Playing Catch Up: How Microsoft Are Turning It Around

It’s E3 2013. Sony are killing it at their press conference. It seems like every announcement trounces that of Microsoft’s much maligned plans for their Xbox One. The PS4 doesn’t require an always on internet connection, the PS4 won’t stop you trading your games or playing used ones. The PS4 doesn’t require the use of a camera system, and, perhaps crucially, the PS4 is considerably cheaper than its rival. It’s no surprise that immediately following E3 the pre-orders for Sony’s new console outpaced those for the Xbox One, and continued to do so until both systems launched five months later.

In fact, the PS4 continued to outsell its rival throughout 2014 month-on-month, until in November, Xbox One finally pulled ahead for that month’s sales. After months of successes it was perhaps the briefest glimmer of a chink in Sony’s impervious armour, and though some might scorn Microsoft’s huge policy U-turns, they’re clearly starting to have some kind of effect.

Jump to present day and those advantages that Sony has had are slowly beginning to fade. Let’s get this straight – they’re still comprehensively outselling the competition with 18.5 million PS4s sold through to customers compared to, prior to Christmas, 10 million shipped Xbox Ones, but Microsoft’s sales are improving, and frankly from Sony’s point of view it shouldn’t have allowed them any such opportunity.

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The major contributor to the improvement of the Xbox One’s sales has been Microsoft’s consistent and increasingly inclusive strategy. Admittedly they had all of the hard work to do, after announcing the Xbox One with a set of ‘features’ that were so far removed from what the market actually wanted that it nearly stalled any interest in the console whatsoever. Since then though, Microsoft have listened to their customers, and paid attention to their competitors, whilst steadily updating the Xbox One’s firmware with features that the community has requested.

The removal and reduction of Kinect functionality, and the subsequent price cut that that allowed were game-changing decisions, and ones that can’t have been made lightly by Phil Spencer and his team. I still find that Kinect, and its voice commands in particular, works surprisingly well, though I generally only use it to turn the machine on and control media content. I originally considered it the Xbox One’s defining strength, though that view has diminished the longer I’ve spent with the console. Arguably the £70 difference between the Xbox One and the PS4 at launch did not offer an equivalent value to gamers, and the price cut following it’s removal finally put it on level pegging price-wise with the PS4 and gave the console a much needed sales boost.

The extra processing power that was freed up by removing Kinect from the experience was also welcomed by developers, who were immediately able to improve the performance of their games. Key titles such as Destiny ran at the same frame rate and resolution on Xbox One as they did on PS4, with minor differences in graphical effects. After months of news stories in 2014 where the lack of parity was an issue and painted the Xbox One as the poorer cousin, Microsoft finally managed to find a way to reduce such issues, though the likelihood is that they’ll never completely eradicate them given the strength of the PS4’s memory. We shouldn’t underestimate though the importance that fewer negative comparison news pieces in 2015 will have on the Xbox One’s fortunes.

Most months Xbox One owners now see an update to their console’s firmware, recently adding features such as custom backdrops, DLNA support and media playback, along with improvements to the various apps that underpin the Xbox One OS. Some of those changes were already available on the PS4, or, especially in the case of media playback, are hopefully coming to the console this year, but Microsoft has got a lot better at communicating their improvements to consumers while Sony often seems reticent to communicate on a regular basis with its customers.

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Meaningful exclusives are always going to be integral to any console’s success, though it only takes a look at the Wii U’s stellar output last year to see that it’s not always the whole story. Microsoft delivered some strong exclusives for the 2014 holiday season in the shape of Forza Horizon 2, Sunset Overdrive and the Master Chief Collection, and though the latter was plagued by matchmaking problems it was arguably a stronger Christmas line-up than Sony’s troubled Driveclub and LittleBigPlanet 3.

2015 will be an interesting year, as new IP on both sides of the fence such as Bloodbourne and Quantum Break will join heavy hitters like Uncharted 4 and Halo 5: Guardians. Whilst it’s clearly far too early to judge the quality of any of these titles, Microsoft are rolling out a number of games from exclusive franchises this year; Halo, Fable and Crackdown will be compelling arguments to a large proportion of 360 owners who have yet to upgrade.

