The release of the PlayStation 4 in North America – it goes on sale in Europe and Latin America in a fortnight – is seen by many as the true dawn for next-generation console gaming after the troubled launch of Nintendo’s Wii U.
Early reviews of Sony’s new machine have praised its graphics for looking “cinematic”; commended its latest DualShock controller’s added touchpad and redesigned thumbsticks and triggers; and remarked that the console is much quieter and easier to navigate than the seven-year-old original PS3.
In a week’s time Microsoft fires back with the launch of the Xbox One.
It will be more expensive, but includes a more advanced body-movement sensor in the Kinect; better voice recognition; and a more ambitious bid to take charge of your living room thanks to its ability to control satellite and cable TV set top boxes.
The revelation that two cross-platform launch titles – Battlefield 4 and Call of Duty: Ghosts – both feature higher resolution graphics on the PS4 than Xbox One, has played to Sony’s favour.
But at this point the Xbox’s exclusive games, including Forza Motorsport and Titanfall, are creating more positive buzz on tech sites than Sony’s Killzone Shadow Fall and Infamous: Second Son.
The releases come at a critical time for both firms.
Sony recently slashed its full year profit forecast by 40%, surprising investors. Chief executive Kaz Hirai would like the PS4 to mirror the healthy sales of its smartphones, rather than its struggling TV unit.
Meanwhile, Microsoft has still to declare who will replace Steve Ballmer. The next chief executive has already been urged to “get rid” of the Xbox unit by the fund manager looking after Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s $2bn (£1.2bn) stake in the business.
To mark the consoles’ births the BBC invited five experts for their different perspectives on the challenges they face.Brian Crecente, Polygon
This month marks the beginning of a new generation of gaming. And for many gamers the question isn’t whether to buy a PlayStation 4 or Xbox One – that’s a given – but which to buy.
Sony and Microsoft have for years fought tooth-and-nail over the same growing audience of gamers.
They’ve done so by leap-frogging one another with technology, new bells-and-whistles, more powerful systems, new ways to play. But that’s not the case this time around.
With this latest next-generation there is a great schism between the two.
Where Sony’s PlayStation 4 delivers an intensely focused gaming machine, Microsoft’s Xbox One promises an entertainment hub, a system just as capable of controlling your cable box as it is delivering a new game for you to play.
The PlayStation 4 is the evolution of gaming, the product of the best bits of learning gleaned from three generations of systems.
It is refined. It is powerful. But it’s also lacking in any single stand-out gaming experience at launch.
And the Xbox One? It takes more chances, reaches for a broader range of experiences to deliver.
And in its variety it might, at least initially, miss some of the perfection of the PlayStation 4.
Never before has gaming had two such stand-out consoles to choose from and never before has there been more reasons to wait and see how both deliver on their promises.Daniel Kaplan, Mojang
Both Microsoft and Sony talk about the new platforms as indie friendly and it will be interesting if that is the case.
So far, for us it has been quite good but what I’m hearing from other developer friends, who are not in the same fortunate position of having had a bestselling game like Minecraft, is that there still seems to be a lot of forms to fill in to gain access to software development kits and tools.
The idea that you need a separate development kit – a special version of the console that can be very expensive – to create games for the PS4 and Xbox One is quite bad for indies since a lot of them usually have very little cash at hand, so removing as much friction as possible would be ideal.
Microsoft has said that every standard Xbox One will work as a dev kit at some point, however not from launch.
There is really no need of all of this behaviour since both Google Play and Apple’s App Store have shown that you can create open markets for all kinds of developers with the same deal for everyone.
Giving more or less everyone the same opportunity is important for the indies.
It allows their developers to focus their time on creating games and not on filling out forms describing different features or ordering dev kits for a lot of money that may not ultimately bear fruit for them anyway.
With that being said, both Microsoft and Sony are changing and I’m really looking forward to what will happen in the future.Anand Shimpi, AnandTech
For the first time the guts of both the Xbox and PlayStation are very similar – their processor and memory hardware vary in performance but not capabilities.
Gone are the days when Sony’s machine was substantially more difficult to program for than Microsoft’s.
In fact, the PlayStation 4 has appreciably more graphics horsepower under its hood than the Xbox One, there’s no way around that fact.
Both firms have licensed the same GPU (graphics processing unit) architecture, but Sony’s chip has 1152 “cores” compared to Microsoft’s 768.
Microsoft runs its cores at a slightly higher speed, but the maths works out to Sony having about a 40% peak potential graphics performance advantage.
The real question is whether this translates into a substantially better gaming experience.
Typically developers building one game for multiple platforms target the lower performing one, and may offer some additional perks to the faster one – smoother frame rates, slightly improved visuals.
I suspect that’s what will happen this generation. At worst you’ll see parity between the two consoles, but at best you’ll see developers give PS4 versions of cross-platform games a slight edge.
Where things get really interesting is what happens if a developer chooses to develop exclusively for the PS4 and go all out.
Here’s where Microsoft believes its other strengths – Xbox Live, developer relations, the Kinect sensor – will give it the advantage. Microsoft is basically counting on everything else being so good that developers would rather give it their exclusives.
Sony appears to have built the faster gaming machine, while Microsoft has built a system that might appeal to a broader audience and perhaps consume less power.
There are strengths in both platforms – anyone hoping for a clean sweep will likely be disappointed.Margaret Robertson, Hide&Seek
When the PS3 and Xbox 360 launched, there was no iPhone or Android. There was no Farmville, no Zynga, no Temple Run, no Plants vs Zombies.
Gaming was owned, overwhelmingly, by Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony. And that meant it was also owned, overwhelmingly, by your TV. And TV games have some very particular properties.
TV games are public – everyone else in the house can see that you’re playing and what you’re playing.
They’re comfortable for long play sessions, and a big screen and big speakers lend themselves to big, epic stories and spectacle.
Long, spectacular play sessions means it’s worth scheduling with friends to play online.
TV gaming is all kinds of great, but I’ve often heard from people who reject it – women especially – that they aren’t rejecting the content, but the format.