Thank you, Molly Wood of the New York Times, for inspiring me with your recent article/review, The Xbox One Versus the PlayStation 4: Two Consoles Battle For A Dubious Prize.
After writing at length last year about the new console generations, prior to their release, having gone into considerable detail on the pros and cons of each system, I decided to pen a brief sort of follow-up. The new consoles have been out for a few months and Wood's article got me thinking along those lines again. If you're interested in this subject, I'd suggest reading my first post and Wood's article before reading this one.
I wouldn't call the war between the two new consoles "philosophical," as she does, but maybe existential. They're definitely at odds in their approaches to what a game console's function should be and over how far that functionality should integrate with the rest of the purchaser's living space. I absolutely agree with Wood that often in life, "simpler tends to be better."
My favorite restaurants aren't fancy places, and they don't have a lot of things to choose from. They do one thing--like pizza, cashew chicken, steak in a sack, soup, or tacos--incredibly well. There are few extras because you're there for a reason. Not for the service or selection, but to eat something that you know is going to be specific and transcendent, taking you to a pleasure palace you can only reach via this particular place's talent-filled gastronomic boulevard.
I like applying this approach to a game console, but neither company seems to agree. Sony's machine does a lot more than it really needs to do to be a great gaming console, but Microsoft's unaffectionately-nicknamed Xbone apparently aspires to be the Swiss-Army amusement box of sloth-inducing multitainment, throwing in every conceivable feature aside from an espresso maker. You'll barely notice the invisible glue it squirts onto your couch right before you sit down.
I don't really care about the aesthetics of the box itself, or how much "larger, heavier, and uglier" a console it is. I won't be seeing it much. It will sit in a cabinet in the dark, and I'll mostly notice its power light and put a disc in or take it out once and a while. Other than hooking the thing up, that's about the extent of my interaction with the box.
The controller, however, is much more important to me. While the first Xbox's monstrously huge, power-corded controller was a misfire, it shrank and improved. Then the Xbox 360 got it just right, cutting the cord and refining the details. It remains the gold standard of game controllers. I have never liked the skeletal, misshapen PlayStation controllers, which always felt (throughout console iterations) like uncomfortable, awkward assemblages of harsh edges and skinny, pointy parts, all knees and elbows.
The 360 controller still feels substantial, responsive and ergonomically contoured, something like the late-60s Jaguar convertible of game controllers. I also like the use of letters and colors to differentiate buttons, rather than shapes. Maybe the PS controllers reminded me too much of Geometry class. Though I've not tried either of the new consoles, both controllers appear to be thoughtfully improved redesigns.
In her article, Wood points out the laundry list of things that the Xbone does that are not about playing video games, like apps, internet video, DVD playback (it does Blu-ray too, Molly), live television streaming, voice, gesture and motion sensing. She also neglects to mention facial recognition, heartbeat recognition, or pubic hair recognition (okay I made that last one up). There's also video chat.
She mentions the Xbone's endless, bandwidth gobbling software updates, the unreliable interfaces, the fact that you'll likely need more hard drive space but cannot upgrade it (nothing new there), but even the PS4 does more than it needs to do. I still have no interest in sharing screenshots from games I play on social networks. I'm not going to stream my gaming sessions.
Why would anyone want to watch me failing my way through the next Halo? I don't want a creepy HAL 9000 robot evil eye staring at me while I save the universe virtually, and I am not inclined to dance or do exercises in front of a television. Why would I want to pay an extra hundred bucks for that?
Ultimately, Wood picks the "delightful" PlayStation 4 over the "inconsistent...inefficient...slow...bandwidth hungry...harder to use" Xbox One. Apparently the PS4's "speed is everywhere;" everything happens "quickly--much faster" than on its chief rival, and the experience is just "startlingly fast and responsive." Declaring the PS4 quicker, easier to use, more "straightforward and...fun," Wood has made her decision, and I'm inclined to agree. But not so fast, Molly.
One key point you failed to mention at all is the allure of flagship, exclusive titles that only appear on one of the two competing consoles. Though I tend to lean toward older entries in both series of games, my favorites are Xbox-only franchises currently owned by Microsoft: Halo and Gears of War. Neither will appear on any PlayStation console anytime soon, if ever. This is a key component of any gamer's decision between platforms and definitely worth pondering, but you don't sound like you are really into console gaming that much.
You say that the real question is "whether the idea of a console itself is out of date." I agree that all the apps and television and internet streaming stuff is redundant because most people who need to stream something are already streaming it through other devices or newer TVs, and I think your subsequent assertion that "mobile gaming on tablets and phones can be as immersive and fun" as console gaming is wildly incorrect, but I guess it's all in how we define the words "immersive."
