Talking tech since 2003

Last night at E3 in Los Angeles, Sony finally lifted the curtain off of its new video game console, the PlayStation 4. Only a few weeks ago Sony’s rival, Microsoft, showed off its next console, the Xbox One, and used the E3 convention to show off some of the games it’s got in store when that system launches later this year. As you’ve no doubt read on BestTechie earlier today, at first glance, the PlayStation 4 would seem to easily outpace the Xbox One for a whole host of reasons. I don’t disagree with Shawn’s assessment at all—far from it. For video game fans—or “hardcore gamers”—it definitely looks like the PS4 is the console to get.

But this newest chapter in the decades-old console wars may shape up to be different than any of the previous ones in years past. That’s always easy to say, of course. We industry watchers and online watchers need to make ourselves feel relevant, and there’s no better way to do that than to explain why this time is different.

However, this time? It really is different! Really! Here’s why I think the newest iteration of the console wars will be different than we’ve ever seen. Essentially, never before has each entrant in the battle for the coveted spot under the TV been geared to consumers so differently. To illustrate what I mean, let’s go back to the first console war—at least as we know it—when Sega challenged the reigning champion of the video game industry, Nintendo.

Back in the 1980s, Nintendo and the NES dominated the industry—the NES was so dominant, in fact, that the name “Nintendo” became synonymous with video games as a concept. The company’s first real competitor came in the form of Sega’s 16-bit Genesis console in the late-80s and early-90s. Nintendo released its own 16-bit system, the Super Nintendo, and much was made of the many differences between the two, like which system had the better visuals, sound, games, and controller. But in the end—and this has remained the case essentially since then—they were the same thing: the SNES and the Genesis were boxes that played games with controllers.

The console war then—and the wars since then—have largely been a question of preference rather than superiority, in the grand scheme of things. Think of it like fast food chains: you may prefer McDonald’s over Burger King, or vice versa, and you could have plenty of great reasons why your choice is best. But in the end, it’s all burgers and fries for anyone who’ll eat it.

That’s the way it was every generation up until this most recent one, which saw Microsoft and Sony go head to head with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, respectively. All gamers have a favorite, and each console has its strengths and weaknesses. But in the end, the system that absolutely dominated the generation around the world was Nintendo’s Wii. So why didn’t I mention the Wii in the same sentence as the Xbox 360 and the PS3? Simple: the Wii may have played video games, but it wasn’t for the gamers who’d been playing since the days of NES, or the people who loved shooting guns in first-person shooters. This was basically a living room toy that the whole family could love. Despite having inferior visuals and a comparatively paltry library of games, Nintendo’s Wii outsold Sony and Microsoft at every turn in every territory.

Nintendo took a big risk by abandoning the “hardcore” audience of gamers who’d grown up on its products. Sure, it still put out fan-favorite titles featuring Mario, Zelda, and the rest, but the company’s focus with its motion controls and family-friendly titles was clear: inexpensive, fun, and easy-to-play games. Nintendo’s Wii was a video game system in concept only. Essentially it was a living room toy.

So that brings us back to E3 and the looming console war on the horizon. For the first time ever, each console is making direct overtures to some pretty different segments of consumers, offering up consoles that actually reflect those strategies. That’s why, as appealing as the PlayStation 4 seems to today, it’s actually anybody’s guess as to how this next battle will play out.

Take, for example, Nintendo’s latest console, the Wii U. Once again, Nintendo seems to have created a device that’s built as a family toy that everyone can have fun with. It utilizes motion-sensing controllers, just like the Wii did, plus a touchscreen-enabled GamePad controller. Its offerings emphasize local cooperative multiplayer, which is perfect for families looking to have a good time together, rather than gamers who prefer to connect online while sitting alone in the living room.

Then there’s the PlayStation 4. From what we’ve seen so far, this is the device that’s been geared specifically with the hardcore gaming audience in mind. It boasts cloud-streaming games, game video-sharing capabilities built right into the controller, and no restrictions on game-sharing. Without a doubt, the PS4 will be an impressive machine capable of giving users lots of multimedia experiences via apps like Netflix or the ability to download movies, music, and TV. But so far, all we’ve seen is games, games, and more games.

And that brings us to the most confounding system, Microsoft’s Xbox One. At its big reveal a few weeks ago at Microsoft’s Redmond, Washington campus, the majority of that presentation revolved around the console’s user-interface, its built-in television viewing options, multitasking, Skype, Fantasy Football integration, web-browsing via Internet Explorer…oh, and there were also a few games, too.

When games journalists asked about whether the console would block used games, Microsoft offered troubling responses: essentially, there were roadblocks in place that took power away from consumers to do what they wanted with the media they purchased, and instead put it in the hands of the publishers. Lending games to a friend meant registrations and restrictions. And even playing a video game meant your console had to connect to the internet at least once every 24 hours.

But what’s interesting about the uproar over Microsoft’s forthcoming restrictions with the Xbox One is that, for all intents and purposes, they only matter to a fraction of the audience the company’s gunning for: gamers. The Xbox One is all about being a media center for your living room, seamlessly blending movies, television, games, and the internet all in one place. The Xbox One wants to appeal to people looking for the best all-in-one device, and for those who want a super-computer to live under their TVs, the Xbox One is going to be dynamite. As for gamers—who mostly just want a console to play video games—well, the Xbox One will have games too. But it seems like Microsoft hopes that most gamers have “grown up” enough to realize that the benefits of an integrated media center will outweigh the console’s lackluster approach to actually playing video games.

So, finally, that brings us back to the big question: who’s going to win the console war? In the hearts and minds of gamers, it looks like the PlayStation 4 is the system of choice for those of us who just love to play. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a surefire “winner,” since the scope of the war itself has truly changed. By gearing each console for such different segments of consumers, it’s really anybody’s guess as to which system will take home the most sales.

Will parents shopping this holiday season see the Wii U’s kid-friendly games and controls—and budget friendly price—and put Nintendo’s console under the tree? Could the Xbox One appeal to people’s desire to have all their media in one place? After all, the now-ubiquitous smartphone has done that for people not wanting to carry separate phones, computers, cameras, and calendars (not to mention hundreds of other devices). Or will the only people who really care about video games—gamers—come out to support the PlayStation 4, the one device that seems to have them and only them in mind?

It may feel like the war is over for some of us—but I’m betting that, in reality, the war has only just begun.

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