It’s funny to think back about this time last year, when Microsoft made a hugely controversial press conference at E3 for its upcoming Xbox One, announcing a $499 price tag and remaining silent on the-then hot-button issue of used games. The press quickly gave the show to Sony in a hands-down decision after a triumphant showing that evening, and Microsoft found its Xbox One on the same shaky footing that carried it through a launch season that saw it trailing the PS4. Now, with Microsoft’s announcement of a Kinect-less Xbox One at $399, the console that everyone loved to hate last summer is basically gone.
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Not that’s a bad thing — the PS4 is a beautiful and masterfully marketed little machine, but I would still argue that price is main reason it has become the dominant system so quickly. The unwieldy Kinect is often seen as a burden rather than a boon, with unreliable voice commands and irksome gesture controls. There’s still no game that truly defines it as must-have hardware, similar to what Wii Sports did for Nintendo. Without it, the Xbox One has less claim on the nebulous concept of a broader market console, but at $499 it was never going to accomplish that anyway. Dropping the price was a move out of neccesity more than anything else — the PS4 was going to trounce the Xbox One next holiday season if not.
So a year later, the Xbox One has no used games restrictions, no mandatory Kinect, and it’s selling for $399. That year was enough time to hand the early game to Sony, but better late than never.
These are still two different machines, however, so let’s think about the things that still set them apart. For one, the hardware architecture and endless debates over the resolution of cross-platform games are sure to remain an active debate. We ask ourselves: is the PS4 measurably more powerful than the Xbox One, and if so, will it make a sales difference? That’s still hard to say. The PS3 was more powerful than the Xbox 360, but I’m not sure how much of a difference that made. I predict hardware capability will continue to be a small tick in favor of the PS4, but not a gamechanger in the mass-market sense.
That leaves us with games. Now more than ever, these machines will live and die by their exclusives. we’ll see new installments in the Halo and Uncharted series this holiday season, with their respective fanbases naturally gravitating to their chosen platform, likely the same one they had last generation. The rest of the exclusive lineup is hard to call without more information — it puts the pressure on both companies to deliver killer performances at E3 to galvanize this all-too important second holiday season. Microsoft had better hope that whatever Kinect-oriented exclusives it had been planning will translate well to a stripped down console. Sony still has the edge with indies — Octodad is a killer app in my book. At this very second, I’d say Xbox One has a slightly better exclusive lineup, but it’s the upcoming holiday season where the real battle will be fought.
Lastly, the Xbox One remains a big VCR-looking thing and the PS4 a sleek little parallelogram. Its a purely aesthetic difference, but with machines this similar, aesthetics are what we’re left with.
There are other differences, some currently evident and others unlikely to manifest for a little while, but that’s where we stand right now. Sony has a massive headstart in terms of sales momentum, and Microsoft is still fighting an uphill battle. It’s just doing it without a $100 weight around its neck.
There’s one card Microsoft could still play that would seriously change the game, and it related back to that tricky HDMI in port. We assume that the company has been trying to get cable companies to subsidize new Xbox Ones alongside cable subscriptions, but we haven’t heard any progress along that front for a very long time. Those programs are well established among smartphones, and a pricing plan like that could allow Microsoft to sell a $200 Xbox One in markets with cooperative cable companies. The fact that we’re hearing about the Kinect-less Xbox now, rather than E3, makes me think that Microsoft might be waiting to play that one at the big show. Of course, E3 is also a traditional time to underwhelm.