PlayStation 4 v Xbox One: Experts on next-gen battle

Marc Cieslak takes a hands on look at Sony's new PlayStation 4 console

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The release of the PlayStation 4 in North America - it goes on sale in Europe and Latin America in a fortnight - is seen by many as the true dawn for next-generation console gaming after the troubled launch of Nintendo's Wii U.

Early reviews of Sony's new machine have praised its graphics for looking "cinematic"; commended its latest DualShock controller's added touchpad and redesigned thumbsticks and triggers; and remarked that the console is much quieter and easier to navigate than the seven-year-old original PS3.

In a week's time Microsoft fires back with the launch of the Xbox One.

It will be more expensive, but includes a higher resolution body-movement sensor in the Kinect; better voice recognition; and a more ambitious bid to take charge of your living room thanks to its ability to control satellite and cable TV set top boxes.

The revelation that two cross-platform launch titles - Battlefield 4 and Call of Duty: Ghosts - both feature higher resolution graphics on the PS4 than Xbox One, has played to Sony's favour.

Titanfall Sci-fi shooter Titanfall - created by a team of ex-Call of Duty developers - is a highly anticipated Xbox One title

But at this point the Xbox's exclusive games, including Forza Motorsport and Titanfall, are creating more positive buzz on tech sites than Sony's Killzone Shadow Fall and Infamous: Second Son.

The releases come at a critical time for both firms.

Sony recently slashed its full year profit forecast by 40%, surprising investors. Chief executive Kaz Hirai would like the PS4 to mirror the healthy sales of its smartphones, rather than its struggling TV unit.

Meanwhile, Microsoft has still to declare who will replace Steve Ballmer. The next chief executive has already been urged to "get rid" of the Xbox unit by the fund manager looking after Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's $2bn (£1.2bn) stake in the business.

To mark the consoles' births the BBC invited five experts for their different perspectives on the challenges they face.

Start Quote

Brian Crecente

Never before has gaming had two such stand-out consoles to choose from”

End Quote
Brian Crecente, Polygon

This month marks the beginning of a new generation of gaming. And for many gamers the question isn't whether to buy a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One - that's a given - but which to buy.

Sony and Microsoft have for years fought tooth-and-nail over the same growing audience of gamers.

They've done so by leap-frogging one another with technology, new bells-and-whistles, more powerful systems, new ways to play. But that's not the case this time around.

With this latest next-generation there is a great schism between the two.

Where Sony's PlayStation 4 delivers an intensely focused gaming machine, Microsoft's Xbox One promises an entertainment hub, a system just as capable of controlling your cable box as it is delivering a new game for you to play.

Brian Crecente

  • News editor at video games news and reviews website Polygon
  • Previously a crime reporter before switching focus. He has written for Wired, Playboy, Stuff, Variety and Kotaku

The PlayStation 4 is the evolution of gaming, the product of the best bits of learning gleaned from three generations of systems.

It is refined. It is powerful. But it's also lacking in any single stand-out gaming experience at launch.

And the Xbox One? It takes more chances, reaches for a broader range of experiences to deliver.

And in its variety it might, at least initially, miss some of the perfection of the PlayStation 4.

Never before has gaming had two such stand-out consoles to choose from and never before has there been more reasons to wait and see how both deliver on their promises.

Start Quote

Daniel Kaplan photographed by Mikael Tidqvist

There still seems to be a lot of forms to fill in”

End Quote
Daniel Kaplan, Mojang

Both Microsoft and Sony talk about the new platforms as indie friendly and it will be interesting if that is the case.

So far, for us it has been quite good but what I'm hearing from other developer friends, who are not in the same fortunate position of having had a bestselling game like Minecraft, is that there still seems to be a lot of forms to fill in to gain access to software development kits and tools.

The idea that you need a separate development kit - a special version of the console that can be very expensive - to create games for the PS4 and Xbox One is quite bad for indies since a lot of them usually have very little cash at hand, so removing as much friction as possible would be ideal.

Microsoft has said that every standard Xbox One will work as a dev kit at some point, however not from launch.

Daniel Kaplan

  • Business developer at Stockholm-based games developer Mojang
  • The firm has sold about 45 million copies of its most famous game Minecraft, which has yet to launch on the PlayStation platform

There is really no need of all of this behaviour since both Google Play and Apple's App Store have shown that you can create open markets for all kinds of developers with the same deal for everyone.

Giving more or less everyone the same opportunity is important for the indies.

It allows their developers to focus their time on creating games and not on filling out forms describing different features or ordering dev kits for a lot of money that may not ultimately bear fruit for them anyway.

With that being said, both Microsoft and Sony are changing and I'm really looking forward to what will happen in the future.

Start Quote

Anand Shimpi

The maths works out to Sony having about a 40% peak potential graphics performance advantage”

End Quote
Anand Shimpi, AnandTech

For the first time the guts of both the Xbox and PlayStation are very similar - their processor and memory hardware vary in performance but not capabilities.

