Thanks to Sony's press conference at Gamescom, we now have an official North American launch date for the PlayStation 4: November 15. That means both the PS4 and Xbox One are launching this November, facing off in a big holiday showdown. The many months of system wars on Internet message boards have all been heading towards this moment, in which actual sales will confirm which console has found a home in most gamers' hearts. We're not there yet, though, so let's ask which console is in shape for the strongest launch: the Xbox One or the PlayStation 4?
At this point, we're all familiar with the epic smackdown Sony administered to Microsoft at E3, which required very little effort on Sony's part. All the company had to do was continue business as usual, decide not to enact the always-on and anti used-game policies that Microsoft had embraced for the Xbox One, and make grand pronouncements about how much it loves gamers. Pre-order numbers after the big show were heavily weighted towards the PlayStation 4, causing Microsoft to scramble in an attempt to salvage a public relations disaster that threatened to become a sales disaster.
Now that Microsoft has reversed most of its unpopular policies, is the Xbox One geared up for a healthy launch? Although a solid portion of the Internet gaming community remains firmly in Sony's camp, Microsoft's change of heart has convinced a number of Xbox 360 fans to stick with the company, and of course, it's always difficult to predict the spending habits of the more casual crowd that isn't tuned in to the online console debate.
There's certainly an argument to be made for preferring the Xbox One. It has a stronger lineup of launch period exclusives, especially for gamers who enjoy (say it with me now, folks) shooters and sports games. Although nearly all third-party games will be available on both systems, Microsoft seems to have netted extra goodies from Electronic Arts and Activision, while Sony grabbed Ubisoft to add bonus content to launch window games. Gamers in the United States who already plan to subscribe to Xbox Live Gold will have access to Microsoft's more extensive entertainment partnerships.
Finally, we know that Microsoft has a solid multiplayer infrastructure in place, while Sony's improvements in that area remain untested. Now that gamers will need to subscribe to PlayStation Plus for online multiplayer access, Sony doesn't have the excuse that its service is free. Dedicated multiplayer gamers may wish to buy an Xbox One rather than take their chances with Sony.
There's one major cloud hanging over the Xbox One's launch, and that's the question of how the rapid changes Microsoft has made since E3 will affect the system's debut. Though the system's main hardware isn't affected by these changes, they've certainly caused major changes in the One's user interface, online infrastructure, and software development kit. Internet rumor has it that Microsoft is still handling challenges in these areas, and though that can't be confirmed, we all know that the less time a company has for quality assurance, the more likely unexpected issues will pop up. At least we know that we probably won't have a repeat of the Red Ring of Death fiasco, as the Xbox One has been developed to do a much better job at heat management.
The PlayStation 4, on the other hand, should be sitting pretty for its November 15 launch. Although its retail exclusives aren't terribly impressive, the system has quite a few downloadable and indie exclusives lined up, giving it a more diverse software lineup for those of us who enjoy a wide variety of games. Although there's always the possibility that the launch hardware, software, or infrastructure will experience glitches, Sony hasn't faced the same challenges as Microsoft faces in making last-minute changes to the way its various systems work.
The PlayStation 4 continues to have some basic advantages over the Xbox One. Its streaming entertainment options like Netflix, Hulu, and Twitch are freely available to all system owners. Most importantly, the PlayStation 4 still costs $100 less than the Xbox One, an important point for anybody who is uninterested in what the Kinect has to offer.
Sony is, without question, more strongly positioned outside the United States, where it has done a better job than Microsoft of tailoring its software exclusives and entertainment partnerships to the locals. That's a given for Japan, but Sony is looking stronger in Europe and Canada as well. Not to mention that the PlayStation 4 will be available to 32 countries at launch, while the Xbox One will only be available in 17 countries before 2014. That's an impressive advantage globally.
For all these reasons, I'm giving Sony the edge over Microsoft in this holiday's console launch showdown. Sony's greater preparation time for launch, its major advantage internationally, and the continued positive feelings (never underestimate the power of public perception) towards the PlayStation 4 among dedicated core gamers give the company a good short-term advantage over Microsoft. How things will shake out over the course of the full console generation, on the other hand, is a far more difficult thing to predict.