The recent spate of hurried u-turns from Microsoft have been positive things, albeit moves that come with caveats or some slight reservations. In the case of the capitulation over online connectivity requirements, Microsoft were accused of aborting their (highly flawed, it must be said, but ambitious) roadmap for a digital future by exchanging one extreme for another. In the recent revelation regarding self-publishing, the common consensus was "good move, but...", stating that Microsoft have more to do to win over an indie sector that they've blithely ignored in many ways in the last couple of years.
Communication, as we predicted, is the word of the moment. Sony have presented a unified front for the most part, carefully channelling the party message on the PS4, and generally responding to questions firmly and in a timely fashion. Moreover, Sony have succeeded with a very simple tactic, for good or ill, telling gamers what they want to hear.
Jon recently wrote that pricing something at £349 is not a reason to buy something, but actually for many it really is. Early adopters want a new console, so the question of "are you going to buy?" is irrelevant. It's all about "which one?" Sony have clearly understood that this generational console war, much more so than the last, is finally a fair race. Two manufacturers, two consoles, one holiday season release window. And, as many of our readers in particular will surely appreciate, value for money is crucial.
Moreover, many will see that as this current generation has gone on, there's been little to choose from between the PS3 and the Xbox 360 when it comes to the biggest games -- those large multiplatform titles that interest. The old complaint about poor PS3 ports for multiplatform titles has fallen away, the big hitters of COD and FIFA are enjoyed as much by Sony fans these days as they are by Microsoft's.
It's worth considering too that although Microsoft arguably made the best pitch at E3 in terms of titles unique to their system, Sony have been doing a better job at present, with the likes of Ni No Kuni and The Last of Us this year exhibiting a range of tethered talent, and there's still GT6 and Beyond: Two Souls to come as well. By contrast, the Xbox 360 seems have become something of an afterthought post-Halo 4.
But there have been a few who've noted the continued outpouring of scorn, though lessened to some degree it must be said, towards Microsoft, questioning the negativity and the cynicism and asking why the same treatment hasn't been applied to Sony. The answer again comes back to communication. Playstation Access has been a massive boon to Sony, the Playstation Blog delivers timely news and, more importantly, direct communication with many of Sony's development partners. Sony have been successful in breaking down barriers between gamers and creators, and really cultivating a sense of community. Microsoft's 2013, by contrast, appears to have been one PR disaster after another. If only there was a show that looked Inside Xbox, giving fans insight into upcoming titles, new releases, and making that leviathan of a company appear a little more personal and connected to its audience. Oh, wait.
But there's plenty of time to go, and much of the criticism of Microsoft has to do with a desire to see them do better. The best thing that could happen would be to have two consoles with smashing features and a great range of unique experiences each competing hard from the very start of the next-generation. Some have declared the battle for supremacy for next-gen over already, but that's pure rubbish. We won't even have an indication of that come the January sales. This is a marathon, not a sprint, as Sony's Fergal Gara said of the Vita, but it applies to the home console scene as well.
Microsoft need to turn things around, but the recent action is a promising start. This industry is filled with hyperbole and grand protestations of discontent, gamers bluster and feud and make concrete proclamations that we often change in a heartbeat because ooh new shiny thing. The same goes for us in the press: so much of what we're all writing at this stage is speculative, pre-generational hoping, dealing with what's in front of us.
One of the criticisms of Microsoft's approach has been that the large steps they've made of late have been reactionary. That Sony is dictating the pace, and Microsoft are merely trying to catch up and keep afloat. But this generation has seen Microsoft often trendsetting: online subscriptions to deliver a better service, pioneering work with indies (at least in the beginning), Achievements, streaming services. But we can't know how long some of these policies have been kicking around, not really. Back at E3, Microsoft's chief marketing & strategy officer for the Xbox, Yusuf Mehdi told GamesIndustry that, "as we get a chance to tell more of our story, more of the details will come out and things will start to self regulate. We're going to be incredibly attentive to the ecosystem in the marketplace." It seems that Microsoft, like Nintendo, have had a certain amount of tunnel vision, and Sony tore up the schedule by walking in and laying what people wanted to hear out on the table.
But that could work in Microsoft's favour come release date. If the Redmond company, as we said recently, can capitalise on the first positive steps that it's made and bring some serious firepower to Gamescom and beyond, the pacing of their reveals could result in a timely upswing. After all, it's not so important to peak right now, what you want is momentum going into autumn and winter, and Microsoft certainly seem to have planned for that, even if they've been a little leaky. They'll happily take the fallen fortunes of June if it means a peak in September and October.
That said, I can't stress the importance of public relations enough. I point to the hilarious gifs of Kaz Hirai that litter hashtag-strewn Tweets every time there's a Sony event, or the memes of Nice Guy Jack following Mr. Tretton's appearance at E3 this year. Sony have an enormous amount of community goodwill in their favour, and though we can't call anything yet -- this is all just pre-season training -- that could make a difference when the crunch comes, in the months that follow the release dates for these consoles. Nintendo do it with Nintendo Direct, though less successfully, but I kind of love the fact that I have Iwata in my 3DS friend garden. As for Microsoft, the new Xbox Wire helps, a little, but it's a site with a corporate sheen, another impersonal barrier, and Major Nelson is but one, rather inconsistent man.
The next few months leading up to launch are important, for Microsoft in particular who need to figure out who they are, what the Xbox One is, and convey that to a sceptical crowd. On the one hand, this is all just shield-bashing, horn-tooting, pre-battle noise really. But on the other, these months can provide much need momentum for 2014. A marathon is run so much more easily, after all, if the preparation is done right.