Now that Microsoft and Sony have unveiled their respective next-generation gaming consoles, the two companies have cheerfully resorted to firing broadsides at each other.
So far, Sony seems to be the winner, at least in the arena of public opinion. Its executives have spent the past several days hammering home two points: that the upcoming PlayStation 4 can play used games, and that the console doesn’t need to regularly “check in” with Sony via a Web connection. Those are targeted digs at Microsoft’s Xbox One, which required a Web connection every 24 hours and threatened to put restrictions on the playability of used games.
“Required” is definitely past tense in that previous sentence: faced with mounting criticisms, Microsoft has reversed course on both policies. “An Internet connection will not be required to play offline Xbox One games,” Don Mattrick, president of Microsoft’s Interactive Entertainment Business, wrote in a June 19 corporate blog posting. In addition, Xbox One owners will have the ability to “trade-in, lend, resell, gift, and rent disc-based games just like you do today.”
(There’s quite a bit of irony in Mattrick delivering that statement: only days before, he had told an interviewer that anyone with zero access to the Internet would need to buy an Xbox 360.)
Whether the current brouhaha has any effect on sales of the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4 (if hardcore gamers keep complaining, they may even convince Microsoft to knock $100 off the new Xbox and bring its pricing down to the PS4’s level), it’s also drowning out what many perceive as the real issue: gaming consoles face an existential threat from mobile devices, most notably those running Apple’s iOS and Google Android.
Apple clearly wants a piece of the gaming market. Earlier in June, it released instructions for developing and designing game controllers compatible with iOS 7. “The documentation calls for two different types of controllers,” Gizmodo wrote in a June 13 posting. “The first is a formfitting gamepad that connects directly to an Apple product, say an iPhone, leaving the screen visible. The second ‘extended’ gamepad connects wirelessly to a device, say [a] MacBook, and lets you control what’s on the screen.” In theory, such a controller could also pair with an Apple TV to create an outright game console.
Controllers aside, tablets and smartphones have grown into a popular platform for casual gamers, the kind who spend a dollar to download a Temple Run clone and play it for five minutes while waiting for the subway to arrive. More complex and graphically intensive games are also beginning to migrate to iOS: X-Com, a sprawling alien-invasion game previously available on PCs and consoles, is slated to appear on Apple mobile devices.
If that wasn’t bad enough for companies pushing dedicated gaming machines, there are signs that the hardcore gamer market is soft: console sales in the United States dropped 21 percent in 2012, and sales of new video-game cartridges haven’t fared much better.
That weakness in the video-game market may have driven Microsoft to market the Xbox One as more of a living-room entertainment system than gaming hardware. At the E3 conference in May, Microsoft executives pumped console features such as a Skype app and a dashboard for selecting movies and television shows; they rarely, if ever, used the term “gaming console.”
When it came time for Sony to unveil the PlayStation 4, it took the opposite tack, focusing on the platform’s gaming elements—and drawing the aforementioned comparisons with the Xbox One.
But all those maneuverings may be for naught if both Microsoft and Sony end up steamrolled by Apple and Google, and the latter’s legions of casual gamers. If more console-and-PC games like XCom begin appearing on Android and iOS, it could tip the balance even further away from the gaming-console companies.