easy publication and the indie development scene, the integration of social aspects through Gaikai’s network support, to their developer-centric approach to hardware development, Sony is clearly in support of the core-gamer market. The conference also consisted of developer interviews, as well as developer explanations of many coming projects and new IPs—even the lead PS4 architect spent quite a bit of time showing off Knack, a game of his own. The medley of reveal and teaser trailers shown during the conference lends credence to their intent as well. That’s not to say that the company will simply exclude other aspects of the games industry, but they have made their focus clear.

Microsoft, however, has taken a drastically different approach to the next generation. As suggested by the various adaptations offered on the Xbox 360, as well as Microsoft’s involvement in other media sectors, the Xbox One is geared towards multimedia accessibility and the idea of a multi-purpose console. The vast majority of their conference served only to explain the television and streaming functionalities that the implementation of Smart Glass and the Kinect systems will provide. It was only in the final quarter of the comparably brief conference that actual games were shown, and even then we were shown little more than vague clips and pixel flaunting. With that said, we do know that the system will be seeing several name-brand titles of its own; Microsoft declared 15 exclusive titles, 8 of which will be new IPs, after all. However, their focus on other media, as well as the amount of time allocated to the today announced Halo television series and Microsoft’s deal with ESPN, blatantly demonstrates that core gaming has taken a back seat on the Xbox One.

Console decisions have always been a divisive matter, but there has never been such an enormous difference between the two leading systems. While PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 debates were largely based in series preference—choosing a system based on the games it offers—deciding between the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 will come down to what tools you expect out of your machine. Stranger still is that the hardware side of hardware is now completely irrelevant, because the systems are sporting virtually identical technical specifications. Various specs are sure to fluctuate as demanded by the system, but with x86 architecture at the heart of both, core values will be the same. That means we can’t even complain about graphical quality between the two, so fanboy-ism will be seriously crippled in the next generation arms race.

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That platform choice has come down to demographics rather than software choice is interesting to say the least. In many ways, this is an enormous step forward for the games industry. Because the PS4 and Xbox One are each so narrowly focused, consumers are now able to make a definitive choice regarding what their next console will do for them. Xbox One buyers will gain access to a multi-faceted viewing experience bent on simplifying and condensing media, while the PlayStation 4 offers a system that is dedicated to the software side of gaming and plans to improve that experience with a number of social innovations.

Although numbers and figures are still in relative obscurity, these strategies are fairly unsurprising given the current standings of the two hardware titans. Microsoft has spent years securing unique television royalties and invested even more heavily into promoting those opportunities through Xbox Live. Meanwhile, Sony has made friends with more developers and publishers than Nintendo and Microsoft can even hope to work with, and therefore wields considerable influence in game releases.

However, there’s more to the demographic methodology than just gamers versus, for lack of a better term, casuals. Sure, Sony and Microsoft have hinted at their next-gen plans in the past, but most gamers never dreamed that their systems would be so linear. As a result, current PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 users may be wildly disappointed upon seeing what their go-to hardware manufacturer’s next big thing actually is. PS3 users hoping for improved streaming and video functionality—an area in which the PS3 is woefully lacking—will be left empty handed. Similarly, 360 gamers won’t be seeing as many releases on what would be their upgraded box o’ gaming, which can easily deter any gamer.

Arguably more important, however, is the factor of age. The average gamer is typically thought to be 32 years of age (which is a fairly accurate figure), but that single figure does not represent the state of the gaming market. The fact is that the younger generation of gamers is more profitable, simply because that’s where multimedia interest (i.e. multiple revenue sources) is concentrated. With that in mind, it’s no surprise to see Microsoft pursue that side of the industry.

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Sony’s choice is equally relevant, because their ability to cater to core gamers (who are typically older) has worked in the past. Just look at the history of the PlayStation 3. From day one, Sony knew that each unit moved would be a direct loss, dollar for dollar. However, because of the success that the PlayStation 2 secured, they planned to later make up the difference and eventually turn exorbitant profits by way of software sales. And, thanks to the console’s impressive and colorful game library, their plan worked.

What this boils down to is an unexpectedly dynamic, yet static market. Microsoft has now concreted the enormous disparities between platforms and inadvertently proclaimed that the Xbox One is an investment in a media experience more so than a gaming one. The Wii U and PlayStation 4 are equally one-sided, and share stock in the claim as well. Gamers have several options available to them, but are simultaneously limited by the specificity of those choices.

So, at the end of the day, what is the best way to choose a system? Simply put, know your tastes and pay attention to the actions of developers before buying. Beyond that, the best thing we can do is hold out for more information—which you should do before making a decision anyway. After all, the Xbox One was announced today, and we haven’t even seen the PS4.

E3 certainly has some lofty expectations bearing down on it this year.

Austin Wood
Austin Wood
@fanofrootbeer

Social Media Manager
Date: 05/21/2013

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