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The Next Gen Console War

Now that E3 is done and dusted, it’s seemingly already been decided who the winner of the latest console war is likely to be. According to IGN’s poll, a whopping 81% of the 300 000 voters claim Sony won this year’s E3, 12% voted for Microsoft and Nintendo got the last 7%. Clearly, this year was a landslide in Sony’s favour.

Microsoft’s latest iteration of the Xbox franchise, the Xbox One, did not receive as warm a welcome as they would have hoped, though it’s not surprising considering the controversial features of the next-gen console. Requiring an internet connection for the console to function, compulsory Kinect camera required for the console to function and restricting the selling and trading of used games has seen gamers and Xbox fans alike favouring the PS4 over the Xbox One.

At least, that was then.

The Xbox One should now be dubbed the Xbox 180. Microsoft, seeing the disastrous PR and results of their console’s restrictions, has decided to relax the mandatory requirements and in some cases, remove them almost entirely. Now, the only online requirement the Xbox One will require is for the initial setup, when you first turn it on. Still a requirement, even if once-off, but that’s great news for those who just don’t have a stable broadband internet connection, which let’s admit, for us South Africans, is not nearly as dependable as we would like.

Initially the Xbox One required transactions through specific third party retailers in order to sell or trade games, Microsoft have now removed that hurdle entirely. It’s up to the publishers if they would like to police the online features and multiplayer in their games or restrict online access.

Previously, you couldn’t lend someone Xbox One game discs. There was a feature to allow users to share their game library with up to 10 selected users, though whether this will be implemented at a later date is unclear. Microsoft could still facilitate this for digital purchases, but it seems unlikely that they would. I’d like them to apply the same principal for these digitally downloaded games so we could have the best of both worlds. It’s a nifty feature that even the massively popular digital distribution platform, Steam, is said to be implementing, allowing users to lend their games to friends, but only allowing one of you to play it at a time. It’s a pity that, as it stands, Microsoft has removed this feature since it really is an awesome step in cloud based gaming, which is essentially the future as internet connectivity, reliability and speed increases

The Xbox One was previously region-locked to 21 specific countries, leaving the rest of the world unsupported and unable to play the console in their areas. This restriction is also removed as part of the drastic policy change, which is definitely for the better, though some countries, such as Japan, South Korea and South Africa are classified as tier two countries and will only see the console arriving in 2014 in Microsoft’s second wave of the launch.

The last controversial aspect is the Kinect peripheral’s next iteration, Kinect 2, which is now a compulsory addition to the Xbox One. Not only do you have to buy it with the console, but it’s required to always be connected for the Xbox One to actually function. You can still definitely turn it “off” and “disabled” it in settings, but it’s still technically always listening in standby mode for certain phrases, such as “Xbox on” or “Xbox off”. It is freaking people out though, especially with the whole NSA PRISM story that was unleashed recently. We just don’t know if our conversations or even our visuals will be recorded and/or uploaded, although Microsoft claims our personal data will never be available to anyone outside of your console.

The latest report is that the Xbox One’s camera peripheral, the Kinect, is not going to be a compulsory requirement anymore. This will likely lead to two Xbox One versions available on launch, with one at a cheaper price as well.

The Xbox One will also have TV and multimedia integration. This means you’ll be able to switch between television and gaming seamlessly. This is the main idea behind the name “Xbox One”, Microsoft wants to make their Xbox an all-in-one multimedia home entertainment system. It sounds cool, but the problem here is that a significant number of the TV features are exclusive to the US, not exactly a great selling point for anyone outside the US. Xbox users will also be able to stream their gameplay footage on twitch.tv, this is a great addition with the ever increasing popularity of Let’s Plays and similar video related content being upload by gamers.