Sure, I bet Flappy Bird and Candy Crush are fun, but is there a storyline of any depth? A plausible plot? Do you feel involved in part of a fictional universe of characters that you might even care about, as you would in a good novel? Fun is one thing, but I think the console still commands a massive lead in immersion factor over cell-phone and tablet games, and that lead is exponential.
There are still millions of gamers who aren't about to give up that depth of experience for a quick fix on a portable game. Of course we're still willing to drop $60 on a class-A title that we know is going to guarantee untold hours of fun. I don't see how you can even compare a $60 console game to "a world of low-priced apps."
Apples and oranges, Molly. This price difference may be "hard to stomach" for you, but it's like saying you can't believe that people would pay $200,000 for a Ferrari when they could get a Smart Car for $16,000. Better yet, why pay $16,000 for a Smart Car when you can get a great bicycle for $600? Yes, both are transportation, but they're hardly in the same universe.
I liked how you didn't even mention Nintendo. They're no longer in this fight. Wii-U-Who? Whatever. As Victor Luckerson suggested in TIME magazine recently, Nintendo really should license its characters and put them on iPhones. They excel at simple platforming games but just don't do what Sony and Microsoft do.
It's like fighting over preferences for Chicago or New York-style pizzas. They are not the same thing. Jon Stewart was right--Chicago style is great but it should be called tomato casserole, not pizza. It is something else entirely. I still love my old two-dimensional, quick-fix NES games, but I play them on a computer, not on a Nintendo console. They would lend themselves perfectly to mobile formats.
Speaking of old NES favorites, I too mourn the loss of backward compatibility on both of the new consoles. This is a disappointing trend in new tech. A lot of us old 30-something gamers enjoy a retro fix now and then, and guess what? We're the majority of console gamers. Not little kids. Too bad we have to resort to digging our old consoles out of the basement, if we still have them, or making do with buggy emulator software.
Why not reward our loyalty to your brand with extensive, downloadable back catalogs of your previous games for each previous console? Give a certain number away upon purchase, but reward us with more by incentivizing your "achievements" or "trophies" with something tangible instead of empty bragging rights based on numbers that mean little more than "I've wasted more of my life playing video games than you have." Back-catalog game downloads would be a perfect place to start.
All this brings me to my conclusion. I just want a simple game console with a great controller that plays the best new games and allows me to play online with my old friends. It's great to connect with buds to play a game together, but I don't care about much else. I want a game console designed to play the best games made by the best developers around, not a data gathering monster designed to spy on me in my own home.
Everything else we do is already monitored by Google and Comcast and the NSA and everybody else from here to Bangkok and back. My plea to Sony and Microsoft (and yes, I've been loyal to the Xbox consoles until now) is to just give us a basic version. One with no camera or voice activation or super sensors. Give us a software dashboard without television or music or movies or Facebook. Allow us to earn achievements or trophies in the form of classic games, playable on our new consoles.
But let's keep the focus on games. Let us get our other content elsewhere. You don't need to rule over our entire entertainment universe, and some of us don't even want you to try. We want you to be there when we want to play a video game, and leave us alone when we don't. Few of us even talk on the phone anymore, and we don't want to talk to you either. You're a game console. They're not supposed to talk.
Great games are worth that simple, narrow focus. The other stuff just gets in the way and complicates things, just as Ms. Wood has shown. We want a simple interface, the best games, and a great controller. Other than an online connection with our friends, that's it. If you must make fancy, socially networked, camera-centric, all-in-one, living-room octopus versions of your newest consoles, give those of us who just want to game another option. Sell a very simple version that only does what we need it to do--to play awesome games with our friends. That's it! Like Molly said! Simple.
Yes, we the fans of simple greatness are also the people who are still hoping that one day George Lucas will realize how wrong he is and release a plain, simple, basic version of his original trilogy on blu-ray without all the extra crap he's added over the years, recognizing his moral duty to Save Star Wars for film archivalists and generations to come, but it seems like there is precious little hope left.
Yes, we think he owes it to us, and yes, we are legion. We have spent a lot of money on his stuff over the years, and he only stands to gain additional billions from selling the theatrical versions of his films on Blu-ray, in addition to all the other crap he sells, but as of now, we're not buying what he's selling, and instead we're watching our crappy old VHS transfers. Han shot first, motherfucker.
We're also deciding not to budge on the parade of new video game consoles and sticking with our old ones instead because what we want is simple and it's the best. It's, uh, simply the best. Ha. Hey Microsoft and Lucasfilm, if you offer us what we want, we'll buy it. It really is that simple.