I decided to class up this Xbox One vs PS4 comparison with a little Shakespeare. I stumbled into some Macbeth while writing this and couldn't stumble out. It seemed odd to me, at first, to think the Bard could have written anything that would apply to a 21st century debate about video games, but I guess that's why he's a genius. Turns out Macbeth can be (loosely) applied to what's happening in the post-E3 Xbox One vs PS4 debate. After all, this is a debate about ambition. Sony scored a big victory this week with a new graphics comparison that proves a hardware edge for the PS4. Sony's ambition is to be the best console on Day One. Microsoft's ambition is to be the best console on Day 367, Day 1,550 and Day 3,649. Like all great stories of revenge, Microsoft's victory will unfold over time because of careful planning and willingness to look to the future. The Xbox One will dismantle its rival by staying ahead of it, one move at a time.
Xbox One vs PS4: Sony Has Better Release Date Hardware
Away, and mock the time with fairest show:
False face must hide what the false heart doth know. - Macbeth Scene I, act vii
The Xbox One vs PS4 debate got a shot of hard statistics this week after Eurogamer's Digital Foundry released a graphics comparison based on mock-up versions of both next-gen consoles. Take a look:
Xbox One vs PS4: Digital Foundry Benchmark Test
Visually, there isn't much difference in how the Xbox One looks compared to the PS4. But you can see in the benchmarking that Sony has a built-in computational advantage over the Xbox One. According to Digital Foundry, the PS4 possessed, on average during the tests, a 24 percent advantage.
"The PS4 enjoys two key strengths over the Xbox One in terms of its rendering prowess: raw GPU power and masses of bandwidth. On the face of it, the specs look like a wash, but it seems clear that one of those advantages - the 50 per cent increase in compute power - doesn't result in the stratospheric boost to performance you might imagine. Clearly the PS4 is more powerful, but the evidence suggests that quality tweaks and/or resolution changes could help produce level frame-rates on both platforms running the same games. Bandwidth remains the big issue - the PS4's 256-bit bus is established technology, and easy to utilize. Xbox One's ESRAM is the big unknown," writes Digital Foundry.
So that's it right? Xbox One vs PS4 console war is over now? Sony has the better hardware in the box and that is that.
There's no denying that the PS4 has the better hardware. Developers have been raving over the strength of the system architecture and how effectively it can process data. Microsoft's ESRAM/DDR3 combo set-up, inherently different from the more direct GDDR5 in the PS4, requires more work from developers. However, the under-the-hood comparisons don't take into account a major variable, and one I think will give Microsoft the edge over time: cloud computing.
Xbox One vs PS4: Sony Wins Today, Microsoft Wins Tomorrow And Tomorrow And Tomorrow ...
"All our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death ... " Macbeth Act V, Scene V
Microsoft might have lost the early PR campaign and be behind on out-of-the-box specs, but ultimately it will win the Xbox One vs PS4 console war because the PS4 is a system too focused on what the best tech is today, whereas the Xbox One appears to be a "futureproof" system designed to peak a few years from now. Microsoft said this back in June:
For us, the future comes in the form of Xbox One, a system designed to be the best place to play games this year and for many years to come.
What works against Microsoft in the early days of the Xbox One vs PS4 console war is the system's reliance on a strong broadband connection. (The flip-flop on the 'Always-On' setting will likely be temporary once the launch window closes). Microsoft's strongest market is the U.S., where broadband connectivity is still a big issue for plenty of people in rural areas. From the FCC:
Approximately 19 million Americans-6 percent of the population-still lack access to fixed broadband service at threshold speeds. In rural areas, nearly one-fourth of the population -14.5 million people-lack access to this service. In tribal areas, nearly one-third of the population lacks access. Even in areas where broadband is available, approximately 100 million Americans still do not subscribe.
So the not-required-but-recommended 'always on' setting means Xbox One has 100 million people who, for better or worse, will not come close to getting the functionality out of the Xbox One that Microsoft gets when it sets it up in the fancy schmancy lab and tests it under optimum conditions.
The anti-#dealwithit crowd I know (disclaimer: I was once on the bandwagon too) all have access to decent Internet service. I live in NYC, along with 9 million other people in the "can get most of the most out of an Xbox One on the release date" camp. But I hear people go after #dealwithit and act like they're not buying an Xbox One because Microsoft doesn't care about Mellette County, South Dakota. The simple fact is Microsoft DOES care about Mellette County, just not right now during the launch window. In the Xbox One vs PS4 debate, PS4 wins out of the box, but Microsoft wins on the calendar.
Broadband speeds in the U.S. are increasing rapidly. The U.S. (Microsoft's best market) is 9th in broadband right now. Kind of bad news for Uncle Sam, who likes to wave that ol' 'We're #1' foam finger in the air. This stat was also cited by Digital Foundry in an oft-cited debunking of cloud computing. But the picture actually isn't grim at all for broadband in the U.S., the rankings don't make any mention of overall population. The U.S. is the third largest country in the world and has a total population higher than all the countries ahead of it combined (313 million compared to 228 million, and yes I checked). Service in America increased by 27 percent since last year, and more than 80 percent of American households live in areas that offer access to broadband networks capable of delivering data with speeds in excess of 100 MbPS.