Perhaps the most telling of Microsoft’s moves this year was the purchase of Mojang and thus the rights to the gaming behemoth Minecraft. The game, which has shifted nearly 60 million copies across a multitude of formats, is quite simply a social phenomenon. While it could be commercially restrictive to limit future editions to Microsoft platforms, it wouldn’t be surprising in the least to see them at the very least offer exclusive content that make PC and Xbox the definitive place to experience the game which would be a huge boon. We’ll just have to wait to see whether they get their money’s worth from their $2.5 billion investment.

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Within Microsoft’s ongoing strategy it would be foolish to underestimate the importance of the Xbox Live service too. Tellingly, as server loads increase, this could be the crucial strength that Microsoft wield against Sony. Xbox Live has been a paid-for service for years, and it shows. Whilst it didn’t escape the same hacker attacks that brought the PSN down over Christmas, Microsoft’s service was back up quicker, and stayed up for the remainder of the festive period.

When the service was free, the state of the PSN was simply something you had to live with. Now however, as a paid for service that boasts nearly eleven million subscribers, it can be catastrophically weak. Sony need to invest the money they’re making into improving servers, network code and security before suffering any more high-profile problems. Each failure to improve plays into Microsoft’s favour, and with the American company seemingly willing to engage directly with it’s customers it wouldn’t be surprising to see them market themselves in 2015 as the console manufacturer with the most robust network for gaming.

Despite Sony’s commanding lead, Microsoft and its Xbox One have every opportunity to turn it around. Glimmers of improvement have already been seen and if they continue to focus on their strengths, listen to their customers and capitalise on their competitor’s failings the next year of this console generation could be very interesting indeed. Either way, healthy competition breeds success, and it can only be good for consumers if Sony are pushed to innovate and excel in this round of the console war – as they have before with features such as Remote Play and Share Play – rather than resting on their laurels following the success of their opening salvo.

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75 Comments

  1. I know it gets a lot of stick, but I’m really loving the Xbox. It’s the exclusives towards the end of the year that really grabbed me – especially Forza. That UI is a mess though, and is nowhere near as user friendly as the PS4.

    • It is a mess – though spending more time with it has alleviated some of those problems, and again Kinect helps when you’re looking for something. The store is rubbish though – that’s something they definitely need to improve!

    • I find the PS4 UI to be the worst this generation. :-/

      Say you’re looking for a specific game (as one do), you first browse through the horisontal lineup of last-used applications a couple times as it loads a bit too slow to make sense (even on a faster hybrid-drive). No luck, so your forced to bravely ford through the “Library” filled with uninstalled games, demos and old betas.

      I much prefer the Xbox’s customisable grid-based layout with a separate tab for uninstalled titles. The integration of the store on the front is annoying though.

      • Yeah, I`m not a big fan, and is it just me or is it not that smooth. Same kind of rubbish performance as on the newer store on the PS3…..

      • I find the PS4 UI fantastic overall, but I agree that it would be great to have an ‘archive’ within the Library that you can store old unwanted game links – for example it bugs me that I have an icon for the Thief Demo next to the icon for the full game but there is no way to hide the Demo which I’m never going to need again. I think this will come sooner or later though as people get more content. An option to ‘pin’ your favourite games to the top of the library would be good too or have folders like the PS3.

        Doesn’t the PS4 offer similar voice control to find your games though? Can’t say I’ve used it much but when I was playing around with it it seemed very responsive and similar to the type of commands you can do with Kinect on the Xbox One, although I’ve had not first hand experience with voice commands on Xbox One…

      • @lambchop I think that must be you – my personal experience is the UI and transition to the Store etc is as smooth as butter. I hated the PS3 store when it was redesigned as it for infuriatingly slow and clunky to the point that I actually stopped using it and always accessed the store online via my phone. By contrast I find the PS4 menus and transitions into the store and apps like Music Unlimited quick and silky smooth. My only niggle as mentioned is the lack of hide/archive function in the Library…

      • As an owner of the PS4 camera I can attest that the voice commands work well if you’re alone in the room. They keep failing when I want to show it off… :-(

        The store is fine on my system as well, it’s the main menu that’s slow at loading images when scrolling quickly.

