Opinion: PS4 and Xbox One's launches are all glitz and no glory
Want queues around the block? Launch a smartphone
It's a feeling that will resonate with any gamer.
You've handed your hard-earned cash over and picked up a shiny new console. You take it home, and unpack it with a level of delicacy more typically reserved for a nuclear warhead. You plug it in. You slip in those first few discs.
And then you spend the next few days desperately trying to convince yourself that it was worth the money.
This week saw the PlayStation 4 take its first steps for Sony in North America. Next week, Microsoft's Xbox One will take a punt at Europe.
It doesn't matter which system you pick up, whether you pre-order, queue up at midnight or spend hours trawling up and down the high street in the vain hope of finding one in stock, the feeling that dominates once you've lugged said prized possession home is always the same.
Convince me that you're worth it. Show me something that one of the machines I've already spent thousands on can't possibly do.
Dispel those deeply buried feelings that I am, in fact, an idiot who has just dropped a stack of cash I can't afford on something that won't prove its worth for months – or possibly years – in the future.
Been there, done that
Of course, while I've been party to such feelings in the past – my Dreamcast was a week one purchase, while my Xbox and Xbox 360 were opening month gambits – I say this as someone who has no intention of picking up either a PS4 or 'Xbone' any time soon.
Yet, there's a definite lesson that both Sony and Microsoft could learn from the mobile market. Or, more specifically, Apple.
There are many commentators who make a pretty penny foretelling Apple's doom.
Yet, while there are undoubtedly many issues surrounding the firm's iPhone business right now – a lack of real growth outside the US and Europe, for instance – there's one thing you can count on every time the Cupertino giant unveils a new iOS device: millions of people the world over will put down a pre-order as soon as as its big reveal has finished.
iPhone 5S's launch was, predictably, rather big
Without spending hours scanning Apple's shipment figures, iPhone remains on an upward trajectory and, while iPad sales appear to have fallen off the pace a touch of late, the firm's tablet is firmly in charge of the market on a device-by-device basis.
Lets put it this way: Apple sold more iPhones in 5S and 5C's opening weekend than Sony or Microsoft will sell next-gen consoles in an entire year.
On one level this rush for new smartphones year after year goes completely against logic.
I'm sure we all know someone who upgrades their phone as often as many of us change our sheets. For some reason, the mobile industry has been able to convince the average consumer that buying a new phone every 12 to 24 months is not just something they should tolerate, but actually embrace.
Consoles, however, appear to be a harder sell, even though the lengthier wait between fresh hardware should, in theory, build anticipation.
Despite their newfound multimedia platform status, consoles rarely get off to a flying start in the way iPhones or iPads do.
While Sony and Microsoft will no doubt release impressive launch night stats illustrating growth over PS3 and Xbox 360's respective debuts – more to do with changes in retail practice than actual demand, I'd say – I'd be willing to suggest that, within 6 or so months, we'll begin to see articles pouring over the reasons why neither system is flying off the shelves.
Both PS4 and Xbox One catch the market at a time when most people are still reluctant to loosen their purse strings.
In particular, PS Vita's abysmal run to date has in part been blamed on the state of the world economy, though that's a harder pill to swallow when compared to the continued growth of the equally expensive mobile and tablet scene.
The bigger problem the machines will have to contend with in the months ahead is the fact that, rather than coming to the table with anything genuinely innovative, both PS4 and Xbox One offer refined versions of the high-definition, multiplayer and multimedia equipped consoles they're looking to supersede.
They also launch just months after two of the most significant games of the last generation – Grand Theft Auto V and The Last of Us – 'raised the bar', making the task of those shit-we-need-to-get-this-game-out launch titles all the harder.
Flying the flag
Indeed, when you look at the launch line-ups of both systems – Killzone: Shadow Fall the flagbearer on PS4, Forza Motorsport 5 and Dead Rising 3 leading the fight for Xbox One – Microsoft's decision to pitch its new machine as a multimedia hub isn't surprising.
It sounds daft, but console's continued reliance on 'killer-apps' to sell units early on must be especially frustrating for executives at Sony and Microsoft.
While a certain amount of momentum is carried over from the previous generation, new consoles essentially reset the score to zero, and it's especially easy to go from the soaring heights of the Wii in one generation to the plunging depths of the Wii U in the next.
PS4's launch highlight - Killzone: Shadow Fall
The fact is, most people – even hardened gamers – won't consider picking up either of the new systems until they think there's a game available that will truly test the hardware behind them.
Microsoft was lucky with its first crack of the whip – Halo was on Xbox from day one and, looking back, is the game that saved the console from an early extinction.
What I expect we'll see this time, however, is something more akin to PS2, where millions of consumers waited for Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty to hit the stands before picking up a machine.
For Xbox One, that moment looks like being Titanfall, coming in the spring. For PS4, DriveClub is looking like the exclusive game most likely to impress.
Should either title suffer a (further) delay, that sluggish start both systems look set to endure could prove to be a rather extended one.
It is, of course, yet more evidence that the console model – hardware refreshes every 5-8 years – is utterly flawed.
