For a little over 10 years now, the video game universe has been the battleground for a merciless war between two powerhouses, Microsoft and Sony, with Nintendo looking on from a safe distance. Last week the two gaming platform giants unveiled the latest generation of their consoles: the Xbox One (Microsoft) and the PS4 (Sony). Beyond the technical specs that will improve overall game performance, the two devices are also being positioned as important content broadcasters. Right now the Xbox One seems to have a leg up on the PS4 as far as content distribution goes, but Sony hasn’t played its last card yet.
A sluggish market
The last few months have not been easy on the video game industry. Game sales have dropped a whopping 20% in the US alone due to aging consoles with exceptionally long life cycles (7 years) as well as competition from mobile and social games. But thanks to the launch of the new generation of consoles at yearend, Christmas 2013 should generate big bucks for everyone involved.
Looking at technical performance, the Xbox One and the PS4 share an almost identical internal configuration that is not unlike that of a late-model PC. As far as price is concerned, the Japanese company has an advantage over Microsoft as it’s going to sell its console for $100 less ($399). But the real differences between the two devices lie in the over-the-top (OTT) services they’ll offer and the applications their operating systems will support.
Xbox One: designed for multimedia
The Xbox One reflects Microsoft’s ambitions when it comes to multimedia and connected usage. So while the competition has merely been playing around with the idea of really getting connected, Microsoft has been feeding its Xbox 360 constant updates and third-party apps for over five years in order for the console to grow into a Trojan horse to be released in the world of multimedia and family entertainment.
Today’s Xbox 360 immerses gamers in an environment focused both on gaming and content viewing using applications that include Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, YouTube, Vevo and ESPN. These apps are available through the Xbox LIVE subscription service, a fast and reliable platform that is greatly appreciated by its 46 million users. Overall the Xbox 360 ecosystem houses more than 90 television and entertainment apps across the globe. And as Emily Claire Afran explained in her recent post “How content delivery plays with game technology”, it’s the console that provides access to the highest number of OTT services.
As a result of this, the Xbox 360 has been used for more than just playing video games for a few years now. A survey back in 2011 already showed that 40% of the time spent using the Xbox 360 was for something other than gaming. According to Microsoft data, Xbox users watch an average of 30 hours of video content per month, and there’s nothing to indicate this will change once the Xbox One is released.
One of the more interesting new functions available on Microsoft’s latest platform is the option of watching live TV thanks to an HDMI input that has been added to the device and which enables users to link their console to the digital receiver supplied by their cable provider. Microsoft is promising viewers an enhanced television experience complete with a new interface that incorporates a split-screen function and DVR as well as offers the possibility of accessing additional information (such as statistics) while watching TV.
Wii U: a controller that acts as a universal remote
Nintendo, which has had disappointing Wii U sales since the device came out in November 2012, has also been taking an interest in TV. Launched seven months ago, TVii is an app that enables users to synchronize their Wii U GamePad (a controller with a screen) to their cable or satellite service. The function (limited to the GamePad) transforms the controller into a universal remote that can display additional content (menus, trailers, programs and guides) in “second-screen” mode. Still under construction, the application could eventually become an interesting addition to the Nintendo family even though it’s a far cry from the total integration experience Microsoft is working on offering consumers.
Cable providers are working hard to stay ahead of this “living-room revolution.” Take Canada, for example. It would be very surprising for companies like Bell, Telus and Vidéotron, which have invested a lot of money in their new Fibe, Optik TV and illico 2 platforms and interfaces, to let a third party like Microsoft manage their signal’s interface on its own. These businesses will surely want to maintain control over the experience they provide consumers in order to keep them as part of their own ecosystem.
PS4: gaming, sharing…and content
At first glance Sony’s strategy is very different from its main competitor’s since the PS4 will focus on gaming and sharing. Sony will enable players to share their gaming experiences on social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Users will also be able to broadcast their games live, comment on them and invite friends to take control of the game in order to get some help.
But Sony is well aware that the future of consoles undeniably lies in rich and diverse multimedia offerings. In fact, the PlayStation 3 is still the most-used platform for watching Netflix on a TV screen in the US. To compensate for its low number of applications the brand has announced that its “Video Unlimited” service, available since 2010, will soon offer viewers no less than 150,000 movies, TV series and shows. Sony also boasts it’s the only player in the field to have reached an agreement with all the major film studios around the world.
Games aside, the integration of TV and cable/satellite content seems to be the next big battle in the gaming console (and major IT companies) war. And because Microsoft understood almost 10 years ago that the future of multimedia was going to play out in the living room, it’s ahead of the game. For now.