Boxes of fun – but which one? Xbox One battles PS4 for living-room dominance
The war of the game consoles is going to be fierce this Christmas
War breaks out in the living room every seven years or so, with videogame giants Sony and Microsoft fighting for a prized position under the TV with the next generation of their consoles.
And bang on schedule, battle was renewed this week as the new Xbox One went on sale yesterday in Ireland, just days ahead of the launch of PS4 next Friday. They are competing for a slice of a global market estimated by Gartner analysts to be worth an astonishing $93bn (€70bn) in 2013.
As usual, the hype from both camps cranks up to deafening levels – phrases such as "incredibly realistic graphics" and "changing entertainment forever" were bandied about like snuff at a wake.
Hollywood royalty Steven Spielberg was roped in to endorse the Xbox One, claiming the machine has the power to "set my imagination free". It doesn't hurt that he's working on a TV tie-in to the multi-million Xbox series Halo.
In 13 countries worldwide on Thursday night, Microsoft hosted what it described as "one of the biggest entertainment premieres of the year", counting down the hours to the midnight launch of Xbox One. In New York, hip-hop stars Macklemore and Ryan Lewis rocked the party on Times Square while Deadmau5 performed an intimate show in Los Angeles to invited guests.
Sony is rumoured to have unleashed a $100m (€75m) marketing war chest for PS4, which has been building since the console's initial reveal in March. Sony has steered away from celebrity endorsement, preferring to let its powerful PlayStation brand speak for itself.
But despite all the inevitable hoopla there's a sense that we are witnessing the end of an era.
Could this be the last time Microsoft and Sony go head to head with their chunky black boxes? Back in 2005/06, when the last battle began, the world was very different.
There was no iPhone, no iPad, in fact no smartphones of any great note. As Microsoft launched its Xbox 360 and Sony sent the PS3 out into the world, they were really competing only with each other and Nintendo for the public's attention span.
Back then, too, gaming was still seen as a niche pursuit, the preserve of teenage boys – and men who should know better.
Fast-forward several years to a changed landscape and the number of people playing games has shot up – but they're not lounging in front of their TVs. Despite Xbox 360 and PS3 having sold 80 million consoles each, the new gaming boom is in phones and tablets.
Apple's App Store revolutionised the industry, bringing a flood of cheap or free games and drawing in whole new demographics – women and older players in general. Recent counts estimate that the App Store is stocked with about 150,000 games, few of them costing more than €1.
Latest statistics in the US pin the proportion of players at two-thirds of the population while the average age of the gamer is somewhere in their mid-30s. That represents a significant shift from the Noughties, with the most surprising stat being that women are almost equally represented.
Undoubtedly, more of the women are playing the likes of casual game Candy Crush on their iPhones rather than the hardcore blockbuster Call of Duty on their PS3 – but that still makes them gamers.
Faced with the prospect of dishing out €60 for a new Xbox or PlayStation game, it's little wonder consumers are voting with their wallets and choosing the abundance of free titles on their phones.
Convenience plays a huge role. In today's time-poor world, the majority of gamers are more likely to snatch 10 minutes of Angry Birds at the bus stop rather than set aside dozens of hours exploring the massive worlds of Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto V.
Even game developers have expressed disquiet at the cyclical arms race that forces them to invest increasing resources with each successive generation.
Shinji Mikami, the revered creator of the Resident Evil series, which was made into a movie starring Milla Jovovich, is dismissive of the latest battle between Xbox and PlayStation.
"There's no real difference between them," he said. "Why do I have to make two versions of my game? Either one will do. If Apple released a game console, it would make a lot of gamers happy."
Even Cliff Bleszinski has his doubts. He's the chief designer behind the blockbuster Gears of War, a series exclusive to Xbox that helped sell millions of consoles. Bleszinski warned that the latest machines could fail what he called "the mom test" – that many parents will be unable to see much difference from the previous generation.
"It's not an exponential leap in graphical fidelity," he explained. "It's incremental."
Such scepticism will have little effect in the run-up to Christmas. Major retailers in Ireland have already signalled that unless you've pre-ordered a PS4 or Xbox One, you have zero chance of walking into a shop and picking one up before the New Year.
GameStop, which has 51 stores around the country, began taking pre-orders up to two years ago, when the machines were just a rumour.
But such is the global shortage of stock that GameStop cannot fulfil some pre-orders before the new year – and it will be a case of first-ordered-first-served.
Chris Lewis, head of Xbox in Europe, admitted there would be shortages up to Christmas and beyond but insisted some stock would be available without a pre-order. "This is the biggest launch in our Xbox history and there is a lot of pent-up demand."
The PS4 hit the shelves to an enthusiastic reception in the US last week, with Sony gleefully revealing it had sold one million machines in the opening weekend. But the launch has not been trouble-free, with a number of reports of consoles dead out of the box.
It raises the spectre of the famous 'Red Ring of Death' on the Xbox 360, a defect that broke hundreds of thousands of machines after the launch in 2005 and cost Microsoft more than $1bn to remedy.
Sony insists: "The number of affected systems represents less than 0.4pc of shipped units to date, which is within our expectations for a new product introduction."
No doubt that's true, but maybe the drastic lack of stock is a blessing in disguise. Gamers forced to wait until the new year for their PS4 or Xbox One will get the benefit of early adopters' experience and any hardship that comes with it.
Xbox One v PS4: The decision
PRICE: Xbox One costs €500 versus the PS4's €400 – but the more expensive machine comes with the Kinect motion controller, which tracks your movement and can allegedly monitor your heartbeat. PS4 has a similar motion-tracking camera which is an extra €6
POWER: Notionally, the PS4 has more grunt under the bonnet but the difference is slight and may not be apparent in the long run.
GAMES: Sony's initial line-up is weaker than Microsoft's launch range but you have to think of the long view – and no one knows who will triumph in years to come.
EXTRAS: Microsoft has traditionally offered better online support and a wider range of internet services such as Netflix. But Sony has promised to beef up its non-game offerings in the months after PS4's launch.
CONCLUSION: We'll call it a draw for now and advise you to go Microsoft if you're already invested in Xbox or choose Sony if you're a PlayStation fan.