Wednesday, 12 June 2013

E3 2013 Xbox One vs. PS4

So it's finally over, E3, the flagship event for gamers all over the world. With a long history of reveals under its belt, what better place for the two gaming giants, Sony and Microsoft, to duke it out and announce their next-gen consoles? But little do most consumers know that this console war also concerns their rights, with one of these big corporations trying to set in place policies that are, quite frankly, a whole load of bullshit.

The internet has been rife with concerns regarding certain practices and policies that Microsoft has adopted and Sony has not. These take away your power as an end-user and give it almost wholly to Microsoft and video game publishers and include such things as restrictions on buying and selling second-hand games, and even lending games to friends.

I have strong personal feelings regarding these practices and policies, mainly that Microsoft should shove them so far up their ass they'll never see the light of day again. We'll cover these, as well as an overview of what each console, the Xbox One and Playstation 4, have to offer.

Microsoft’s Xbox One

Right now I’m not a fan of Microsoft. Don’t get me wrong, I have been in the past, I’ve got an Xbox 360 and a Windows-based Gaming PC. Until recently I couldn’t fault Microsoft – they delivered a good, gamer-centric service and reasonably-priced games. BUT all that is about to change with the Xbox One.

First presented to the world on the 21st of May, Microsoft began the reveal of the Xbox One with a strange focus: television. Oddly, games took second place to the new TV and multimedia features of the Xbox One. This left many gamers oblivious to Microsoft's machinations, but thirsty for gaming news and content, which they would not receive substantially till E3.

Regardless of their intentions, Microsoft announced some very interesting features and some nice additions for its next gen console:
  • 3-in-1 Operating System – The Core OS which then boots two side-by-side OSs; an Xbox OS and Windows-based OS. 
  • Snap Mode – Allows players to run multiple programs/apps at once, such as Skyping while gaming. 
  • Instant Switching – Impressively fast and smooth switching between programs/apps, a marked improvement over the Xbox360.
  • Live TV – The ability to watch Live TV through Xbox One like a Set-Top Box.
  • Sports Features – Live fantasy league updates and pay per view events, great features for those who would use them.
  • Built-in DVR Functions – The ability to record and upload/stream gameplay to the cloud/web for sharing with others with an intuitive editing and uploading interface.
  • Xbox Live Account carries over – Xbox Live accounts will carry over to the Xbox One, bringing Gamerscores, and using the same subscription.
  • Free Games with Xbox Live Gold – Gold users will receive two games a month to download and play when using a Gold subscription (like the existing PS+). These appear to be Xbox 360 titles and will start with Assassin’s Creed 2 and Halo 3.
  • SmartGlass integration – Tablets appear to play a much bigger role in the use of Xbox One features and games.
  • A Continued Relationship with Entertainment Distributors – Netflix, Amazon Video, and all those services will remain available and still require a gold subscription.
  • Content Authorization for up to 10 Family Members – Content that’s bought must be authorized for a user to enjoy, you can do this for up to 10 family members.
  • Expanded Friends List – Gamers are now able to have more than 100 friends at a time on Xbox Live.
  • Local Currency Pricing – Content will now be priced in your local currency instead of Microsoft Points.

Despite being packaged in a case like an old VHS player, all these new features are powered by hardware on par with most modern mid-tier gaming PCs:
  • 8-core x86 AMD CPU.
  • ATI Radeon based Graphics Engine.
  • 8GB DDR3 System Memory (shared between CPU & GPU).
  • 500GB Hard Drive.
  • Blu-Ray Drive.
  • 802.11n Wireless with Wi-Fi Direct.
  • Gigabit Ethernet.
  • HDMI In/Out.
  • USB 3.0.
  • Kinect 2.0.
  • New Gamepad Design.

Some hardware, such as the Kinect 2.0, plays a much bigger role with the Xbox One. The Kinect has been confirmed as mandatory for everyday operation, while it appears that SmartGlass is necessary to achieve the full Xbox One experience with certain games. One thing I must admit is the game-pad, which has received universal praise, looks and feels fantastic. With the upgrade in hardware, the games shown at the reveal and E3 appear pretty damn good on the new system.