Gone are the days when Sony's machine was substantially more difficult to program for than Microsoft's.

In fact, the PlayStation 4 has appreciably more graphics horsepower under its hood than the Xbox One, there's no way around that fact.

Both firms have licensed the same GPU (graphics processing unit) architecture, but Sony's chip has 1152 "cores" compared to Microsoft's 768.

Microsoft runs its cores at a slightly higher speed, but the maths works out to Sony having about a 40% peak potential graphics performance advantage.

The real question is whether this translates into a substantially better gaming experience.

Anand Shimpi

  • Launched the AnandTech news site in 1997
  • Specialises in explaining how computer components work in an easy-to-understand manner without being too superficial

Typically developers building one game for multiple platforms target the lower performing one, and may offer some additional perks to the faster one - smoother frame rates, slightly improved visuals.

I suspect that's what will happen this generation. At worst you'll see parity between the two consoles, but at best you'll see developers give PS4 versions of cross-platform games a slight edge.

Where things get really interesting is what happens if a developer chooses to develop exclusively for the PS4 and go all out.

Here's where Microsoft believes its other strengths - Xbox Live, developer relations, the Kinect sensor - will give it the advantage. Microsoft is basically counting on everything else being so good that developers would rather give it their exclusives.

Sony appears to have built the faster gaming machine, while Microsoft has built a system that might appeal to a broader audience and perhaps consume less power.

There are strengths in both platforms - anyone hoping for a clean sweep will likely be disappointed.

Start Quote

Margaret Robertson

If I walk in to the room, can I walk into your game, too? ”

End Quote
Margaret Robertson, Hide&Seek

When the PS3 and Xbox 360 launched, there was no iPhone or Android. There was no Farmville, no Zynga, no Temple Run, no Plants vs Zombies.

Gaming was owned, overwhelmingly, by Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony. And that meant it was also owned, overwhelmingly, by your TV. And TV games have some very particular properties.

TV games are public - everyone else in the house can see that you're playing and what you're playing.

They're comfortable for long play sessions, and a big screen and big speakers lend themselves to big, epic stories and spectacle.

Long, spectacular play sessions means it's worth scheduling with friends to play online.

TV gaming is all kinds of great, but I've often heard from people who reject it - women especially - that they aren't rejecting the content, but the format.

Margaret Robertson

  • New York-based president of Hide&Seek, a video games developer
  • Previously acted as a consultant to several console games developers and edited Edge magazine

Many people don't have lives that support them owning the TV for four hours on a worknight, diving deep into The Last Of Us instead of finishing a report for the morning or packing the kids' lunchboxes.

And in the meantime, we've discovered completely different patterns of play.

Apple now owns gaming in a way that the big console manufacturers used to. We're used to private, short-session, interstitial, soundless games. Arcade treats and abstract puzzles.

As the new consoles face their perennial challenge of attracting a wider market - more female players, more older players - this feels to me like their critical battle ground.

Above and beyond producing more varied game content to appeal to more people, can they adapt to the new patterns of consumption that have emerged since the last generation?

How can console games capitalise? More short games. More weird games. More games that people can play together on the sofa.

If I walk in to the room, can I walk into your game, too?

Last time the console giants brought out new machines, they're challenge was: "Can we turn people who aren't gamers into gamers?"

Now their challenge is: "How can we convert phone gamers to the console experience."

Start Quote

Michael French

The banner games on the Xbox One and PS4 will be the big budget action-oriented titles”

End Quote
Michael French, MCV magazine

Shop shelves are bulging with games machines, and it would be natural to think that the success of any new launch depends on cannibalising the others' market share.

But I think that many, if not all, the platforms can survive.

Smartphone and tablet games are more often than not about shorter play sessions and free-to-play business mechanics and thus appeal to a more casual gamer.

You can see proof of this in the success of Candy Crush from UK-based King.

On console, you have three major players in Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft.

The banner games on the Xbox One and PS4 will be the big budget action-oriented titles: the Call of Dutys and Grand Theft Autos of the world.

Michael French

  • Publisher of MCV, a video games news magazine targeted at those working in the industry
  • Believes it is only a matter of time before Nintendo releases its own tablet

The fact GTA 5 was the biggest entertainment launch of all time on the machines' predecessors indicates a real demand still exists for "stereotypical video games" at their best.

Sales of the Wii U may have been disappointing so far, but as a software-maker Nintendo is still the one to beat.

Behind-the-scenes action to speed up releases should mean the machine soon has a stronger line-up of exclusive titles.

Then you have PC. This is actually the fastest growing platform for games in the UK thanks to digital distribution and the fact that the wide variety of machines on offer means you can get all types of content.

Valve's Steam Box plans to help cement this format and develop it further, not disrupt it.

I would wager that most players these days have access to software via a mix of platforms both in the home and in their pocket.

When it comes to the crunch, if platforms do start falling away it will likely be down to the manufacturers' own mistakes, rather than the actions of their rivals.

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