The PS4 comes in with far fewer contentious issues. It doesn’t require its PlayStation Eye camera peripheral to function, it won’t block used games (though it’s also up to the publishers to determine online passes etc.), it has zero online requirement, no region locks, and allows sharing and reselling of games. It’s quite amusing how Sony was praised for these “features” during their E3 conference, even leading to chants of “SONY! SONY!” from the audience. Since when has being able to lend a disc to a friend become a feature? Apparently in this upcoming generation of consoles, it has. Sony provided a rather amusing PR stunt on how to share your games with friends

Fun fact: Sony was originally going to release the PS Eye with the console just like the Xbox One and its Kinect, but decided against it in order to reduce the price of the console and undercut the Xbox One, making sure to keep it quiet and leave Microsoft in the dark. Pretty sneaky, Sony. The problem is, this has made the integration between their new controller, the DualShock 4, and the PS Eye almost pointless now since not everyone is going to purchase the camera and be able to make use of the connectivity. Not to mention the fact that developers can’t include PS Eye integration in their games by default since not everyone’s going to own one. This means there’s less profit in producing for the PS Eye, which inturn means less support for PS Eye-enabled games. Not many companies are keen to produce games for a peripheral if there’s significantly fewer people buying it.

Xbox Live will still be required to access most of the Xbox One’s online features. The price should stay the same as the Xbox 360’s subscription for Live, which is currently sitting at $59.99 for 1 year. PS+, Sony’s answer to Xbox Live, currently provides free games every month as well as other well valued services such as discounts, auto-downloading and patching. Your PS+ account is shared between your PS3, PS Vita and soon the PS4, all for $50 a year. Microsoft has stepped up their game recently however and is also going to be providing free designated games every month or so to their subscribers.

Unlike this generation, the PS4 will require PS+ if you want to play multiplayer games online. Sony has stated that the new requirement is for business reasons, since investing in online infrastructure costs money, and continuing to provide free multiplayer features adds pressure to recover costs. They did say that some F2P (free-to-play) online multiplayer titles, such as Planetside and Warframe, will not actually require a PS+ subscription to play, which makes sense since these companies may provide the infrastructure required instead of Sony themselves.

The alternative is that Sony runs the servers, but gets a cut of the micro transactions that are made in-game. Regarding Xbox’s F2P situation, you’ll still require an Xbox Live Gold account to play these F2P games since all Xbox multiplayer games are only available to Gold subscribers.

Both the Xbox One and the PS4 will not be backwards compatible with this generation’s line up of console games. To solve this Sony is offering a nifty service, called Gaikai, which will allow users to stream games that are not available for the PS4 console. Such games include titles from the PS3 era and even a range of the PS1 and PS2 library. This does require a high speed broadband connection, since you’re essentially giving input via the controller, having that input sent to a location elsewhere in the world, having a system there play the game using those inputs and sending back a video rendering of the game’s state at the time. It’s not the first time this technology has been implemented, with OnLive being one of the first to bring this type of cloud gaming to the market. Gaikai has a minimum requirement of a 3 Mbit/s internet connection for their service, with the recommended speed being 5 Mbit/s or faster.

Both consoles have a fantastic line-up of games heading our way, with Xbox receiving exclusives such as Forza 5, Halo, Quantum Break, Ryse, Dead Rising 3 and more. The PS4 lands exclusives such as Drive Club, Killzone: Shadow Fall, Infamous: Second Son, Knack and Order 1866. The Xbox One and PS4 will also share other games, like EA’s Fifa ’14, Madden 25 and NBA titles. There’s also Metal Gear Solid V, Kingdom Hearts 3, Mirrors Edge 2, Star Wars: Battlefront 3, Watch Dogs, Assassin’s Creed IV, Battlefield 4 and so many more. A list can be seen here

Good news for indie developers regarding the PlayStation platform as the PS4 will allow indie devs to self-publish their games on the system. Pretty great news overall, where small budget studios or a couple of devs can create and share their work with the world on a hardcore gaming platform other than the pc. Previously, the Xbox One didn’t allow indie devs to self publish, but recently it seems Microsoft had a change of heart and indie devs will now be able to publish as they see fit. One of the anticipated indie titles to come to the Xbox One is the ever popular Minecraft.

