Sony's presentation at the Gamescom conference in Germany on Aug. 20 wasn't too exciting, but it did help drive home one of Sony's most important points: It aims to offer a bigger variety of games at a better value than Microsoft.
The new console wars won't really get underway until both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 hit shelves this November, but so far, Sony has a definitive edge, and it's not hard to see why. Microsoft made a series of consumer-unfriendly decisions early in the Xbox One's life cycle, and Sony has capitalized on each of those mistakes.
It's easy to forget now, but the PS4-reveal event on Feb. 20 was not that great. Solid facts about the console were hard to come by, and Sony did not even display the console design itself until its E3 presentation on June 10.
Microsoft debuted the Xbox One on May 21 but did not answer many pressing questions about the console: How much would it cost? Would it need a constant Internet connection? Would it support used games? Gaming also constituted only a very small portion of the reveal; a comprehensive list of games for the new system would have to wait another month.
Microsoft's E3 conference did not assuage many fears. Although the company exhibited a number of interesting titles, there were a few overarching themes: games where you shoot things, games where you drive cars and games where you play sports.
Add in a Kinect camera that can't be turned off, a required online check-in every 24 hours, an Xbox Live Gold subscription ($60 per year) to watch streaming video or access an Internet browser, arcane rules that put draconian restrictions on sharing and reselling games, and a $500 price tag, and Microsoft had effectively repelled a huge swath of gamers who had been so eager to buy the next Xbox.
Sony, however, did not disappoint. In addition to reaffirming support for its PS3 and Vita consoles (the Xbox 360 is not likely to have a long life span once the Xbox One debuts), the Japanese electronics giant exhibited all sorts of different games. Sure, there were shooting, driving and sports games, but there were also role-paying games, puzzle games, platformers and a strong focus on indie titles.
The hits kept coming: The PS4 would cost $400, offer free access to an Internet browser and streaming video services, require no online check-in, and have no restrictions whatsoever on used or borrowed games.
Sony even went so far as to release an "Official PlayStation Used Game Instructional Video," wherein two Sony employees provided step-by-step instructions on how to share games on the PS4: Walk up to your friend, hand over the game and go about the rest of your day. The process was much simpler than the Xbox One's digital license transfers and extra fees.
Since its drubbing at E3, Microsoft learned a few lessons the hard way. In the midst of a corporate restructuring, which changed the head of the Xbox division from the aggressive Don Mattrick to the more conciliatory Julie Larson-Green, Microsoft removed the online check-ins and used game restrictions from the Xbox One. A few weeks later, it also announced that the Xbox One would be able to operate without the Kinect, although each console would still come with one (and the price would remain at $500).
At Gamescom, Microsoft generally continued to highlight its strengths: a huge launch library of high-quality games, getting downloadable content for games before other platforms, and a few key exclusive titles like "Ryse: Son of Rome" and the eventual "Halo 5." Microsoft also announced that the Xbox One would allow indie developers to self-publish, which may foster a strong selection of smaller, more offbeat titles.
Sony also played it relatively safe, but its press conference served to remind why the company has pulled ahead. It took time to discuss the PS3 and Vita platforms once more. The Vita, in particular, has some strange titles coming its way, like the atmospheric horror platformer "Murasaki Baby."
The PS4 games on display ranged from "Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag" (which will have exclusive content on the PS4) to "Shadow of the Beast," a reboot of a 1989 Amiga action game. At long last, world-building simulation "Minecraft" will arrive on Sony systems, just as it arrived on Xbox and mobiles earlier.
Sony representatives reiterated that the PS4 would not require any additional money up front to enjoy streaming video services or online communications, and took a dig at Microsoft for constantly shifting the Xbox One's policies.
"While others have shifted their message and stories, we have been consistent," said Andrew House, president of Sony Computer Entertainment.
Although there is little in terms of power or policy that separates the Xbox One and the PS4, Sony's overall attitude seems to be more welcoming, and gamers have responded to that. The PS4 aims to offer as much variety and as many services as possible, at the lowest cost; the Xbox One seeks to dominate certain genres and offer a more robust, albeit more costly, selection of services.
Either way, November will be an interesting month. The PS4 will launch in North America on Nov. 15, while the Xbox One has yet to receive a solid release date beyond "November 2013."
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