25 years ago, before the number of dimensions available to developers went up to three, gamers like me spent much of our time arguing over which computer was the best: the mighty ZX Spectrum or the blocky, ugly Commodore 64. Thankfully, we were about 6 or 7 years old, so the very notion of fighting in the playgrounds over something we had next to no control over didn’t seem so strange. Sure, Sir Clive Sinclair didn’t care about little old me individually, but word of mouth soon spreads and if I could convince just one other kid to buy a Speccy rather than a C64, then that’d be another notch in the balance books at Sinclair HQ.
Fast forward a quarter of a century, and it seems little has changed. With the advent of the internet and the newfound ability to fight the fanboy wars from behind the relative anonymity of a keyboard, the battle lines are a little more blurred. Publishers, developers and the console manufacturers can now see at a glance who’s talking about what and see precisely what the thoughts of the assembled masses really are just by registering a forum identity; and yes, we know that certain publishers like to ‘get involved’ with these forum chats pretending to just be a ‘fan’ of the game, but that’s for another post and another day.
In this feature we’re going to leave all the fanboyism at the door. Despite the fact that this is a PS3 website I do take some pride in knowing that we don’t pander to Sony and certainly don’t pretend Microsoft don’t exist: I personally keep both consoles (and a Wii) at the side of the television and of late it’s the 360 that has seen the most playtime, my recent acquisition of PlayTV notwithstanding. Why? Perhaps it’s just a case of catching up with all the Xbox games I’ve missed whilst hammering the hell out of the PS3 for the last 12 months, catching up with Gears or getting involved with the whole Community Games angle, or perhaps it’s just nice to have the option to play all the games released.
But such whimsical fence-sitting doesn’t help with this article, which is intended to do just one thing: decide the victor of 2009. Yes, there’s going to be an awful lot of educated guesswork here, because naturally we don’t know everything that the major players have planned for us this year, but we know one thing for sure: not a great deal will change from 2008. Sony will still promise the earth, extend the firmware to new realms and delay key titles beyond belief, and Microsoft will do pretty much the same – it’s the way things are in the world of consoles just now: get the kids in the playgrounds talking, get the parents buying and the rest will take care of itself.
And what gets people spending more than price? In this cash-strapped economy (thanks, America) we’re currently sinking in, the initial price ticket is the one that shouts the loudest. Sure, you can do little spreadsheets to prove that ultimately, pound for pound, the PS3 provides the better value but on the shelves, when Mum is glancing over which console to buy, it’s the one that costs £129 that’ll shift more than the one that sells £300. Personally, I bought a launch 60GB PS3 for £425. £425 I didn’t really have, and had to save up for a few months, sell pretty much everything I owned and trade-in almost every game I’d ever bought last generation, and I ran a PS2 site so had quite a few.
If the PS3 still cost £425 this article (and this website) probably wouldn’t exist. The arrogance that Sony showed when pricing the PlayStation 3 over here still beggars belief, and the whole notion that people will pay that “even if it had no games” still makes me cringe. Whether or not the ridiculous price had any effect on sales for the first two years we’re not concerned with – the PS3 now costs a penny under £300, so that’s what we’re working with. On the flip side, you can get an Xbox Arcade for £129, less than half the price and although it doesn’t come with a hard drive, it is an Xbox 360 and with that £129 purchase you can play 99% of all the 360’s games.
So, that’s the issue here. Does Sony need to offer a cut-down PS3, sans wi-fi and Blu-ray player, to compete? Sony, and in particular SCEE, have always stuck with the rule that bundles are the way forward, and continue to offer almost the same hardware and just throw in more and more accessories and games to extend the value of the purchase. To an extend this works, if you’re clued-up on what the PS3 offers then £300 with wi-fi (which costs £50 on the 360) and a HD-movie player (which we’ll come back to) is a fantastic deal, but recent anecdotal experience over Christmas suggests otherwise: people don’t understand, at all. And why would they – what have SCEE done to promote the features of the PS3 on television? Who’s seen an advert that says the PS3 plays the future of HD movies, has free internet gaming and works with whatever network you already have, out of the box? Nobody, so they expect the GAME sales staff to relay this information to the customer instead? Really?