    • I quite like the UI, pinning makes it simple to access anything. Though I did like the PS3 UI and that wasn’t too popular either.

    • Whilst Microsoft spent last year removing functionality and making it cheaper, Sony spent last year ADDING features.

      SharePlay on PS4 totally destroys anything Microsoft has to offer. PS4 was a far more functional unit at launch and didn’t need to play a huge game of catchup It’s also rather misleading to say “Xbox One finally pulled ahead for that month’s sales.”, when the truth is in North America, for a select 2 weeks of that month, it sold more, down to a bundle.

      It’s also rather misleading to pretend the huge performance gap has been closed, and using a single game as proof (and ignoring the continued stream of games that still show the PS4 as having a huge performance advantage).

      Sorry, but this article seems like a paid advertisement, Microsoft haven’t turned anything around. Being outsold at retail 4:1 in Europe and 2:1 in the US isn’t turning anything around at all.

      • You also got your PSN subscriber count about by a factor of 10x. PSN has 110m subscribers (double that of Xbox Live).

        it’s also rather misleading to pretend Xbox Live is any more reliable too. They both were affected by DDOS attacks (which no amount of infrastructure investment can prevent). The micro-reporting of PSN problems and ignoring Xbox Live problems creates a perception there is a significant difference. But do check out platform uptime monitoring sites and you will see there is virtually no differences. Some weeks PSN is better, some weeks Xbox Live is better. Some weeks both are broken, some weeks both are fine.

        In short, this article has far to many fanboy undertones, lies, misinformation, it’s a shambles. Thankfully, gamers are smart enough to spot this, and as a result, PS4 continues to destroy Microsoft shipped figures.

        Funny how times have changed. It only seems like yesterday, Microsoft were bragging pretty much every week about how many Xbox360’s they had sold, how the PS3 was going to sink without a trace, and so forth. Now you can’t get a straight answer out of them about how many have been sold to consumers.

        What goes around, comes around Microsoft…

  2. It hasn’t been the most graceful of starts for Microsoft, but I do think the X1 is the better system overall and, currently, has much better first party content.

    • to be fair you would say that your a xbox fan.

      • To be fair, I usually prefer Sony’s first party content over Microsoft’s. I’d sooner play a new God of War or Uncharted than I would a new Halo or Fable game. I just think, so far, games like Dead Rising 3, Ryse, Forza Horizon 2 and even Dance Central have been more enjoyable than DriveClub, LBP and Infamous.

      • To say someone’s opinion doesn’t count because they prefer something would pretty much invalidate 99% of comments on the internet.

      • never said it did not count just predictable like yours when it comes to xbox.

      • As are yours!

      • I’m not an Xbox fan but there’s definitely an air of coherency that Sony is lacking right now. Sony got off to the most wonderful start and that momentum will see them through for a good year or two to come – even if things completely bomb now. However, Microsoft are doing their damnedest to improve the general feeling and vibe of what it is to own an Xbox and it’s something I want to see from Sony too. Open communication, regular (monthly) updates to OS features, etc.

        With Sony, it had ALWAYS felt a little more ramshackle when it comes to looking after the support side of things and that’s something I’d dearly like to see change. It won’t take the world to shift it into a slightly more positive light either but it’s definitely something many of us can see as the years roll by with any given PlayStation.

      • @bunimomike

        Come on, everyone was complaining at Sony for frequent OS updates last generation, now everyone complains when they don’t do them?

        What’s it to be? Have some consistency…

      • I’m giving my opinion. I was fine with frequent updates. Im being genuinely consistent. :-/

  3. I hate the XBox with a passion, hate the OS the UI and the controller but these are just my preferences…but I agree 100% with this article…MS are getting it right…Sony are letting us down.

    • The same here. How difficult can it be for Sony to make a firmware update now and them? Listen the customer base and act as MS is doing.

  4. Xbox’s new management has done wonders, and I wish them luck moving forward. Hopefully we’ll continue to see them put games first.

