PlayStation 4 and Xbox One: Questions Unanswered

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The idiom “hurry up and wait” comes to mind when discussing statements made by both Microsoft and Sony.

For those unfamiliar with the saying, US military branches have a policy of showing up to meetings at least 15 minutes early (“If you’re 5 minutes early, you’re already 10 minutes late” goes hand-in-hand with this). However, just because you show up early doesn’t necessarily equate to the meeting starting early or on time. It can leave a soldier plenty of time to ponder why he/she is arriving so early and waiting around when those who are higher rank aren’t showing the same level of responsibility.

That’s the gist of the message Microsoft and Sony are delivering to potential customers this fall. Promises of previous-gen headset support and an array of indie titles will no doubt entice customers to buy on launch day, but closer examination of past statements reveals we might be waiting well past launch for some of these promises to come to fruition.

Here are some unanswered questions pertaining to both the Xbox One and PS4.

Xbox One

What’s going on with ID@Xbox?

Seemingly in direct response to Sony’s proclamation that the PS4 would be indie-dev friendly, Microsoft revealed the ID@Xbox program earlier this year. ID@Xbox will provide licensed indie-devs the ability to use their retail console as dev-kits, access Xbox features such as Achievements and Smartglass, and self-publish. Microsoft has already stated the ID@Xbox program won’t be rolled out fully until sometime in 2014, but questions still remain at the moment.

For example, Gaijin Entertainment stated as recently as August that policies regarding Microsoft certification are still unknown. Self-publishing will eventually be possible with ID@Xbox sometime next year, but how will publishing work for indie-devs in the mean time? Will patches still have to pass the lengthy Microsoft certification process? If Microsoft is truly trying to win over indie developers and convince consumers that there will be a bevy of indie titles for Xbox One, these policies need to be detailed to the public as to not come off merely as lip-service.

Another issue indie developers have had with the Xbox platform is how their games were showcased. Indie titles have never been prominently displayed in the game marketplace (much less a showcase at E3) with users having to wade through multiple levels of menus just to find them. Microsoft promised this would change for the Xbox One, but if the E3 interface demo is any indicator, indie titles will still not be prominently displayed on the Games tab.

Is the Kinect sensor worth the extra $100?

Microsoft has conceded pricing to Sony by making the Kinect included with all Xbox One’s. The idea is that if there are more potential customers, then developers will be more apt to create Kinect titles. The question now isn’t ‘Will there be Kinect games’, but rather ‘Will they be worth playing’?

If Microsoft is trying to make motion gaming viable, they are already starting on bad footing. Namely, they’ve decided to keep Kinect as their branding for motion gaming. There’s nothing wrong with the name in and of itself, but Microsoft has already damaged the reputation of the brand thanks to the first-gen Kinect’s outing on Xbox 360. The first-gen Kinect made a great dust collector was terrible at almost everything. Microsoft misjudged the average available space in a room, which resulted in many people having to rearrange tables and other furniture in order to just begin playing. Once that’s out of the way, good luck with Kinect keeping track of all your limbs. With the exclusion of the title Child of Eden — a title which only needs to keep track of your hands — Kinect would often lose sight of my legs. This would either result in the intended action not being performed in game or the game insisting that I ‘move back in front of the Kinect sensor’ despite already being directly in front of it. There are those who have undoubtedly got their money’s worth from their Kinect, but the overwhelming majority would sooner characterize the experience as “buggy” and “underwhelming” rather than “fun” or “exceeded expectations”.

Needless to say, Microsoft has its work cut out to prove Kinect can work for gaming. But since E3, they seem more content displaying how proficient it is at doing tasks like pinning apps and searching on Bing. All the things a gamer could ever want to pay an additional $100 for without ever being given an option otherwise (hooray!). That’s not to say these new voice commands don’t seem useful, but they could’ve been just as viable using a Xbox headset or placing a cheap omnidirectional microphone either in the controller or the console itself.

So what is there to go on to see that the problems with the original Kinect — namely limb detection and input latency — won’t be an issue this go round? At this point, almost nothing. Crimson Dragon is being touted as a must-play title, but the fact it has switched from ‘Kinect only’ to ‘Kinect optional’ makes it appear as if the developers couldn’t get the controls with Kinect to function suitably. If it’s actual footage you seek, then look no further then this video for Ubisoft’s Fighter Within. The footage is from August, but it is no less alarming to see such a noticeable delay between actual user movement and their actions in-game. Is this video a sign of what to expect from all Kinect titles, or merely a case of shoddy developing? With Microsoft’s reluctance to show live demonstrations of Kinect gameplay, don’t expect a definitive answer until after Xbox One’s launch.

How does ‘The Cloud’ bridge the gap with Sony’s more powerful hardware?

One element to the Xbox One equation Microsoft hasn’t hesistated touting is “the cloud”. Azure, Microsoft’s server farm, promises to do a lot more than just store game saves offering dedicated servers for all titles and the ability to offset a portion of the CPU workload to “the cloud”. Microsoft promises “the cloud” will be what gives them the upper hand despite having less powerful hardware than Sony. Besides the fact no other game company has tried this before, its still hard not to raise an eyebrow at some of Microsoft’s claims.

The main example Microsoft has given of how a developer could offload work from the console to “the cloud” is making it handle AI and lighting. The idea is by freeing up resources locally on the console, developers can incorporate better graphics into their games. If I had a rock-steady fiber optic connection, I’d be more than happy for “the cloud” to do this. In reality, I have a 10Mb/s DOWN 1Mb/s UP cable connection that occasionally goes out due to neighborhood outages or router issues. Those are occasional inconveniences, but what’s a consistent issue is how the connection tanks around 5-8PM each evening. Once everyone in the area gets home from work and hops online, significant latency and connection issues become the norm. To see graphic fidelity drop and dynamic lighting suddenly disappear would completely ruin any element of game immersion.