It'll be years before either party makes a profit on their respective systems (if ever) and with the technological leap between generations shrinking with each run, convincing consumers that it's worth taking an early risk on a new system looks to be getting more and more difficult.
Will it be worth buying an Xbox One before Titanfall launches?
The days when platforms exist beyond individual units of hardware in our living rooms can't come soon enough in my book, and I hope both Sony and Microsoft take steps to evolve both PS4 and Xbox One into formats that span multiple devices. We'll have to see.
At the moment, these console launches look positively archaic compared to roll out of even moderately popular mobile hardware, with its ability to tap into stores packed full of existing and, most importantly, proven software.
If Sony and Microsoft want to move beyond these traditionally painful console launches - bonanzas that take years to plan and bleed their coffers dry before they actually pay off - they might want to tap up their friends at Apple and Samsung for their top tips.
On this score, mobile's the real next-generation.
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Chris James | 09:37 - 17 November 2013
Whilst I do genuinely believe that these are the last generation of consoles (as we know them anyway - the future of Xbox/Playstation surely has to be a service not yet another box) and I find it hard to find compelling reasons why they'll turnaround a declining market and ever polarising production, I don't think we're at the stage of any absolutes just yet.
What is clear is that we're still going through a period of massive change with several major pivot points all interacting (e.g. premium to free to play, home console/TV to mobile, physical retail vs digital distribution and the growth of Asian markets vs the west) so although there are trend lines emerging, it's a bit early to crown any outright winners. The incredible pace of mobile market evolution muddies the water further - at one and the same time it could be the best and worst of times to enter the market (the ever growing size and smarter marketing and monetisation models are ensuring it's unbelievably great for Supercell, King, et al, but the fierce competition and escalating costs of marketing and production mean it's not so much fun for those on the very long tail of the ecosystem).
To say that mobile can't catch up with the console world's tech, it's revenues (or its increasingly bloated hollywood style production budgets) seems slightly out of kilter with the trendlines. Mobile (and tablet) tech is hurtling along faster than ever and as Kristian Segerstrale highighted during the recent PG hosted Global Game Stars Track at GMIC, we've probably already seen the first billion dollar mobile game (take your pick from Clash of Clans, CandyCrush and Puzzles and Dragons) and costs are already north of $1M and rising very fast (albeit spent on service maintenance and evolution, ever smarter analytics and marketing rather than visual opulence).
Ultimately though, I think there's a problem in the framing of the issue if we're seeing it purely as mobile vs console or mobile 'catching up' with console.
Both platforms have their own strengths and weaknesses, consoles have plenty of graphical grunt to be sure, but they are aeons behind mobile in terms of connectivity and addressable market size.
There's a wider issue also about what 'games' are or should be - the 'film quality' cinematic experience that the console industry has been so ardently striving for is just one end of a very broad spectrum that appeals to a particular niche of the market, who's to judge COD or GTA is fundamentally a better 'game' than Candy Crush, Fruit Ninja or Angry Birds. Simplicity and accessibility hasn't previously equated with lower quality - e.g. Mario and Minecraft don't necessitate a PS4 processor and are relatively well thought for instance and the popularity of the latter suggests that the next wave of youthful players aren't perhaps as obsessed with visual opulence.
Naturally I'm going to fight the side of mobile (I won't be buying either console before Xmas if at all), but the games industry has always been a broad church and my main hope is that it remains to be so and continues to support creativity and provide us all with entertainment (and employment) for years to come.
Keith Andrew | 15:15 - 16 November 2013
That's the whole point Robert - there's no backwards compatibility, and that's not the answer. Platforms that evolve rather than take great leaps every 8 years - games running in the cloud rather than natively - is surely the answer. Not livng room consigned hardware that's dated 6 months after launch.
Robert Cummings | 14:24 - 16 November 2013
It is, of course, yet more evidence that the console model – hardware refreshes every 5-8 years – is utterly flawed."
Not quite, not until the mobile market changes along with mobile hw:
1. Consoles have film quality game experiences costing on average 50 million to produce. Players invest here by spending a lot of money on games expecting a cinematic experience that mobile will not be able to touch.
Certainly, they don't want their library of 50 dollar games obliterated every year. Backward compatibility becomes easier now console hardware is standardised, so next gen after this next gen will be compatible.
2. A Phone is usually backward compatible and apps are free or cost a dollar. This low price means (take it from a console and ex mobile developer) nobody is going to invest large amounts of cash into mobile phones until they reach console quality. I don't know if you've checked recently, but the 5S is almost xbox 360 quality. Just when it caught up, a new generation of consoles were launched, setting the bar too high to reach.
Devs had this very discussion about what you're talking about over 5 years ago and we came to the conclusion that console still matters... for now. We talk about this stuff all the time because that is our livelihood.
I believe that this generation is totally worth it. The next? it remains to be seen how things will evolve. Until new tech appears which solves batter and heat issues on a micro scale, mobiles won't ever catch consoles before their 8 ish year lifespan is up.
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