  5. I think it’s a bit soon for this.

    Firstly the XB1 outsold the PS4 in Nov … In the Uk and Us only. PS4 still got more global sales. So define a win. Are we back to “global don’t matter”? AND they still trail in overall sales in both those areas.
    Secondly there is (currently) a complete dearth of exclusives for the XB1 in the first half of 2015, while Sony has a number of them. Is it better to horde all your exclusives until the holiday season? What did the XB1 offer last year between Titanfall and FH2?
    Finally, while the PS4 had bundles, the bundles for the XB1 were absolutely obscene over the holiday period. Not only was there a price drop (in the us) but multiple free games and up to $50 store credit. With the retail price of the free stuff you were almost getting the console for nothing. That’s all ended now.

    Winning 1 (maybe 2) of 12 months in 2 territories (and still going down 12 for 12 globally) and even then only after obscene bundles and a price cut does not = Sony failing to capitalise.
    Not taking anything away from the XB1, it is a capable console and it’s improving. But let’s talk about this “comeback” in 6 months and then a year. Because IMO it’s WAY too soon.

    • You’re placed way too much emphasis on sales. This article is about the features and games available now, not later. I’d rather have a less selling console with more big games than a big selling one with less games.

      • MS wont catch up I would say there probably 6 million at least behind now. there are way more games available on PS4 I think about 40 odd plus PS4 has exclusive games coming feb & march.

      • PS4 has more overall if you count indies but I’m more interested in AAA games which Xboxone has more of. Apples & oranges of course.

      • it might have a AAA game you prefer but it doesn’t have more.

      • Oh it does Skibadee that’s just a fact.

      • Eh, what? I’ve placed way too much emphasis on sales? Did you actually READ the article? The entire piece is about how what MS is doing is closing the sales gap.
        Paragraph1
        “It’s no surprise that immediately following E3 the pre-orders for Sony’s new console outpaced those for the Xbox One, and continued to do so until both systems launched five months later.”
        Paragraph2
        “In fact, the PS4 continued to outsell its rival throughout 2014 month-on-month, until in November, Xbox One finally pulled ahead for that month’s sales. After months of successes it was perhaps the briefest glimmer of a chink in Sony’s impervious armour, and though some might scorn Microsoft’s huge policy U-turns, they’re clearly starting to have some kind of effect”
        Closing paragraph
        “Despite Sony’s commanding lead, Microsoft and its Xbox One have every opportunity to turn it around.”

        I answered in context of the article which was centered entirely around the sales differential and what’s happening to close it. Funny that, replying about the article instead of moving the goalposts. But to play you at your game:
        I take it you’re getting a PS4 then, as it’s clearly the console you’d rather have for 2015. The X1 has an absolute drought of AAA exclusives for the first 3/4 of the year. And as multiplats are on both consoles, clearly you believe the PS4 is the way to go this year. Well you must be, based on your comment of “I’d rather have a less selling console with more big games than a big selling one with less games”. With the PS4 having more big games for the majority of 2015, that MUST be the console you’d rather have, right, based on your own words? Or are the goalposts about to move?

        And skibadee just beat me to the punch but bonus question, which is higher, 88 or 82? Or does the comment “it might have a AAA game you prefer” that you tried to dismiss 2 posts up suddenly become relevant now?
        Oh look, there goes those darn goalposts again, I wish they’d just stay still for once!

      • Thanks for the link Skibadee. yes it shows xbox has 6 full exclusives vs 4 on PS4.

      • keep digging that hole Starman.

  6. I think Phil Spencer deserves a lot of credit for how quickly he made big changes like dropping kinect to get the prices the same. The undecided buyer would never pick the more expensive system when the difference could be another game or two.

    I think with the monthly feature updates, better exclusives and listening to fans they’ve doing everything right to turn it around.

    • Very correct. Just imagine a parent, looking for a console and some games for his kids. For the price of the Kinect he would easily fit 2-3 games in there with the PS4. It was a smart decision by MS.

  7. As a PS4 owner I’m hoping for month on month better sales for XB1, outselling the PS4. This is the only way Sony will listen to customers, improve network stability, deliver on requested / missing features and generally improve the experience for PS4 owners. Sony’s bottom line needs to be hit for them to listen.

