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Xbox One vs. PlayStation 4: What Microsoft could do to recover its standing

Having revealed the consoles a few months ago, Sony and Microsoft officially faced off during their respective E3 press conferences on Monday, showing the world what each console is all about. Sony’s conference was more or less a resounding success, whereas Microsoft’s fell somewhere short of that. Right now, the vibe in the gaming world is that Sony has already won the next generation before it has even started, so what can Microsoft do to combat that?

Back on Monday, Sony seemed to have it all: A slew of exciting big budget games for this gen and next, a bunch of indie games that show an in-depth knowledge of the scene, an acceptably low price point, a video appearance by LeBron James who is currently the most famous athlete on the planet, and absolutely no used games or online check-in authentication.

Meanwhile, Microsoft showed off short clips, had no indie cred, didn’t focus much on the remainder of this generation, and announced that a console which doesn’t want you to play used games and requires you to check in online every 24 hours would be £429. There are definitely legitimate reasons as to why the gaming public is all aboard the PlayStation 4 so soon. However, it wouldn’t take very much for Microsoft to get back into the game, but it would require something of a policy restructuring.

The games

Though Sony seemed to have an avalanche of exciting new franchises, respected indie studios, and new franchise instalments, Microsoft wasn’t exactly a slouch in the games department, but it did fall short. Microsoft didn’t show nearly as many games as Sony, nor did it have as much in-game footage. If Microsoft wants to catch up to Sony in the games department – as it should, considering the Xbox One is primarily a games console – the most obvious step the company can take is to show off more playable demos of its new games as soon as it can. We got a brief, pre-rendered glimpse of a new Halo, but all we saw was Master Chief wearing a cloth cloak over space armour.

Secondly, the reason why Microsoft doesn’t have the indie cred is because indie developers can’t self-publish on the Xbox One. In the grand scheme of things, this could lead to a very simple choice for Microsoft: Have no popular indie games at all (aside from Minecraft), or allow indie devs to self-publish. Whatever reason Microsoft has for not allowing them to self-publish certainly couldn’t be worth more than not having any indie devs at all.

Though Microsoft knows its audience – which is why we saw a slew of heavily armoured males shooting guns at the conference – the company could also spread its wings a little and show us a larger variety of genres. Microsoft may know its audience, but if the audience is jumping ship due to Sony’s E3 dominance or Microsoft’s oft-discussed DRM, the company can pull gamers back in by offering them an experience they can’t get anywhere else. Project Spark looked unique, but the Xbox is not traditionally the platform for unique experiences, so it may fall on deaf ears. If Microsoft continued pursuing those types of experiences, it could turn the Xbox into the creative gamer’s home.

The services

The world is comfortable with having to pay for Xbox Live Gold in order to play video games online. Now that the PS4 moved into that territory as well – requiring gamers to pay for a PS Plus membership in order to game online – Microsoft isn’t even behind in that category. However, as far as the world knows, every other online service is still behind the Gold paywall. If you subscribe to Netflix, you can’t watch it on your Xbox unless you also subscribe to Gold. Meanwhile, if you don’t subscribe to PS Plus, you can still watch Netflix on your PlayStation. If Microsoft removed the Gold paywall, then people wouldn’t have much to complain about.

On the surface, it doesn’t look like Microsoft’s run at TV will matter very much since the Xbox One doesn’t actually act as a cable box. Instead, it acts as a device you plug your set-top box into so you don’t have to turn on two separate things. However, the actual gem of the feature is that developers can place an overlay on live TV thanks to the Xbox passthrough.

The example shown so far is that if you’re watching a basketball game, you can invoke an overlay that shows how your Fantasy team is performing. This specific implementation, though useful, won’t blow the gaming population away. However, if developers can figure out creative, interesting ways to use this overlay feature, it could literally change the way we watch television. We have no idea what to do with the overlay, but hopefully someone over at Microsoft does.

The policies

It doesn’t seem like anyone knows exactly why Microsoft went ahead with the used games and online check-in DRM. Don’t forget about the mandatory sort of always-on Kinect, either. During the Sony conference, when Jack Tretton announced that the PS4 wouldn’t require an online check-in, the crowd went ballistic. When he announced that you could play, trade, and sell back used games the way we’ve always been able too, the crowd went ballistic again. Jack Tretton actually tried to move on to a new topic, but the crowd was still busy hooting and hollering, like in a live sketch show when the audience is still laughing from a joke so the actors have to wait to say the next bit of dialogue.

Yes, the E3 audience is mainly filled with in-the-know journalists, and the general consumer public isn’t as in-the-know. However, the general consumer public gets its information from those journalists, so if the journalists are unhappy, the consumers will know to be unhappy as well. If Microsoft revoked the online check-in, mandatory Kinect, and used games DRM, then the company could begin moving back into the good graces of gamers.

The E3 audience also lost its collective mind when Sony announced that the PS4 would undercut the Xbox One by £100. It’s not too late for Microsoft to drop the price of the console to be more competitive. The company might take a huge hit on hardware costs, but a huge hit on hardware costs and eventually making it back up in the long-run is probably better than the gaming audience not buying the console in the first place.

A tough road ahead for Microsoft

None of these changes will be easy or straightforward to enact. It is clear, from its games, services, and policies, that the Xbox One was conceived as a media centre for the US mass market, rather than a dedicated gaming machine that would appeal to gamers all over the world.

Will Microsoft make any of these changes? I doubt it. To compete with the PS4 in terms of gaming, the Xbox One would have to give up almost everything that makes it the Xbox One, and at this late stage I doubt the bureaucratic oil tanker that is Microsoft could make such a dramatic U-turn.

At this point, Microsoft’s best bet is to capitalise on its non-gaming advantages over Sony’s PS4, and pray that there are enough people in the US who actually want the live TV experience provided by the Xbox One. Outside the US, in markets where the Xbox is historically weaker than the PlayStation such as Japan and Europe (save for the UK), and where Microsoft doesn’t have the same licensing deals in place, the cold reality is that the Xbox One probably doesn’t stand much of a chance against the PS4.

While you're here, you might also want to check out: Sony's PlayStation 4 revealed: It's the anti-Xbox One.