Xbox 720 vs PS4: What Microsoft needs to do to win the next-gen war

Sony has revealed its hand early in the battle to win the hearts and minds of gamers willing to ride the next-generation console bus, at least in part. Its Future of PlayStation event gave us all a glimpse of the sort of games we can expect to see on the PS4 come launch day.

We were also treated to some key specifications, those that will directly affect the power and potential of the platform. So, when we refer to the next PlayStation, we at least have something tangible to go on.

When it comes to Microsoft’s forthcoming next-gen machine we’re still in the dark. The company has been very quiet about it, leaving the rumour mill to go into overdrive in the interim.

Therefore, none of what you’ve heard about the Xbox 720 is substantiated, even the name is still a placeholder more invented by the press than through official sources. But seeing as much is now known about the PlayStation 4, it’s actually an opportune time to suggest at what we think Microsoft will need to do to respond to Sony’s early salvo and fire off a few shots of its own. We are not comparing machines like for like as one doesn’t exist. Instead, we are using a base of what we know to put together a picture of what we would most hope to see when the Xbox 720 finally surfaces for air.

Power

The PlayStation 4 has an 8-core x86-64 AMD Jaguar processor and 8GB of GDDR5 RAM. Its GPU is of the Radeon family and contains a unified array of 18 compute units, collectively generating 1.84 teraflops of processing power. Developers will also be able to assign power between processors as and when they see fit, so effectively the new console is more PC than any of its predecessors, and has plenty under the bonnet.

The alleged Durango devkit posted by Superdae on ebay

What has been rumoured about the Xbox 720 – mainly thanks to leaks of what can be found in the Durango development kits – suggests that things won’t be a million miles away from the PS4’s inner gubbins. They claim that it too will have an 8-core AMD processor and 8GB of RAM. Plus, its graphics will be run on an 800MHz D3D11.x GPU, which – once you’ve crunched the numbers – is again similar in power to the PS4’s.

Effectively, this means that the inner workings of each, should rumour be believed, will be as near identical as damn it.

READ: PS4: Everything you need to know

While this makes sense – developers will favour neither machine if it’s just as easy to develop for both – it doesn’t make consumer choice any easier. We were wowed by some of the demos shown during the Sony launch event, especially Killzone Shadow Fall and DriveClub, but because the PS4 team got in there first, Microsoft will have to completely blow us away with its offering.

If everything looks the same as what we’ve seen from Sony already, there will be less impact. We’re fickle that way.

What we think Microsoft should do in the power department is surprise us all with a meatier graphics processor – one with more potential down the line. Sony has confirmed that the PS4 may be capable of 4K resolution on games in the future (although there’s no direct evidence of this), but Microsoft should come out fighting from the off. Bang, UHD games. That would get us all gasping for air.

Control

We like the brave move by Sony to completely re-imagine its tried and trusted DualShock controllers, ripping the backside off a PS Vita and sticking it to the top of a new DualShock 4 model. Plus, we like the fact that the Japanese giant is allowing backwards compatibility with its PlayStation Move batons. However, this is an area that Microsoft already dominates, and we would hope it will continue to innovate.

Sony's DualShock 4 controller for the PlayStation 4

We’ve heard much about the prospect of Kinect 2 and this is where the Xbox 720 can set its stall from launch. Better sensor, more players tracked, higher resolution and - most important for UK households - a shorter reading range are all mandatory, or else we’ll be unimpressed.

It will be interesting too to see if Microsoft decides to re-imagine its current Xbox controller with the same vigour as Sony has its DualShock. In our opinion, the current one is still the best gaming controller we’ve had since the Kempston Competition Pro 5000 back in the Eightiess. We’re of a mind that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Xbox SmartGlass will be improved upon, however, of that we are sure. Where it is a nicey-nicey second-screen experience – currently of relevance to few – we think and hope that it will become an essential part of the make-up of the new console.

Microsoft really needs to rethink what a second-screen experience should actually be. IMDb stats on movies and GPS maps for Forza games aside, what we want is the ability to play Xbox 720 games remotely, using the tablet or phone as the display. This is something we love about Wii U and Sony’s plans to put PS Vita to similar use excite us. Microsoft needs to find a way to deliver in this area too, and what better than to go: “Ta-da, you can already use your existing tablets and smartphones.”

