If you're an amateur historian of video games as I am, you know that every generation of standalone consoles has come with its own surprises, and that leadership in one generation in no way guarantees leadership—let alone success—in the next. But there is almost no precedent for Sony's PlayStation 4, which has sold an incredible 6 million units in just over 3 months.
I am having trouble understanding this.
I don't think it's as simple as the price though, yes, $400 is less than the $500 Microsoft is asking for the Xbox One. But $400? That's still really expensive for a brick that sits in a single place in your house and monopolizes an HDTV while you use it. This is not how the mainstream enjoys interactive entertainment anymore.
And at 6 million units, we've surpassed the available market of "hard core gamers." The theory last year was that at $400 and $500, respectively, the only people buying these new consoles during the launch window would be this limited crowd of Kool Aid-drinking fanboys who'd purchase anything with a PlayStation or Xbox logo. But with roughly 10 million consoles out the door between the two (I'm probably being kind, whatever), we've already surpassed that little market. Actual customers are buying these things now.
The thing is, the PS4 isn't even that great in its current and, yes, incomplete state. Like the Xbox One, there are no killer, gotta-have-it games, and as I noted in my review, the single best thing about this console—multitasking—works similarly on the competition. There's nothing unique about the PS4. And while I argue that it's less valuable and less interesting than the Xbox One, which comes with a far more compelling user experience, more entertainment apps and possibilities, surprisingly useful voice control features, and HDMI passthrough capabilities ... whatever. You may disagree. They're comparable in the real world.
I say that not as some weird Xbox partisan—there are certainly aspects to this platform I'm not happy with including the compulsory paid Xbox Live Gold subscription—but rather as an objective outside observer who has played and owned almost every video game console that's ever been released in this country and has been writing professionally about technology for over 20 years. They're comparable.
And before anyone starts spouting technical hoo-hah about how the PS4 RAM is faster than that in the Xbox One or other such nonsense, let me just remind everyone that these exact types of claims were made about the PS3 when compared to the Xbox 360 8 years ago, and none of those supposed advantages ever translated into any meaningfully superior games or experiences. And the number one selling console of that generation was technical laughing stock, the Nintendo Wii. Specs aren't why people buy mass quantities of tech products, whether you're talking about video games or anything else. Technically, the PS4 and Xbox One are comparable, very comparable. This is not a meaningful discussion for anyone other than the debilitating pedantic.
No, this is ... almost unexplainable.
To recap, it can't be the price, not anymore and not exclusively. It's not that one killer game everyone has to have; that game does not exist. And it's not the specs, which no one normal cares about.
Is it possible—even remotely possible—that Sony, a company that is currently jettisoning most of its one-time consumer electronics businesses and shouldn't be trusted by any consumer, is somehow riding a weird wave of marketing and popularity that started way back at E3 and magically hasn't subsided yet?
Is it likewise possible that Microsoft's missteps in launching the Xbox One last spring and botching the messaging on now-defanged but actually useful functionality in some way has persisted to this day? Is that possible?
Is the relative success of the PS4 literally the result of ... better marketing?
If so, maybe Microsoft needs its "SEGA scream" ad series or whatever, and not do the "I'm a Mac, I'm a PC" thing and just ignore this. Maybe it needs to bring back some of the features that the never-do-wells super-punched it into removing before the launch. Maybe it needs to simply point out the Xbox One is better than the PS4 where it matters.
And yes, maybe it needs to match the PS4 price, something that frankly should have happened for launch. At least remove that issue from the conversation.