At least Star Trek had the decency to have only one ‘next generation.’ The first episode aired in 1987, about a year before the release of Sega’s Mega Drive. The Mega Drive was arguably the first ‘next generation’ games console, succeeding the Master System. Of course, there were Atari’s efforts from the 70s, but as that all went horribly wrong (with landfills full of ET cartridges) there was no continuity from Atari’s demise to the original Famicom or Master System. So if the Mega Drive was the first ‘next generation’ games console, how many ‘next generations’ have we had since? It’s now just a vacuous marketing term, meaning ‘we’re about to launch some new hardware, please be excited.’ And frankly, vacuous marketing seems to be an overriding theme these days in the launch of new games consoles – to the extent they don’t call them ‘games consoles’ any more, which is precisely why I have deliberately used the term four times in a single paragraph, if not to re-balance the universe, but at least to set the tone for this article.
Throughout these generations of gaming, I have been unwaveringly fastidious in my loyalty. I have a loyalty marketing departments regard as the holy grail. Unfortunately for them – and despite their very best efforts to the contrary – that loyalty is to me. I had a Commodore 64 as my first games device, while my best friend at the time had a Master System. Oddly enough we then switched, with me snagging a Mega Drive and him going for the Amiga. I liked the Mega Drive and was interested in the Saturn – but Sony’s Playstation (released the same year, the heady days of 1994) had better architecture with more interesting games lined up. And that is what drove my choice. And when Sony then launched the Playstation 2 as this horrible board-and-a-half architecture that no one could really program except through middleware, no amount of arrogant posturing by Phil Harrison was persuading me otherwise. I went for the Sega Dreamcast, a beautiful and groundbreaking machine which was tragically short lived. Then the first Xbox – I did not care about Live, I never used it, there were just these great open worlds to explore – there were a lot of titles on Xbox I am still very nostalgic about (Knights of the Old Republic, Jade Empire, Indigo Prophecy, Advent Rising, The Suffering, Second Sight, Cold Fear). Then when the last generation hit us, I saw that X360 was graphically weaker (yes, I know it’s better at rendering in the distance than PS3, but overall), with proprietary hard drive, no HDMI and no Bluray, whereas PS3 was a Bluray player out the box, had HDMI output, had a real browser and you could change the hard drive on your own.
But there was a change in there – did you see it? My mention of Phil Harrison, back when he was a big deal at Sony. I suppose a public face of the company was never going to say ‘yeah, you’re right, our hardware is kind of tough to deal with.’ But I still remember the arrogance of the man, basically saying developers were going to have to deal with it because they were Sony and Playstation was King of the Hill. Why? I’m going to guess it’s because they thought they had brand loyalty – gamers love Playstation, so if you want to make games, you have to learn how to do it on PS2. I’m not going to point the finger exclusively at Sony, but they were able to hammer Sega so resoundingly into the ground, and set Nintendo off onto a course into niche-hood it has retroactively tried to claim was deliberate, through presentation of the original Playstation as a ‘lifestyle’ choice – PS1s in London’s Ministry of Sound nightclub, licensing of contemporaneously popular music for Wipeout, and a whole barrage of attempts to make gaming ‘cool.’ They succeeded in broadening the market. But they also started the trend of marketing dominating gaming industry narrative and the introduction into the games industry of the marketing notion of ‘experience.’ We don’t simply play games any more. Oh no. That’s far too simple. No, we have a ‘user experience.’ And this isn’t just the fluff of pompous terminology that results from the self-centred, prideful character of 21st Century developed countries (‘garbage collectors’ as ‘sanitary technicians,’ ‘died in hospital’ as ‘negative patient healthcare treatment outcome’). The drive to ‘experience’ in the games industry is an attempt to make you invested in and loyal to the brand.
Part of the reason for that is that the games industry is now commensurate in value to the film industry. It is only natural that with so much money at stake, any company would want to mitigate financial exposure, and brand loyalty gives a certain degree of comfort to corporate executives. I doubt anybody will be surprised to learn I don’t really care about the comfort of corporate executives. To the contrary, I worry about what they’re doing in (and to) the industry. On November 25th of this year, John Landis, director of genuine classic films Blues Brothers, American Werewolf in London, Trading Places, Three Amigos and Michael Jackson’s Thriller video, made a series of comments on the modern film industry which have been reported by various media as an ‘attack’ or a ‘lambasting’ or other such contorted terms. Actually, his comments are what a lot of people have known for a long time – Hollywood is out of ideas, and so terrified of the money it spends, it relies on formulae and tricks to try to get consumer dollar. “The studios are no longer interested in making good movies,” said Landis, “they’re interested in movies that will bring you in.” So it’s special effects and explosions all the way.
The effective equivalent of special effects and explosions in the games industry is multimedia entertainment and social media. The Xbox One will let you put games, TV and movies on the same screen, or flip between them. Sony’s US PS4 page describes the “rich portfolio of applications” available to access TV (“rich portfolio of applications?” Really? If we keep this up, we can make language an actual obstacle to understanding). On Xbox One, you can record gaming moments and use the Upload Studio to share these moments. PS4 does the same with its Share button and associated applications. Xbox One has fully customisable home screens, while Sony chooses to describe this as “personalised, curated content” (somebody at Sony needs to check their meds). And of course, let’s not forget integration with Facebook, just in case there’s somebody out there who doesn’t know you just got 10 headshots in a row, or whatever other piffle modern humans seem to feel the need to spew out onto others.
I have a question. What are the games like on these games consoles?
Well that’s also kind of difficult to find out, as thanks to the Hollywoodisation of the games industry, new hardware launch time is when all publications suspend their critical faculties for fear of offending their patrons. I noted that ‘reviews’ of both Xbox One and PS4 were quite similar in conventional newspapers and tech websites alike. Aspects assessed include design, controller, user interface, and motion control peripherals, all given equal weight to games, and therefore in total proportionality, games being just one consideration in many, instead of prime. So the physical design of the games console matters, does it? Personally, I don’t actually look at my games console when I’m playing a game. I look at the game. Controllers – whether this thing rumbles or not is expected to influence my choice, is it? I know Microsoft did a great job of stealing the Dreamcast’s controller design and convincing everyone they came up with it and its comfortable and all, but controllers are supposed to be input devices. I’m not supposed to notice them when I’m using them. Neither Sony’s Dualshock design nor Microsoft’s controller matter. I use both (as I have an Xbox controller for PC). I don’t especially notice either when I am using them – which is the point, they are supposed to be unobtrusive input devices. I think I’ve made my opinions of the multi/social media functionality quite clear. Ultimately, these reviews are stuffed with irrelevancies and decline to reach a conclusion – up to the user.
So with interest as my sword and cynicism as my shield, what are my own conclusions? Sorry, marketing, but these are games consoles. I look at things from a games filter. Microsoft probably has the edge on games-at-launch. However, Microsoft are again not letting owners upgrade their HDDs, and I note that several of the so-called AAA titles that are available on both run on 720p on Xbox One and full 1080p on the PS4. Xbox One is more expensive: why Microsoft thinks gamers will shell out more money for last generation resolution is beyond me.
So I think PS4 has the edge – in theory. Now we just need some games to come out. When both Microsoft and Sony undertook their announcement events earlier in the year, I looked carefully at both machines, and knew exactly what I was going to buy. A new gaming PC. If anyone wants me, I’ll be sacrificing my wallet to the latest Steam sale.
Images via Wikipedia, Sony.com and Xagora for critique purposes