  8. I think we need a similar article next week but replace Microsoft with Evolution and Xbox with DriveClub and you have a similar well deserved story ;)

  9. My xb1 is still only used for exclusives for me. All multiplatform games are and will always be better on PS4. It’s simply a lot more powerful. Even this performance boost on xb1 isn’t enough to close the gap.

    The PS4 is still the go to console for gamers.

    • Its interesting the PS4 is your go-to for third party games. A lot of games seem to play better on X1 in my opinion because they opt for a solid 30fps frame rate instead of on PS4, where they push for 60 but it fluctuates all over the place (Thief, Tomb Raider, Sleeping Dogs, etc).

      • Most xbox one games aren’t 1080p. While nearly all PS4 games are 1080p. The xbox one versions usually miss visual effects too.

        Every game released has been better on PS4.

      • Digital foundry did an article on this and one game was better on xbone. Something like 6 were better on ps4 and the rest were pretty much the same.

  10. It’s quite telling that up until around October last year, all my gaming friends were swooning over the PS4 on Facebook and turning their backs on their beloved Xbox 360’s, then as the PSNs weaknesses were highlighted over Xmas I’m seeing more and more posts from people looking to swap their PS4 for an XO or sell the PS4 just to raise the cash for an XO.

    I don’t think its so much that the XO is getting better, they’ve still straddled themselves with a weaker, less powerful machine overall, but moreso Sony have become dreadfully complacent in their early success. If Sony had the management talent that MS have been displaying of late there’d be no stopping them.

    They REALLY need to start investing in their infrastructure and start making good on the pre-release promises with certain headline features still missing over 12 months later!

    • funny because both networks were taken down.

      • Of course, I’m not denying that. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a Playstation fan through and through :-)

        But this isn’t the first time Sony have suffered like this and MS demonstrated their capability to get everything up and running again within 24hrs. It took Sony the best part of 3 days.

        Whilst there’s definitely been an influx of people “switching sides”, at least from what I’ve seen, I don’t think it’s helped by the massive amount of publicity PSNs downtime received as opposed to the passing mention of Xbox Live being down.

        The fickle see it as a sign of weakness and jump ship. The well informed among us know better and ride it out.

        “You can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf”

      • True but Sony’s was down over Christmas for much longer. Plus, lets not forget the PSN usually falls over whenever a new AAA game launches. Plus, “routine maintenance” :-/ PSN has a long way to go to catch up with XBL

      • Sony did the right thing they stopped it continuing MS threw more servers on. every time a new AAA game launches if you say so. I think PSN down all the time is far fetched.

      • How was the right thing switching it off? And rectifying it within hours the wrong thing? Please elaborate because I’m looking forward to your reasoning.

      • when the guys who are doing the attack said Sony did the right thing switching there network of kind of says it all really.

      • You’re giving them credit now?! Ha ha. Ok.

      • To be fair, I think if they couldn’t resolve the issue then the best course of action had to be to switch it off. If they didn’t have that extra capacity available they absolutely did the right thing.

        My bug bear is that with the extra income from PS+, Sony should be investing in more server capacity for this exact reason, but for whatever reason they just don’t seem to be investing in the infrastructure. What’s a half tidy server these days? A couple of grand? For a massive organisation providing a paid-for service there’s no excuse…

      • Exactly Lyts. Sony are happy to bang on about sales but don’t seem interested in reinvesting it in the network as they originally pledged the money from plus would go. What’s odd is some defend this lack of investment. Ideal for sony I guess.

      • I love my PS4, I truly do. However, the PSN continues to be like the digital equivalent of Network Rail. :-(

      • Same here bunimo. I love the PS4, I just wish they’d put as much money and effort into the PSN :-( it’s beginning to feel like they’re just happy to flog as many consoles as they can and see what happens…

        There’s just no defending it Starman. As I’ve said before, I have absolutely no doubt the PS4 is the best console this generation (sorry ;-) ) but the PSN truly lets the whole package down. I would be VERY interested to know what exactly they’ve spending the PS+ income on…

      • Lets not forget about the under-reported issues XB1 has suffered since the hack… Broken achievements being one issue that affected myself and many others in the new year. And recently the removal of Far Cry 4 from XBL which prevented people from playing a game they had paid for. I’m not aware of any issues on the PS4. Maybe Sony was right to switch it off.

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