Let’s face it, some gamers won’t even know that the bundled AV cables don’t offer the best picture; some gamers won’t have access to a HDTV and some won’t even have access to the web. These are the gamers for which price is the main factor, assuming they can play GTA IV and FIFA, and thus the low entry price of the Xbox 360 can only result in lots of sales for Microsoft, and the opposite for Sony. Round one, then, goes to the Xbox.
Much has been made recently of the New Xbox Experience. Compared to the old ‘blade’ interface it’s a huge step forward, one away from pushing the 360 as a games console and moving towards a future-proof, expandable media hub. Sure, it’s not immediately obvious how to find your way around and 75% of the menu options end up trying to get you to spend money, but the consistent look and feel as you drill down the menus works a treat, and the box-arts for everything are really neat. It’s just fast, slick and very un-Microsoft, but it isn’t going to sell consoles or decide the ‘winner’ this year, because at its core it’s just another way of navigating the menus, much like Sony’s equally (but rather more muted) XMB.
No, the reason the 360’s interface keeps gamers coming back is the way that everything on the console is superbly linked and cross-referenced. From anywhere, in any game, a simple tap of the Guide button brings up a cool sub-set of the NXE from where you can manage friends, messages and check things like Achievements, which we’ll come back to. Yes, the in-game XMB does a similar thing, but in comparison the decision to present the user with the entire XMB menu wasn’t the best idea – try showing the feature to a non-gamer, or someone unfamiliar with the structure of the XMB and even the option to quit the game requires a bit of searching around. Couple this with the somewhat clunky Trophy implementation and it’s clear that the Xbox 360’s interface is leaps and bounds ahead of the PS3s.
But, again, how does this translate into winning a console war? Well, when forced to choose between two otherwise identical versions of a new game, which do you go for: the one with Achievements guaranteed and the ability to easily invite friends at a consistent console-level or the one where you might get Trophies and you might be able to work out how to invite your buddies assuming the developers have a) coded the feature in and b) not made it almost impossible to figure it out. I’ll not mention any specific games, but you know who you are. And then we come to the one of the biggest issues I have: the title updates. If a PS3 game requires a patch, it’s usually at least 25 MB and you’re at the mercy of the PS3’s wifi as it slowly crawls across the internet to your console. The equivalent 360 update? Grabbed in seconds, literally. If you don’t think this is an issue, try unboxing a brand new PS3 on Christmas day and playing LittleBigPlanet – if it’s not the massive firmware update it’s at least one title update – we’ve heard stories of new PS3 owners having to wait an hour after first putting in the disk before playing.
These things, like everything else, spread by word of mouth. Sony needs to sort out its firmware and game update patching regulations, enforce mandatory Trophies and take a good hard look at what makes the 360’s interface so damned user friendly, and that’s without mentioning full game installs, a feature that really does silence the critics. Round two? Yep, you guessed it, 2:0.
HD-DVD is dead, thankfully. With a dual-format high definition movie war the only losers were the consumers themselves, having to either edge their bets or stay clear until somebody kicked the bucket. Clearly, Sony’s decision to include the Blu-ray player as standard will have repercussions throughout the rest of the year: the Blu-ray sections in major stores are only getting bigger, the prices are slowly starting to come down and in terms of functionality and performance the PS3 offers outstanding playback of the new format. This, out of all the things in this particular feature, stands out as being a major contributing factor to the recent sales of the PS3, yet Sony are still reluctant to advertise the fact to the masses.
With HDTV penetration on the rise (and we’ll bet there’s been a massive spike after Christmas) it’s the non-gamers that Sony should now be looking towards: push the fact that the PS3 plays this new movie format and no other console does and those sat on the fence might bite. At £300 for a Blu-ray player alone the new PlayStation is a steal, yet as a games machine alone it looks overpriced. Of course, those of us already sporting the shiny black console under our TV know all this, but you can bet your bottom dollar that Joe Average has no idea, and unless he’s blind will not only see the benefits of buying a PS3, but also will then go on to purchase the HD movies in the future.
