With the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 set to launch in just a few months, I thought it would be interesting to look back on the current offerings from Microsoft and Sony and see which was better – subjectively speaking, of course. This has been the second console generation with what I called a “two-plus-one” set of home consoles: Xbox and PlayStation fishing in the same pond, and Nintendo doing its own thing off to one side. This began last generation, when Nintendo stopped competing directly with Xbox and PlayStation and began to reposition itself as a family-friendly, casual-gamer brand. As Nintendo’s consoles have been different, gimmicky, and have a focus on unusual and unique ways to play, I’m setting them aside and just looking a Xbox and PlayStation in this article.
Although exact sales numbers have been hard to come by, PlayStation has been by far the biggest seller this generation. The various PlayStation 4 versions – including the PlayStation 4 Pro – have easily outsold the Xbox One by two-to-one or more, and it isn’t unfair to say they’ve been absolutely dominant. The previous cycle – where the Xbox 360 faced down the PlayStation 3 – couldn’t have been more different. Xbox was dominant then, and it just goes to show how quickly things can change in a fast-moving industry, not to mention how a poor launch can scupper a console’s chances.
The Xbox One’s launch in 2013 could hardly have gone worse for Microsoft. The biggest problem was the always-online nature of the console, which was incredibly controversial and offputting for many gamers. It wasn’t simply a case of always needing to be connected to the internet – which for many people even today is difficult in many regions – but that basic things like lending a game to a friend was incredibly complicated. The initial suggestion was that the Xbox One would need to register every game a player used, and it was unclear at first if two people who each had a separate Xbox account on a single shared console would need two separate copies of the game in order to play. Microsoft talked about a system where players could nominate someone from their friend list to share the disc with, but this raised the spectre of Xbox gamers being unable to trade in old games. The whole thing was a horrible mess, and Sony made a funny video in response, pretending to show in detail how game-sharing would work on PlayStation 4: one person hands the disc to another, and that was the end of the video.
As an aside, most of the big games companies have been looking for ways undermine game trade-ins for a long time. When a shop like Game in the UK or Gamestop in the US buys and then re-sells a title, none of that money goes back to games companies, and they have long felt that the practice cuts into their sales and profits. With physical game shops almost certainly on the way out as gaming moves to an all-digital future, they won’t have that problem any more. For people on low incomes, including younger people, being able to buy games more cheaply second-hand can be a lifeline, and even if most of us are okay with the switch to digital games, a lot of people are going to lose out. But we’ve drifted off-topic!
The Xbox One was initially bundled with the now-abandoned Kinect device, and those first Xbox One consoles required Kinect to be connected at all times. Not only did this have the effect of raising the price of the Xbox One – $499 in the US or £429 in the UK – but there were also pretty serious privacy concerns, especially from some parents’ groups. The Kinect had a front-facing camera, and some people were uncomfortable at the idea of an always-connected, always-online camera in their living room 24/7.
The price issue was huge, though. By tying itself to Kinect – and refusing to release a no-Kinect option – the Xbox One’s price was inflated. The PlayStation 4 was able to come in a hundred dollars cheaper and massively undercut Microsoft – in a similar way to what the Xbox 360 did to the PlayStation 3 in the previous generation. The PlayStation 4 was initially priced at $399 in the US and £349 in the UK; a pretty substantial saving.
Microsoft did later backtrack on some of the internet requirements, but even at launch the Xbox One still required a one-time internet connection in order to complete its setup procedure. It was a climbdown from the always-online requirement, but Microsoft still managed to force internet connectivity in there somehow!
I’ve been lucky this generation to have played on both the Xbox One and the PlayStation 4. I even bought an Xbox One at launch – despite the issues mentioned above. However, I didn’t have a particularly good time with the machine. While I did have a few games- including at least one exclusive, Ryse: Son of Rome – the console ended up getting used more for watching DVDs and streaming. And I guess that sums up Xbox this generation in a way, as Microsoft aimed to make the console less of a gaming powerhouse and more of an all-in-one multimedia centre.
The lack of decent exclusives has harmed Xbox immeasurably this generation. A number of PlayStation 4 exclusives are regarded among the best games of the last few years: titles like God of War, Uncharted 4, Marvel’s Spider-Man, Horizon Zero Dawn, The Last Guardian, Bloodborne, and even remasters like The Last of Us, Shadow of the Colossus, and Uncharted 1-3. Xbox simply has very little in response to these outstanding games. The few Xbox exclusives that there have been this generation – and there haven’t been many memorable ones – were average at best. Titles like Sea of Thieves and even the venerable Halo series didn’t come close to accomplishing for the system what Sony’s lineup did for the PlayStation 4.
Before this console generation kicked off in 2013, I’d only played a handful of games on any PlayStation system. Throughout the life of PlayStation as a brand, I’d always had a different console. When the first PlayStation debuted I had a Nintendo 64. When the PlayStation 2 was out in the early 2000s I had a Sega Dreamcast and then an original Xbox. And in the PlayStation 3 days I was an Xbox 360 and Wii owner. It was only when I really wanted to play The Last of Us in 2013 that I treated myself to a PlayStation 3 – the first console in the PlayStation family that I ever owned. I only played a handful of PlayStation 3 games, though, because the current generation of consoles launched a few months later.
Nowadays my primary gaming platform is PC, and that’s been the case for a while actually. Digital distribution via platforms like Steam and the Epic Games Store is just so convenient, and while it’s possible to buy console games as a download too, I like having a powerful, customisable machine that isn’t just useful for gaming. But a couple of years ago I picked up a PlayStation 4, hoping to play some of its tantalising lineup of exclusives. While in terms of the way the consoles work and the graphics put out the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are almost inseparable, in terms of gaming experiences I enjoyed what PlayStation had to offer way more. I no longer own my Xbox One, having given it away several years ago.
Though I’m not a VR gamer, it’s worth adding that PlayStation tried very hard to make virtual reality mainstream this generation. The PlayStation 4’s VR kit is by far the most successful VR platform at the moment, and has helped take what was a niche idea much further than anyone thought possible.
Both in terms of my personal experience with these two consoles, as well as in terms of objective sales data, the PlayStation 4 has been by far the better and more successful offering this generation. And as I mentioned a few days ago, with Xbox looking set to repeat some key mistakes this time around, especially in terms of exclusive games, I don’t see that changing when the next generation of consoles launch either.
The Xbox brand is the copyright of Microsoft, and the PlayStation brand is the copyright of Sony. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.