Two consoles, both alike in resolution,
In fair America, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where electronic blood makes civil hands unclean…
After a protracted battle that lasted seven years and resulted in what can best be described as a dull stalemate, a new act in the Console War has finally begun with the release of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. The last few months, with the slow, dribbled release of information from Microsoft and Sony, and dramatic revelations from insider leaks and developers, have seen some of the most heated arguments in the history of technology. These discussions are occurring for a good reason, though: The hardware, software, commercial, and ideological decisions that have been made during the development of these consoles will affect the face of gaming, and thus personal computing, for the next decade.
It’s not just hardcore gamers who care about the Console War. Over the last six months, as I’ve written about every twist and turn in the build-up to launch day, I’ve seen people from every walk of life wade into the fray. I’ve seen frothing mouth-breathing basement dwellers argue the toss about Microsoft’s decision to use embedded SRAM — but I’ve also seen core gamers ask which console will be better for playing Battlefield 4, and casual gamers asking which console will make the best living room media center. The fact is, the capabilities of the Xbox One and PS4 — and more importantly, the lack thereof — will play a key role in global media consumption for the better part of a decade. It is thus very important to analyze both consoles, and to discuss (often heatedly) which features will have the biggest and/or most significant impact. Considering the huge first-week sales enjoyed by both consoles (double that of the previous generation), the impact of the PS4 and Xbox One might turn out to be even larger than expected, too.
The Xbox One, in its original form, was a brave reimagining of the living room of tomorrow. Microsoft had gone back to the drawing board and delivered a console that was very different from the Xbox 360 and PS3. As it turned out, though, the media and consumers thought the Xbox One was too different — that mandatory Kinect and an always-on internet connection was simply too divergent from society’s archetypal concept of a game console. This is a shame, because the original vision of the Xbox One, though very different from previous consoles, had a lot of cool functionality — and more importantly, a lot of potential — that has now been stripped out. The final, launch-day version of the Xbox One is basically the Xbox 360 but with the ability to side-by-side TV programs and games/apps — neat, but hardly revolutionary.
Sony, on the other hand, had decided from the outset that its eighth-generation console would be more of a gradual evolution (devolution?), with a strict focus on games and an actual reduction of features when compared to the PS3. In Sony’s own words, it switched from the PS3′s highly customized hardware architecture to x86 and a known GPU on the PS4 so that developers would have an easier time creating kick-ass games. For some unknown reason, though, many other features that were much loved by PS3 users, such as local media playback and capturing photos/videos with the PS Camera, fell by the wayside.
The end result, despite wildly different conceptions, is two consoles that are shockingly similar in their functionality and capabilities. You could argue that the Xbox One’s HDMI input and (eventual) app ecosystem give the console more potential for future awesomeness, or that the PS4′s 50%-larger GPU will eventually result in superior games, but it’s splitting hairs. At best you might say that the Xbox One is marginally better than the PS4 for watching TV, and vice versa for games — but even then, we wouldn’t be surprised if Microsoft’s decision to go with ESRAM instead of more GPU cores results in both consoles posting very similar game performance. When everything’s tallied up, this actually leaves Microsoft’s console with a slight edge over the PS4 — hardware-wise, except for the HDMI input, both consoles are functionally identical.
The problem with homogeneity is that, while it’s fantastic for developers (porting games between the two x86 consoles and the PC will be very easy), it’s awful for progress. The reason the previous generation of the Console War was so fruitful was that the consoles were incredibly different to begin with, resulting in a huge variety of games, gameplay, and other non-game uses (media streaming, Kinect hacks, Linux on the PS3, etc.) As the seventh generation matured and the delta between the consoles narrowed, as did developer creativity. Really, in the past year, there has been very little in the way of excitement or boundary pushing on the PS3 and Xbox 360, and I’m worried that this trend will continue into the PS4 and Xbox One. Microsoft had the opportunity to differentiate the consoles with mandatory Kinect and the always-on internet connectivity requirement, but squandered it to appease the baying hordes.
We are now looking down the barrel at a further five to 10 years of gaming that is fundamentally unchanged from the last seven. Games will be prettier in accordance with the new consoles’ beefier hardware, and there are still a few new features that might crystalize into new types of games and gameplay, but right now it’s not looking good — right now, it looks like the eighth chapter of the Console War will conclude with millions of people buying consoles that are ultimately just dumb, crippled PCs capable of playing the latest sequel from EA or Activision and not much else.