Backwards compatibility

The PS4 will not be offering backwards compatibility with PlayStation 3 discs (or those from the older Sony consoles). Instead, using technologies from Gaikai, the company it acquired last year, it will be offering thousands of back-catalogue games to live stream to the machine. That means you will be able to play them as if they were on your machine itself, but they will be hosted on remote servers. That’s good, but there will be a new cost involved. Your existing discs – which you have previously paid for – will sit gathering dust.

If Microsoft wants to trump its biggest rival in the sector, it needs to offer backwards compatibility for Xbox 360 games. Its Xbox to Xbox 360 compatibility was poor, needing specific software downloads on a title per title basis, leaving thousands of games out in the cold, and that’s the most we can hope for this time too.

What would be great of Microsoft, however, is to offer some form of trade-up service. The new console reads your existing Xbox Live account details, determines which games are attached to your account and offers you a digital version (that works) for a nominal sum. Even better, for free.

It’s something that Sony promised for the PS Vita when enticing PSP owners, but never materialised outside of Asia.

Social and shared gaming

Sony’s biggest cannons in its arsenal, at least where its announcement event was concerned, is shared gaming. The connected aspect of the PS4 is of great import to the company and it is to be used to aid just about every one of its numerous features. However, shared gaming is something that makes us smile whenever we think about the potential.

How the shared gaming experience will look on PS4

Basically, there is a “Share” button on the DualShock 4 controller which will allow you to scroll back a few minutes of gameplay (as it is constantly being recorded into a finite buffer) and opt to share some of that content on to social and video sites. In addition, you can allow access to your feed to a friend who can spectate in real time (like on the On-Live cloud gaming platform).

The best bit is that, if you get stuck on a section you know your friend has completed, you can give them control remotely – a bit like the gaming equivalent of an IT helpdesk.

We would fully expect Microsoft to have something up its sleeve in this area too. Xbox Live has been a stable and social hub for Xbox gamers for many years now, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see some innovative enhancements to the service.

One thing that the company should adopt to combat the PS4’s obvious talents in this area, is the use of live video in games, not just on the user interface. For example, we would love to see a multiplayer karting game where instead of player names or pictures appearing above each vehicle, live video captured by Kinect 2 hovers. Of course, this could be open to abuse – think Chatroulette – but if there was a safe way to implement it, think of the possibility. You will genuinely see the anguished face of the player in front as you hit them with a homing missile.

To be honest, we’re a little fed up with people posting their game scores and achievements on their Twitter and Facebook feeds thereby clogging up our own, let alone three-minute long videos of them fragging a space monkey, so we’d be more interested in seeing how social gaming can benefit the gaming society as a whole.

Downloads and storage

Bar the PS4’s social gaming aspects, another of Sony’s announcements was about how its digital gaming delivery service will work. The most impressive part was that it downloads in segments, allowing you to play your freshly acquired game while the rest downloads in the background.

Smart money is on Microsoft offering the exact same feature.

The PS4 will also learn what kind of games you prefer and, once it has built up a clear enough picture of your habits, will download games automatically, even in standby mode. Then, if you want to buy a game on the store, chances are you won’t have to download it again - the automatically downloaded version will unlock, allowing you to play it immediately.

Naturally, this kind of feature requires plenty of storage space, and we can see this becoming a vibrant battleground between the machines.

On launch, Sony merely quoted the PS4’s HDD as being “built-in”. There was no mention of capacity. So, if Microsoft wants to go one better, it has to present a massive hard drive – 2TB will certainly prick up ears. To be honest, if we’re all expected to switch to digital downloads as the gaming companies would favour, we’ll need that kind of space just to have similar libraries to the ones we have now. And that’s not including movies, music and the rest of the media they would rather we consume. It may seem a lot now, but 1TB doesn’t seem enough to us.