As broadband speeds go up in the U.S., so too does the potential of the Xbox One.
According to the National Broadband Plan, 100 million U.S. homes should have affordable access to actual download speeds of at least 100 MbPS by 2020. Microsoft recently boasted that the Xbox One is designed to be always-on for ten years. Yes, that sounds insane. But a look at the internals of the Xbox One console reveal it is (theoretically) possible.
There are a lot of unknowns in the Xbox One vs PS4 debate, but Microsoft looked down the road of unknowns and tried to design a system for tomorrow's technology. The handicaps of the Xbox One in out-of-the-box comparisons to the PS4 are because the world around the Xbox One hasn't caught up to it yet. In 2020, when so many millions of Americans (and the hundreds of millions of people in the top 8 countries that outrank it) have amazing broadband connections they will be able to take advantage of the feature that gives the win to Microsoft in the Xbox One vs PS4 debate: cloud computing.
Xbox One vs PS4: Cloud Computing Bets On Megabits
Come what come may, time and the hour
run through the roughest day. -Macbeth Act I, Scene iii
The Xbox One's cloud computing technology is a hard feature to pin down. On one hand, Microsoft acts like its going to be a game changer. And they're not just saying they believe in cloud computing; they're investing hardware, both in the guts of the Xbox One and through server connections. Inside the console, Microsoft gave two of the four 'Memory Move Engines' the capability to process zip and LZ, memory compression formats that are used in streaming data. "Microsoft has such interest in compressing data that it has dedicated silicon to the job instead of leaving it to the CPU," writes Digital Foundry.
Alongside components inside the console are the highly publicized 300k servers Microsoft will be ready on launch day to assist in cloud computing. It's a lot of hardware, equivalent to global processing power in the early 90s. Currently, Xbox LIVE runs off of about 15,000 servers and supports 46 million Xbox LIVE users. Whether or not you believe it will work as advertised, Microsoft obviously does. It's a major infrastructure commitment.
Digital Foundry examined the cloud computing claims after E3 and declared them false, to a degree. Woeful broadband speeds are to blame for much of what's holding the Xbox One back, but that's a shortsighted critique. Broadband IS improving at a brisk pace in many major markets. And Microsoft has been open about what the cloud will accomplish in the early stages of the Xbox One vs PS4 launch battle.
"One example of [what cloud computing will do] might be lighting. Let's say you're looking at a forest scene and you need to calculate the light coming through the trees ... Those things often involve some complicated up-front calculations when you enter that world, but they don't necessarily have to be updated every frame. Those are perfect candidates for the console to offload that to the cloud - the cloud can do the heavy lifting, because you've got the ability to throw multiple devices at the problem in the cloud," said General Manager at Microsoft Game Studios Matt Booty.
Cloud computing can also be used to bolster AI in the early days of the Xbox One. It won't be able to do anything in terms of reactionary decisions, like combat moves or pathfinding, but it will be able to allow a complex living world to exist off-screen. Imagine a Skyrim where every citizen of Whiterun got to live out a complex life on one of the 300k servers instead of within the confines of your own system. Skyrim, incidentally, ran off of 512MB of RAM on the Xbox 360, so we're talking about a very significant increase in what developers have access to. Turn 10 creative director Dan Greenawalt recently told OXM that the AI in Forza 5 was getting a huge increase thanks to the cloud.
"We can now make our AI instead of just being 20%, 10% of the box's capability, we can make it 600% of the box's capability," he said. "Put it in the cloud and free up that 10% or 20% to make the graphics better - on a box that's already more powerful than we worked on before."
All of that access, ultimately, is why I feel cloud computing will allow Microsoft to win the Xbox One vs PS4 debate in the long run. One thing we know about the future in the 21st century: the tech is always better. The phone in your pocket has a lot more computational power than the console in your living room right now. But massive gaming experiences like the upcoming GTA V are being pulled off because of the ingenuity of software developers who've been working with this hardware for years. John Carmack just gave a keynote at QuakeCon and said it could be decades before new consoles arrive. As the best and brightest experiment with the potentials of Xbox One's cloud computing it's hard to fathom what games will look like in a few years.
Sony doesn't believe in cloud computing, at least not to the extent that Microsoft does. We still don't know any hard data about what the PSN server count will be on launch day, so it's tough to gauge how invested Sony really is in cloud computing. But PS4 lead architect Mark Cerny recently told IGN that he doesn't think cloud computing has much potential beyond multiplayer match-ups:
"Matchmaking is done in the cloud and it works very well. If we think about things that don't work well, trying to boost the quality of the graphics, that won't work well in the cloud," he said. "To the extent that it's possible to do computing in the cloud, PS4 can do computing in the cloud."