And if you’re in the US you can also watch movies on your PS3, although it’s clearly not as developed as the 360’s Netflix option. Why we don’t have a similar function here in Europe is presumably down to licensing issues and the notion that Sony Europe need an additional six months of time to get anything done, but we will see the option soon. Microsoft is adamant that Digital Downloads are the way to go, but call me old fashioned: I’d rather have the boxed version on my shelf as part of my movie collection, thank you very much. There’s no question here, if you’re looking for a reason for the PS3 to win in 2009, the ability to play Blu-ray movies must come into play. Round three: PS3.
And, finally, we arrive at the thing that gamers want the most: games, and it’s probably one of the toughest areas to cover because whilst the above is reasonably objective discussion, games by their very nature are subjective and usually encompass much of the fanboy debate as console exclusives are used as the main weapon in the my-console-is-better-than-yours war: Is Left4Dead better than Uncharted 2? Is Forza 2 a better racer than Gran Turismo 5 Prologue? And then we have the utterly ridiculous cross-console comparison features, normally started by some bored forum member and pushed to the masses by the otherwise readable Eurogamer. Does it matter if the PS3 version of GTA has less pixels than the Xbox 360 version? Does Devil May Cry’s slightly-quicker-on-PS3 load times really push that version of the game?
Probably not. However, the recent trend of buying exclusive content almost certainly does. Microsoft’s initial gamble with Grand Theft Auto IV’s downloadable content (DLC) for a reputed $50M meant that if you wanted the definitive version of Rockstar’s latest you bought the 360 version over the PS3 version, and if you didn’t have a console and were waiting for GTA, then you’d buy a 360 to play it on. Naturally, getting hard evidence to support these notions isn’t easy, but in the content of such a feature it’s not unreasonable to assume that such decisions were made by gamers new to this generation of consoles. Sadly, we’re still to see the release of the GTA DLC, although we’re assured it’s on its way, but such pauses have long term consequences as the recent exclusive DLC for Tomb Raider Underworld don’t seem to have had much effect on sales of the game, with the initial batch of PS3 versions outing the rival 360 version.
Games do sell consoles, though, and in the war of 2009 it’ll be the exclusive games that finally decide the victor, at least in our idealistic but probably ridiculously naive world. Who had the best games in 2008 isn’t relevant here, both consoles had some absolute stormers, but looking ahead to the rest of this year is entirely relevant and we’re still ignorant about anything that Sony and Microsoft are holding back from the public eye until E3 or some other game show in the coming months. What we do know, though, is that Sony will absolutely own the first quarter of 2009. Why? Well, think Killzone 2 mainly, the first person shooter that has been at the forefront of PlayStation gamers since that movie back at E3 2005. Yes, it’s been quite a while, but the recent beta and playtests of those fortunate to have spent time with the game have been almost entirely positive, and in terms of system-sellers Killzone 2 is as big as they come.
And then the rest of the AAA titles start to roll in. In 2009, the PS3 will exclusively play host to Uncharted 2, Final Fantasy Versus XIII, inFamous, God of War 3 and Heavy Rain, and hopefully something from Polyphony Digital to test our force-feedback steering wheels. Each and every one of the above has been hyped beyond normal rational levels, with the mere mention of any of them enough to hopefully get gamers not yet on the PS3 wagon well and truly ready to splash the cash. Of course, Microsoft isn’t going to roll over and just let the PS3 walk away with all the bragging rights in terms of software: the 360 will exclusively feature Alan Wake, a follow up to Mass Effect and a new Halo title, but in my humble opinion none of these hold the same weight and we can’t see them actually selling machines.
So we’re calling this 2:2. The Xbox’s interface and pricing may make the 360 an initially attractive purchase, and one that sits happily underneath the television in TSA Towers, but long term, and where it really matters, the games, the PS3 starts to shine through and although this has been said for the last two years, 2009 really is the year of the PS3. It has to be: gaming has always been where the PlayStation brand has excelled, and it’s clear that the developers are really starting to get to grips with the architecture of the machine and that the publishers are getting behind it more than ever before. We look forward to seeing what happens in 2009, then, and as always welcome your comments on this topic.