Also revealed is the fact that the Xbox One itself can be used as a dev kit to create your own games as well. This is pretty awesome news, meaning anyone will have the ability to create games for the console and test it directly on the Xbox One itself without hindrance and will widen the game dev scene even further.

In the end, the games are what really count to make or break a console’s success. If you’ve got a solid list of games available, you’re bound to move consoles. The Wii U is sadly suffering from a lack of great games, which is probably why this generation has had comparitively poor sales since its release. Nintendo has reported some exciting new games to be hitting the Wii U soon, such as Super Mario 3D World, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD remake, Bayonetta 2, Mario Kart 8, Pikmin 3, Donkey Kong Country Returns: Tropical Freeze and the much loved Super Smash Bros. Other third party titles will include Assassin’s Creed 4, Splinter Cell: Blacklist, Batman: Arkham Origins and Watch Dogs. Great news for those who have been aching for some truly AAA titles to reach the system.

Let’s talk about hardware, the raw guts and entrails of the consoles themselves. Processor-wise, the Xbox is sporting AMD’s “Jaguar” CPU (central processing unit) with eight (yes, eight) cores, each with an x86-64 architecture. The PS4 uses the same AMD “Jaguar” CPU architecture, also consisting of eight x86-64 cores.

Both will have an AMD Radeon-based GPU (graphics processing unit), though the PS4 will have more power in their component. The Xbox One’s GPU will consist of 12 compute units, which have a total of 768 cores, giving an estimated peak of 1.23 TFLOPS (teraflops) of theoretical power. The PS4, however, will have a GPU with 18 compute units and a total of 1152 cores, giving a peak theoretical power of 1.85 TFLOPS. RAM-wise, the Xbox One will have 8GB of DDR3 RAM with a memory bandwidth of 68.3 GB/s while the PS4 will have 8GB of GDDR5 RAM with a memory bandwidth of 176 GB/s. GDDR5 RAM is also often used in graphics cards, which means it should provide greater performance than the DDR3.

Other bits include the Xbox One having a 500GB HDD that will be non-removable and therefore non-replaceable, while the PS4 will also have a 500GB HDD, though both removable and replaceable. Both consoles will read Blu-ray and DVD discs. Both will have USB 3.0 ports, HDMI (Xbox having an in and out port), AUX and Ethernet. Both will support a 4K resolution (video-playback only), 7.1 surround sound, wireless connections and no analog output.

The Xbox One will be releasing at $499 and the PS4 at $399. That’s a pretty major price-gap and will definitely sway consumers to Sony’s side, especially considering the PS4 has the better hardware to boot. Having the Kinect as a compulsory addition for the Xbox One is pretty much the reason for the price difference, and as I said above, Sony sacrificed bundling the PS Eye with their console to undercut them here. Translating this for South Africans, the margin becomes more prevalent, where we see a R1000 – R1500 price difference between the PS4 and the Xbox One.

The price point is important when it comes to console rivalry. A good example of when the price difference made a significant impact is when the Sega Saturn was released back in 1994 at $399, with Sony’s PlayStation’s price being later announced and released at $299. That’s was a critical factor played into Sony’s favour. The Sega Saturn ending up being a huge commercial failure and costing Sega over $200 million and laying off 30% of its workforce.

I owned a PS1, PS2 then an Xbox 360. I’m honestly not sure if I’ll be buying either of the next generation consoles. For the past two years I’ve owned a gaming pc and it’s met needs. I’ve never been one to purchase consoles just for the exclusive games, so I’m unlikely to buy either console for that reason alone. The truth is that this generation’s specs are a lot closer to the average pc gamer’s system, making it the PS4 and the Xbox One appealing even for predominantly pc gamers.

It’s going to be interesting to see how it all pans out, but whichever way each console goes, it’s going to be an incredible era to be a gamer.

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