Pop quiz, hotshots: Who knows why Sony didn't show the actual box when it revealed PS4?
Put your hands down if you think the prototype wasn't ready. Of course it was ready. The console will be released this year, which means the case design will have been done a long time ago. It's not the sort of thing you can knock out on a Friday afternoon between crafty games of Candy Crush.
Also put your hands down if you think it was because Sony just wanted to concentrate on how down with the developers it is now, maaaaan. No doubt there's truth in the idea that the Japanese giant needed to be seen righting many of its past wrongs in terms of providing support for devs big and small. And there's some truth, too, in the idea that PS4 is likely to be a fairly utilitarian-looking black box, so not that exciting anyway. (A glance at Xbox One's sleek but ultimately fairly dull PVR-style design confirms this.) But they aren't the reasons either.
Consoles are still regarded as fetish objects by those who use them, and even if these next ones are unlikely to have industrial design gurus fapping into their copies of Creative Review, seeing a box for the first time still clearly matters a lot to the gaming community. So when Sony decided not to show the hardware, its strategists will have known that would cause criticism. So why not show it?
Answer: because Sony is playing the marketing equivalent of a game of tic-tac-toe with Microsoft, and it is winning.
During the phoney war before either of the machines had been announced, it was telling that Sony was making noises about not giving Microsoft another year-long head start. And little wonder, because the PS3 almost didn't recover. Instead, Sony has been aggressive this time, targeting first-mover advantage. They are going hard at winning the battle for what marketing gurus call 'mind share' (feel free to be sick in your mouth, but it's true).
By going first, but not showing the box, Sony almost guaranteed Microsoft would respond by showing its hardware in an attempt at one-upmanship. Sure enough, Microsoft spokesbloke 'Major Nelson', née Larry Hyrb, bit almost immediately, tweeting: "Announce a console without actually showing a console? That's one approach."
Sometimes I wonder if he's a real Major at all, it was such an obvious trap. Why? Because Sony now goes into E3 with that big hardware reveal still tucked under its skirt.
You might reply that Microsoft can concentrate on just showcasing games at E3, and after last night's underwhelming slate of software, no doubt it does need to do that. (Check out this graphical comparison which a wag on Reddit has created and ask yourself this: are the next generation's trees next generationy enough?)
Realistically, that's a job Sony also needs to do. I'm assuming you haven't pre-ordered Knack at this point, but it can do so in the knowledge that it can also rely on the pizzazz of a hardware reveal to juice up its press conference.
In fact, Sony is already teasing that reveal using ambush marketing to steal a little of Xbox One's thunder. Even if you think the blurry footage is a bit of a nonsense - and with all those grilles, my guess is the final design will be equal parts Bang & Olufsen hi-fi and Breville sandwich maker - you can't deny that this is Sony at least trying to operate more smartly against its rival than we've seen at any point in the previous two generations.
None of which is to say that any sort of knockout punch has been, or even could be, landed by either company yet. To get all Churchillian on your asses, this is just the end of the beginning. Key questions remain for both format holders to answer...
- Which territories will the machines launch in this year?
- How much will each machine cost?
- How exactly will the sale of pre-owned games work?
- What is the minimum commitment to being online that each machine will require?
- What games will be available at launch?
Take a look at the third question again. Do you know what Sony's policy for pre-owned games is going to be? I don't. The best CVG's bloodhound of an editor could extract from Michael Denny, Sony's VP of Worldwide Studios after the PS4 reveal, was some bluster about doing "the right thing" by consumers and developers. Cool! Beyond that, Sony has largely got away scot-free ever since.
The reason why Microsoft has found itself pulled into the gravity well of pre-owned, is because rather than refuse to comment on the issue, or (as would have been preferable) give a clear and coherent response, it instead offered multiple, partial accounts of how the system for second-hand sales will work, signed off with the flourish of "we'll share more at a later date".
Coupled with the confusion that has surrounded 'always-on' internet requirements during the build-up to yesterday, it's little surprise that the vacuum has been filled by misinformation and speculation. Having to connect to the internet once per day, if that's what the requirement ends up being, is hardly onerous - and Microsoft ought to have drawn the sting from the issue much earlier.
As for the other questions, some - but certainly not all - will be answered at E3. Given that both machines are likely to end up with similar specs, similar launch windows, similar third-party line-ups and similar prices, what points of differentiation that do exist between them will become magnified in consumers' minds. Perhaps you'll pick PlayStation 4 because you buy into Sony's apparently more indie-centric, social/sharing vision of a pure games machine. Or maybe you'll be sold on Microsoft's dream of a unified entertainment hub that can pipe ALL THE CONTENT directly into your eyes. However, your final judgment will not be based on these reveals, both of which were flawed in their own ways.
Nonetheless, I found it telling that despite being half the length, my attention wandered in the Xbox One reveal in a way that it didn't during the PS4 presser. As swish as all the TV stuff and snap apps looked, I'm not entirely convinced they solve problems I'm actually worried about. And, if you live outside the US, question marks hang over which entertainment partners and additional services will actually be on the machine. Won't somebody think of the Europeans!
My response to Xbox One in the immediate aftermath is that it's a good machine, presented badly. Having taken quite the kicking on social media, the execs at Redmond must lick their wounds and begin clearing up the omnishambles surrounding pre-owned while also re-positioning the system as something for consumers who are interested in more than just sports and TV shows. Because, fundamentally, my TV already does a pretty decent job of enabling me to watch TV.
Microsoft's renewed PR push will no doubt involve more talking up of those 15 exclusives in the first year, highlighting how great the pad's new rumble-assisted triggers are, and so on.
Still, it could hardly be any clearer that the firm is targeting the broadest base of entertainment consumers possible with Xbox One. It would be unwise, though, to lose sight of the gamers who have given it the platform to do so over the course of the previous two generations. Positions of dominance don't last forever in the games industry, and there's no quicker way to lose one than by incorrectly making assumptions about what your audience wants. Hey, just ask Sony.