Everything up to this point is pretty much what you would expect from a new console: new features, better hardware, and the promise of better games; but this isn't all you're getting. After the Xbox One reveal and prior to E3, troubling rumors began to spread. Later confirmed as facts by Microsoft's own sources, they told of a console designed to stop the end-user from:
  • Playing games, even single-player, unless you connect to the Internet to authenticate with Microsoft's servers once every 24 hours.
  • Disconnecting the Kinect sensor, keeping it active at all times (especially worrying as Microsoft is a member of PRISM).
  • Playing rented games at all.
  • Trading-in games, unless using Microsoft approved retailers.
  • Selling games, unless the recipient has been on your friends list for at least 30 days (each game only capable of being sold once).
  • Buying and selling on second-hand games, as they cannot be sold again after you are finished with them.
  • Lending games to friends easily.
  • Using content at the same time as another authorised user.

Even these meager rights could be taken away at the discretion of game publishers, who Microsoft has given the power to bar trade-ins and lending completely.

Most regular consumers would be worried by now. This is an unprecedented move by Microsoft to change console and game ownership, reducing the disc or purchase you'd make to nothing more than a ticket to play a game on Microsoft's terms. It is not a practice in “fighting the pirates” or “bringing a connected experience”. It is turning your games into nothing more than extended rentals.  You don’t own your games, you license them, with the disc simply a means of installation, and you may wonder how that is different from PC gaming; PC games are significantly cheaper than console games and in the end you still have greater freedom on platforms like Steam.

Want to take your console away with you and play somewhere without a stable Internet connection? Tough
Want to sell a completed game on ebay, for that new game you desperately want? Fine, but you'll have to wait 30 days with a stranger on your friend list.
A Hacktivist group decides to take down Microsoft's servers because they don't like the way they are acting? Well you're shit out of luck then. 
Retro Xbox One gaming, what's that? Without Microsoft's authentication servers the games won't work in the future!

So, say we don't want to buy into this bullshit but still want a powerful next-gen experience, what choice is left to us? Well, what about that other new console?

Sony's Playstation 4

If you read the introduction it's pretty obvious how this next section is going to go, but I assure you I am not a Sony fanboy. I tried to play Skyrim on a PS3, hated playing First-Person Shooters using a DualShock controller and I had to change my PSN password following Sony's smackdown by hacktivists. Overall, my Sony experience has not been as good as my Microsoft one this generation. But with Microsoft reaching cartoonish levels of corporate villainy I’m ready to throw in my lot with Sony and the PS4.

Making its debut on 20th of February, the Playstation 4 reveal was widely and rightly mocked for lacking the most important features of a reveal: a bloody Playstation 4. In a seriously genius move *sarcastic eyeroll*, they decided not to show it at their reveal event at all, perhaps because there wasn't actually a physical system to show anyone. Despite this chupacabra console, Sony displayed some impressive tech, including real time Unreal Engine 4 and physics demos. Games also featured heavily during the reveal event, which, if Microsoft's example was anything to go by, is meant to be surprising for a games console.

Mocking aside, Sony has also managed to bring similar, interesting features to the table:
  • Cross Platform Accessibility – Follow gameplay of possible opponents on your smartphone or tablet and challenge them, great for EVO fans.
  • Companion Apps – Keep in touch with your evolving gaming world regardless of location, probably via Social Media.
  • Social Network Integration – Linking gaming profiles with social profiles.
  • Personalisation – Personalise your interface, follow the games and gamers that interest you, predictive game loading.
  • Gaikai based streaming – Access to a catalogue of games for streaming, including PS4 and PS3 titles, the closest thing to backwards compatibility in either console.
  • Social Gaming Network – Making gaming more social than ever, allowing friends to view your gameplay and jump in to help when things get tough or provide feedback.
  • UStream Functionality – Multicasting live video, easily accessed through a dedicated “Share” button.
  • Remote Play – Own a PS Vita? Well it may finally get some use as Sony want all PS4 titles to play remotely on your Vita via an internet/Wi-Fi connection.
  • Sony and 3rd Party Entertainment Partnerships – As well as maintaining a relationship with Netflix, Amazon Video and other services which doesn’t require PS+), they’ll also be providing Sony films, TV and music to user. This includes shows like Breaking Bad, films like the Amazing Spider-Man and access to music distributed by Sony records.
  • Indie Support – Supporting indie game developers and allowing them to self publish, get for people hooked on Minecraft, allowing easy access to low-cost and often high-creativity indie games.
  • Increased PSN Functionality – Cross game Voice Chat, playing a game as you’re downloading it, transferring to a friend's network/server with real world friends.
  • Continued PS+ service – Like Xbox Live Gold, will continue for PS3 user to the PS4 and will even include free PS4 games, such as DriveClub, at the PS4’s launch, though now costing approximately $5 a month.