Microsoft seems to have a more dynamic 10-year plan than Sony. In addition to investment in cloud computing, Microsoft recently filed a patent for AR glasses. Obviously these are still way early in development, but it's a forward-thinking kind of accessory that isn't even on the radar for Sony.
And, in the Xbox One vs PS4 debate, the cloud computing will pay off for Microsoft because the Xbox One will have the one thing that really matters: better games.
Xbox One vs PS4: Better Exclusives, Better Press
Upon my head they placed a fruitless crown,
And put a barren sceptre in my grip, - Macbeth Act III, scene i
It's only been a few months since Microsoft got positively shellacked at E3 by Sony. The buzz that week was basically spent dancing on Microsoft's grave. But in the weeks since Microsoft has reversed it's severe 'always-on' DRM policies. Did it cave because of the negative reaction? Absolutely. Is it pandering? Of course. Will it sell more consoles? Definitely.
Post-E3 though, once the ethereal jism from the mental masturbating of thousands of giddy fanboys settled and people looked at what was showcased at E3, Microsoft scored a major victory. It's exclusive IP Titanfall became the first game to win six awards in the history of the E3 Critics Awards, winning Best in Show, Best Original Game, Best Console Game, Best PC Game, Best Action Game and Best Online Multiplayer.
This is where Sony fanboyism will kick in hard for some. Because I'm sure there are people who will tell me that having the winningest game in the history of E3 in no way means Microsoft has a better launch window lineup than Sony. To quoth the Vader: Search your feelings [Sony Fanboys], you know it to be true!
And having the best exclusive means a LOT considering how much cross-over we'll get in the early days of the Xbox One vs PS4 console wars. Major AAA games like Watch Dogs, Assassin's Creed 4, Elder Scrolls Online, Call of Duty: Ghosts and The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt will be on both consoles. Both consoles are at a relative stalemate when it comes to indie games too. Sony has supported self-publishing for indies from Day One, and Microsoft recently came around to promise the same as well.
So if the AAAs are the same, and if the indie marketplace will be near equal then all we have left to differentiate between the two are the exclusives. And this is why Titanfall is so significant. The average gamer isn't even likely to buy a next gen console right away, and the ones that do won't be buying every launch title available. Titanfall could be the must-have game that pushes the Xbox One ahead later next year.
It was easy to write off the Xbox One during E3, I know I did. But when you see how similar both consoles actually are, and how similar the libraries will be in the early days of development, then the decision will come down to which one has the best exclusives. And right now, that console is the Xbox One and that exclusive is Titanfall. Titanfall will also release for PC, giving it an expanded online presence that comes at the expense of Sony. PS4 owners without high-end gaming PCs won't be able to look past the glowing reviews and hype machine that will take off when Titanfall launches next spring. People are starting to forget about the funny E3 videos and starting to focus on the stuff that looks cool. And Microsoft has the most cool stuff right now. They also have another advantage: they're freaking Microsoft.
Xbox One vs PS4: Microsoft Will Outmuscle Sony's Manufacturing And Message
Look like the innocent flower,
But be the serpent under it. - Macbeth Act I, scene v
In the last few weeks Microsoft has talked about the Xbox One as a ten-year console, announced it was upping its GPU after developer feedback and will release an adapter for Xbox 360 headsets within days of people griping about the price of next-gen headsets. Microsoft KNOWS they got spanked at E3 (hence the ousting of Don Mattrick) and have gotten better at putting out PR fires. This shouldn't surprise anyone. Microsoft is the bigger corporation and is using their financial muscle to out manufacture the PS4 in the early phases of development.
"Despite losing the headline battle at E3, Microsoft's Xbox One appears to be regaining some momentum, in part due to the used and online policy tweaks. Importantly, our supply chain checks suggest Microsoft may have the benefit of a 2-3x unit advantage at launch compared to Sony's PS4," said industry analyst Colin Sebastian.
This should surprise no one. According to investor analysis, Microsoft is worth approximately $243 billion and Sony about $11.5 billion. Microsoft has very, VERY deep pockets and can afford to outspend its rival if it has to. Expect more units, more marketing, more everything from Microsoft during the launch window. Sony can't coast on its E3 win forever. Microsoft is looking to step up its game significantly at Gamescom in a few weeks, and I'm looking forward to the Sony response.
I'm of the opinion that it doesn't matter which side you're on in the Xbox One vs PS4 debate. The more these two companies slug it out, the better it gets for everyone. The Xbox One is sounding like a significantly better console right now because they've been making the changes people wanted. But don't count Sony out either. Rumor has it they ditched the PS4 camera before E3 so they could shave $100 off the retail price. Sony noticed the anti-Xbox One consumer sentiment going into E3 and threw the first big punch. Microsoft has since countered with a series of great jabs (Titanfall's success, upping the GPU, fan-friendly changes like the Xbox 180 and headset adapters).
In the great Xbox One vs PS4 console war everyone wins. For now.