Nine months in, we survey the frontlines of the next-gen console war and are astonished by what we see.
The latest console war is a good nine months old. That's long enough for it to have had a baby. Honestly, if Sony and Microsoft had had a baby together that would probably surprise us less than what actually has happened.
Sony dominated core gaming for two generations in a row, but then the PS3 arrived and it dropped the ball. Did we ever expect it to pick it back up and then knock it out of the park - to mix sports metaphors? Absolutely not - and yet that's what it's done.
The Xbox One is not a bad console, and its sales to date are nothing to sneeze at. The UI is a bit painful, but it's improved a lot and will no doubt continue to do so. Kinect is still pretty much rubbish, but Microsoft's gotten over it and moved on, so that's fine. Microsoft has some great exclusives and commands the loyalties of most third-parties. Xbox Live remains the most stable and feature-rich gaming network of the three (although it could stand to emulate PS4 Share).
Sony has absolutely pantsed Microsoft. The PS4 just hit 10 million global sales, whereas in April Microsoft mumbled something about shipping 5 million.
The PS4 doesn't really have that many features that the Xbox One can't also claim. And yet Sony has absolutely pantsed Microsoft. The PS4 just hit 10 million global sales, whereas in April Microsoft mumbled something about shipping 5 million.
While Xbox One is available in a dozen territories worldwide, Sony has pushed out to over 100. While Microsoft is still arguing with indies about platform parity, Sony has enabled more digital releases than we can keep track off. Even in its home territory of the US, where Xbox's local origins once made it an underdog champion against the Japanese giants, it's been outsold by the PS4 every month since launch.
Learning from past-gen
Microsoft is definitely not out of the game. The advantages the PS4 has over the Xbox One are much less pronounced than the advantages the Xbox 360 had over the PS3. The poor old PS3 came in with shoddy ports, few decent exclusives, a rubbish network, a ridiculous price tag Sony couldn't afford to cut and a system architecture everyone derided non-stop. It took Sony years of praiseworthy effort to gain back lost ground.
That is did is testament to its hard work - but also to Microsoft's continued incapacity to offer decent platform support outside its home territory of North America. The end result at the close of the generation is that the PS3 and Xbox 360 are pretty much neck and neck.
We can credit that result to two things - Sony's humility and hard yards, and Microsoft's failure to capitalise on its early lead by expanding into other territories.
This is why Microsoft needs to be careful. It built and maintained an early lead last generation - but Sony closed that gap, and has continued to grow. Microsoft's past strategies - relying on its Xbox Live fanbase to stick with it, doubling down on the North American market - won't net it an easy victory this time.
The Xbox One still isn't available in Japan and most of Europe, and we have severe doubts as to how much work it'll put into localisation and local marketing once it gets there - last generation wasn't super hot in that regard.
Sony's early lead must be putting the wind up Microsoft. It's dropped the Kinect and the console's price tag both, which is sure to help. The company won't talk numbers yet, but if Xbox One sales continue to grow we ought to see that sales gap shrink. If Microsoft pulls its gets it right it ought to be able to do what Sony did last generation and catch right up. The Xbox One has far fewer teething troubles to work against than the PS3 did. All microsoft has to do is learn from the past and it can easily catch up with Sony.
The question is - will it? Microsoft's complacency during the last generation was bizarre. Rather than push to make the Xbox 360 dominant in every way, in every region, it just sat back on its heels and crowed its North American success over and over again, happy to hold an ever-shrinking lead in one territory. If it holds onto that attitude moving forward, it'll never close the gap this generation. It needs to swallow its pride and learn from the one-time underdog, and turn its boat around quick smart.
Microsoft is fighting an uphill battle PR wise, as many core gamers were turned right off by all the digital future stuff announced early on - even though the company abandoned most of it.
But what's really interesting to me is how little core gamers may be effecting the outcome of this console war. Sony has said that a huge number of PS4 owners didn't have a PS3, and quite recently Shuhei Yoshida confessed loads of non-gamers have jumped on board - and Sony doesn't really know why.
Something about the PS4 seems to have captured mainstream attention - which is amazing, because it has much less to differentiate it from other consoles and make it accessible to non-gamers than the Xbox One (Kinect) and Wii U (Game Pad). Its hefty price tag and catalogue of traditional games means it's probably never going to be a runaway hit the way the Wii was, but it somehow became the sexy tech gift of holiday 2013, and this trend has continued powerfully enough for it to become Sony's fastest-selling new hardware ever.
Now, the thing about the video game market is that it is hugely hit driven, and those hits are in turn produced due to hype. We all know that. That's why marketing is so huge. That's why pre-orders are a thing. That's why juggernauts like call of Duty can sell tens of millions every year.
This is already working in Sony's favour. You only need to hear "the PS4 is outselling the Xbox One worldwide 2:1" a few times before you think to yourself it must have something going for it. You only need just over half your friends to be signing into the PSN rather than Xbox Live before you wonder whether investing in a Sony machine isn't the better idea. You only need "Sony is winning the console war" to become the dialogue in order for it become true.
Mainstream adoption is a massive factor in gaining and maintaining that kind of momentum. What console do TV shows feature when they discuss video games in human interest stories? What console appears in stock photos of gaming? What word do baffled parents use to refer to the boxes under the TV? There was a time when the word Atari, and later the word Nintendo, just meant "video games". For a while there, in the US at least, it seemed like Xbox might be going the same way.
Now that's all changing, and if Microsoft doesn't move fast, it'll be swimming against the tide. We don't want that, you know; regardless of where your platform loyalties lie, having competition in the market is a much more consumer-friendly scenario.