I know what you’re thinking, “A lot of these features are the same across both consoles.” And you’d be right. Both consoles offer greater functionality from their online services, greater incentives and greater Social Media and Streaming integration. It should be unsurprising to hear that hardware wise, they are also very similar, though the PS4 contains better RAM and has not disclosed its hard drive sizes:
  • 8-core x86-64 AMD APU.
  • ATI Radeon based Graphics Engine.
  • 8GB GDDR5 RAM.
  • Built-in Hard Drive.
  • Blu-Ray Drive.
  • 802.11n Wireless with Bluetooth (2.1).
  • Gigabit Ethernet.
  • HDMI Out.
  • USB 3.0.
  • New Playstation Eye.
  • New Gamepad Design.

Admittedly, compared to the Kinect 2.0 and the new Xbox One gamepad Sony’s offerings are underwhelming, though the new Eye’s functionality hasn’t been shown off yet and the new PS4 gamepad is a step in the right design direction. It should also be pointed out that the PS4 actually looks like a next-gen console and not a VHS player and yes, the games also look great.

At this point you’re probably wondering why you should pick one console over the other when their features and hardware specs are so similar. Unless you are a crazed fanboy you’re probably planning to pick up whichever you feel like or whichever console has the best exclusives, and typically that approach would be best: get what speaks to you as a gamer/user. BUT WAIT! Remember all that bullshit Microsoft is trying to pull? Go back and skim that list again if you want.

If any of those restrictions sound like bullshit to you, like they do to me, then prepare for some good news - Sony made a point of stating that when a consumer buys a disc they retain their ownership and can:
  • Trade in games at retail without restriction.
  • Sell it to another person without restriction.
  • Lend it to a friend without restriction.
  • Keep it forever.
  • Play single-player games offline indefinitely (no connecting to the internet required ever).
  • Play games without ever having to connect to the internet to authenticate.
  • Play games/media from ANY region, the PS4 is region free.

Admittedly these features should NOT be a selling point and Sony will still be leaving DRM up to publishers, which only means that some may use online passes and similar features, like EA used to. In an ideal situation we wouldn’t have to worry about Microsoft’s draconian practices and Sony would not have to play the role of some sort of gaming savior. We’d just have to pick between The Chief and Nathan Drake, or if we had the money to burn, just pick both. When you look at the features and hardware alone there isn’t really enough to argue one console over the other. Want PS4? Get it. Want Xbox One? Get it. But this isn’t the case.

If Microsoft fails to remove these features and ignores feedback from consumers, then in buying the Xbox One we are telling them that we are okay with these increasingly controlling practices. We might as well tell Sony that a consumer-centred focus won’t get them anywhere. Seriously, will you let Microsoft just lube up with nice-looking games, and permit them to have you any way they fucking want?

The Verdict

Look. I don’t give a shit about console fanboyism, or who comes out on top, or what you bought last generation and what your favourite game is. The reality is that THIS generation sees the beginning of a war on your consumer rights and we need to support those who aren’t attempting to take them away.

PS4, Vita, WiiU, 3DS, Ouya, PC; none of these platforms introduce measures as extreme, invasive and frankly fucked up as the Xbox One. Get one of those instead of the Xbox One, support those companies and encourage Microsoft to change their policies.

Oh hello Microsoft, what are you doing here? Oh you want me to bend over, shut my mouth, and to go in dry? Well… to be honest I’d rather cuddle for a while first, thank you… Oh, it’s your way or the high way? Well… then I must insist you go fuck yourself as Sony just turned up with truffles, my favourite flowers and Champagne.

Did I mention that PS4 will typically be approximately 100 $/€/£s cheaper than the Xbox One? Anyway, whatever. "Cool story bro", amirite?

Isaac Sung
Based on information available prior to 13/06/13

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