Here's the deal: Sony is doing great with the PlayStation 4, and indeed it looks like it'll be a great gaming system. Meanwhile, Microsoft isn't getting the same mind share, but why is that? Outside of the post-reveal blunders that they have since rectified, I would say it's because they haven't managed to communicate what the Xbox One actually does for gaming. Combine that with a higher price, less power, and difficult-to-communicate features, and you're losing support by the truck load while the competition is keeping things simple and on point.
This is going to be a fun generation!
But beneath Microsoft's poor messaging, the Xbox One is actually a great-looking gaming console that can make the PlayStation 4 look quite conservative in comparison, and frankly, it would be a shame to overlook its potential because of poor messaging. Let's start by clearing up a massive doubt that's made many sceptical of the Xbox One: yes, it's very much about games! Yes, it can do other stuff as well, and no, it's not as powerful as the PlayStation 4. But it boasts an awesome-looking controller and a kick ass line-up. No matter what you're doing on your One, your game is always just mere seconds away; games are a first class citizen on this system. Just check out this interface walkthrough if you're not sure what I mean.
What can the Xbox One do for gaming that the PlayStation 4 can't do, then? Let's start with the cloud. The technology used here is not exclusive to the Xbox One - cloud computing can be utilized with any platform that can connect to the Internet. What is special here is that Microsoft is taking down the barrier of entry for its use. Not only is Microsoft's cloud free for developers to utilize for their games, it also comes as part of the overall platform, which means it's integrated into the platform's development tools and developers can easily get the support they need for their game. It brings several benefits, such as multiplayer games on the One being able to have dedicated servers, and old multiplayer games not having their servers shut down. But it should also mean that we will see more experimentation with online functionality, with gameplay (such as that of Journey or Dark Souls), and more exotic uses such as AI learning (as in Forza 5).
It's not all brains either.
The AI learning in Forza 5 is, of course, the prime example of what the cloud can do right now, because it looks like a genuine gameplay innovation for racing games. It's also why Turn 10 have changed the goals in Forza to better make the most of this. A less high profile example is Zoo Tycoon, which stores your zoo in the cloud, so you can easily see the zoos your friends are building. What the cloud offers, then, is in itself not something new, but it makes it much easier for developers to experiment with online gameplay, meaning we will hopefully see more innovation in the online arena than we've seen this generation.
Next up, we have Kinect, which has become an infamous piece of technology. The first generation of the device failed to make a splash in core gaming (developers basically had difficulty using it for anything other than voice commands and dancing games). In fact I wrote an article discussing this very subject about a year and a half ago, and it was clear then that Kinect was not here to replace our favorite controllers, but rather to create different experiences entirely or augment the experiences we were already having. We haven't seen much in the way of new games for the original Kinect since then, meaning we probably hit the limit of what could reasonably be done with it given its capabilities and the install base.
Kinect 2.0 looks to be different, however. Not only is it vastly upgraded in terms of hardware, but it's a much more integrated part of the Xbox One than Kinect was on the Xbox 360. It's coming of age, with more experience in research and design to back it up, which makes it a much more powerful tool for developers. But how is it going to improve our gaming experiences? Something I didn't cover in my original Kinect article was voice commands, because it seemed like a no-brainer, and it remains a no-brainer. Our gaming controllers are simply not built for menu navigation, so giving commands through voice is an excellent alternative. It's easier, more intuitive, and more immersive, all while allowing your fingers to do something else at the same time. So when you're low on health in Battlefield 4, you could just shout out for a medic while keeping your fingers on the gameplay controls. Or it can be something as simple as getting around in Forza 5 without needing to go through a bunch of menus.
Just let it out!
But motion controls are of course a part of it too, and Project Spark is a fascinating example of what they can be used for. Project Spark allows its players to create their own games á la LittleBigPlanet, and in it, the player can record performances that they want their NPCs to act out, complete with motions and sound. And that's without even mentioning Kinect games like Fantasia: Music Evolved and D4!
Gestures are also being used to augment traditional games like Dead Rising 3. As in many other zombie games, you can get locked down by a zombie, and have to struggle to break free from it, so it's nice that we're allowed to shove the zombie off, or just punch it in the face. Typically such sequences would have been dealt with using quick time events, but now they can be completed in a much more intuitive way. After having played Rise of Nightmares I also envisage that this will make for more satisfying gameplay as well.
When you're up against this guy, punching will rarely have been as satisfying.
At the end of the day, while the PlayStation 4 will surely be a great gaming system, it's selling itself on refinement rather than progress. This is evident in its launch line-up too, where graphics, not gameplay, is the key improvement being touted over the last generation. Good graphics are, of course, important and very much welcome, but I'm personally much more excited about the prospect of expanding the creative boundaries of gaming with the Xbox One, something we're only just beginning to see the results of. Sony may be able to replicate some of this with the PlayStation Camera, but just looking at the support the two are getting, it's clear how much bundling and dedication matters, and that's why I've pre-ordered an Xbox One.