Entertainment

One area that was not touched upon in any significant way by Sony at its PS4 shindig involved the next-generation machine’s entertainment capabilities. Yeah, we found out that it will feature some apps, Netflix included. And that it will have a Blu-ray player like the PS3 – a fact discovered only when reading through the official press release, not from a mention on the night.

So, considering these elements have been downplayed by Sony for now, the entertainment abilities of the Xbox 720 should very much be in the spotlight when Microsoft announces the Xbox 720.

It will definitely need a Blu-ray player, and a 3D-capable one at that. Microsoft has been good on the app front with the Xbox 360, but we’d like to see much, much more from the company. Think Samsung Smart TV – just about every catch-up and video-on-demand service is available through Samsung tellies, and we’d like to see the same on Xbox 720. Spotify as well as Xbox Music would be helpful, Ultraviolet movie locker access would be welcome too (in the UK). And would it be too much to ask to have network streaming abilities for filetypes people actually use? MKV anybody?

The second-screen experience will be important in this aspect too. It would be great to have a film run on the Xbox 720, for example, that can then be transferred to a tablet or smartphone to continue in a different room, without the need to exit the console and spark up the dedicated mobile app. Again, this is something the Wii U Controller does very well.

Games

The games demos we’ve seen for the PS4 so far are impressive, but Microsoft could really steal the thunder here. Imagine an Xbox 720 launch event where they unveiled the next-generation versions of Xbox exclusive titles like Gears of War, Forza and, let’s not forget, Halo. As long as they don’t just wheel out a new version of Viva Piñata…

Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag, unveiled after PS4 event

In terms of third-party games, though, things will be similar on both platforms for many of the reasons mentioned above. Time could be on Microsoft’s side, however, as a later unveiling could allow developers to have more to show on triple-A titles, such as Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Gate, a new Call of Duty, and, even, a next-gen version of GTA V (why so heavily delayed, you have to ask yourself?).

Price and release date

This will be the most hotly contested area, at least initially, we feel. How each of the manufacturers price their respective new machines will be of utmost importance in enticing early adopters. We don’t know what’s in Sony’s mind at the moment, whether it wants to push out the PS4 at a massive loss, pricing the console aggressively, or if it is happy to place the console as a premium product.

We suspect there will be little in the street prices of the PS4 and Xbox 720, so it could boil down to what you get in the box. What is bundled with each.

One thing that has always irked us in the past is that you generally only get one controller in the launch package. Pop two in and you may have an advantage. Similarly, a bundled triple-A game could make a difference.

As for release date, this time around Microsoft will not have the first laugh. The Sony PS4 is coming “Holidays 2013”, so in time for Christmas. When the Xbox 360 was launched, it came out in the UK almost a whole year before the PS3, therefore gaining considerable market share over its nearest rival. We suspect both machines will be coming out at similar times, so they’ll cancel each other out in that respect.

If it was up to us – and we didn’t have to worry about such things as manufacturing times and the distribution chain – we’d launch the Xbox 720 in the same way a phone manufacturer announces and releases a new device. We’d announce in the summer, say, and release it to market two to three weeks later. That’d throw the cat among the pigeons.

Conclusion

Sony has definitely gained the upper ground by giving us all a tantalising glimpse of what the future of gaming is in its opinion, but the PS4 launch event was just that, a glimpse. Microsoft is clearly biding its time to come up with more than that (we would like to think) and you can bet that a lot of what it focuses on when we first see its new Xbox console will be in direct response to what we’ve already seen of the rival machine.

One thing the Xbox team could definitely do that would be a step up from Sony’s revelations so far is actually reveal the console itself. We’re not too bothered by the lack of the PS4 at the PS4 event, as we don’t sit all day lovingly ogling our games consoles. We look at the action on the screen, not the machine itself. However, it would be good to have something to photograph. And it would be interesting to see how both manufacturer will combat heat and noise issues, considering the PC-like architecture they’ve adopted for power purposes.

So, Microsoft, if you really want to turn our heads back from the direction of Sony, you need to flash a little leg. Even an exhaust port will do.

What else would you like to see on the Xbox 720? Do you think it will be a PS4 beater? Or vice versa? Let us know in the comments below.



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