Internet variables aside, for all the noise being made about how powerful “the cloud” is, the only companies that have expressed excitement publicly are Microsoft, Turn 10 (First-Party), and Respawn Entertainment (timed-exclusive Titanfall). Where are all the third-party companies talking about how great “the cloud” is? The industry’s indifference to Azure is somewhat reminiscent to their response of Sony’s Cell processor. Much like Microsoft has done with “the cloud”, Sony hyped Cell making claims that it would be impossible for games to look as good on other hardware. The hype never quite matched reality — save for a few first-party titles — as many developers struggled with the PS3.  Grumblings of difficulties developing for PS3 persisted throughout most of its lifespan. Many of the initial multiplatform titles looked noticeably better on Xbox 360. Back in 2007, Gabe Newell called the PS3 “a total disaster” and ultimately passed development of the PS3 version of The Orange Box to EA. Skyrim’s DLC packs were released nearly 6 months after the Xbox 360 version. When it came time for Sony to inquire developers what they would like to see included in the PS4, they insisted the Cell processor be dropped.

Time will ultimately tell how much of a difference “the cloud” will make on next-gen titles, but the uniform shrug from the industry leads me to believe “the cloud’s” graphical prowess is all hype and no substance.

PS4

What happened to Bluetooth headset compatibility?

Back in June when Microsoft had dreams of always-on DRM, it was revealed Xbox 360 headsets wouldn’t be compatible with the Xbox One and the new chat headset would be sold separately from the console (Major Nelson’s unboxing video months later showed a headset would, in fact, be bundled with the console). Never to miss an opportunity to kick their competition while they are down, Sony was quick to point out that the PS4 would support PS3 Bluetooth headsets and would come with a chat earbud packed in with the PS4. While the earbud remains, Sony has seemingly done a Microsoft 180 as it pertains to Bluetooth headset compatibility. According to Game Informer, the PS4 will not support PS3 USB headsets until a post-launch patch (the patch currently doesn’t have an expected launch date). More alarming is the statement that “any other headset that relies on bluetooth for chat will not work at all”.

On one hand, the move will eliminate low-quality, off brand Bluetooth headsets you can find at your local Walgreens or CVS from being used. On the other hand, it’s hard not to see this move as anything more than Sony pilfering your pockets ‘stimulating’ the accessory market. Bluetooth has predominantly been an open standard, but it is definitely possible to apply restrictions. Ever try to send photos via Bluetooth from an Android handset or flip phone to an iPhone? The iPhone will politely tell you “this device is not supported”. Considering Sony’s infatuation with proprietary memory on their portable handhelds, it wouldn’t surprise me if Sony wants to make a cash grab for the PS4 headset market as well. Better get used to checking for ‘compatible with PS4’ on the boxes of your preferred Plantronics and Jawbone headsets before making a purchase.

(Edit: Pertaining to basic bluetooth earpieces – This may not be as much of an issue since the Dualshock controller now has a headset jack for hardwire headsets. Thanks to Edward Wang for pointing this out.)

Those who should be most upset though are owners of the PS3 Pulse headsets. The initial announcement that PS4 support would be included never led anyone to believe Sony meant sometime after launch. Many owners who trade in their PS3 will now be left with a surround sound headset they’ve grown accustomed to that won’t work. It was a calculated, misleading, and disingenuous statement by Sony. Don’t be surprised if there is an announcement for a PS4 version of the PULSE headset before support has been added for the PS3 version.

When is capture card compatibility coming?

Shuhei Yoshida confirmed the PS4 would have capture card support, but not at launch. So when will capture card support be available? At the moment, Sony has been mum on when capture card compatibility would eventually be added. Open ended release dates like this essentially entitle Sony to add capture card support at their leisure. The lack of a proposed release window in Yoshida’s tweet is pause for concern. If they don’t deem it to be a pressing issue, capture card support could be put on the backburner indefinitely.

Since the PS4 will not feature an A/V port, the breakout cable DRM workaround won’t be viable this time around. You can still capture live streams on Twitch thanks to built-in support and watch 15-minute clips from other users. Those proposed solutions aren’t all that elegant when all you want to do is watch your favorite YouTube personalities do walkthroughs, montages, and ‘Let’s Play’ all over slick transition animations and dubstep game appropriate music.

Let’s not forget the YouTube content creators themselves. Many people who make great content — as well as popular personalities who make not so great content — won’t be able to upon launch. If they wish to continue to stay relevant and keep revenue coming in, their choice of next-gen console is essentially being made for them by Sony’s omission. Could those YouTube personalities switch boat midstream? Potentially, but with the already high cost of investment getting into just one console, its highly unlikely.

That means all the next-gen videos in November (and potentially beyond) will be featuring the Xbox One logo and controller layout throughout. For certain age demographics (particularly teenagers), this could easily give off the impression the Xbox One is the console of choice and influence their purchasing decision. Launch day sales will be unaffected by this, but what about those making a Christmas wishlist? Or waiting for their birthday in 2014? Or a tax return? The sooner Sony can get capture card support added, the less they’ll have to worry.

It would be nice to see better communication and a heightened sense of urgency from both companies to fulfill all their promises. The lackadaisical approach — especially in this economic climate — isn’t exactly endearing to fans.We’ll definitely be monitoring both consoles to see when these questions are answered so keep your sights set on MP1st for a follow-up article at launch 2013 2014 whenever we can get around to it.

How would you guys rate Microsoft and Sony’s communication to consumers this past year? Let us know in the comment below.

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