Source: Zunfa Comics, “Console Yourself”
The PS4 and Xbox One have both been released in giant showers of hype and confetti, and are finally trickling into people’s living rooms. Except for mine or Robert’s, that is. These days I seem to only be interested in consoles I can sit on the train, walk between rooms, or discreetly eliminate waste while playing; meanwhile Robert more or less point-blank refuses to play anything that isn’t Jade Empire. Both of us still possess a mysterious and unshakable interest in the release of this new iteration of vidjamagaming technology, though. Whether it’s some effect of insidious marketing or just an attempt to grapple with our zeitgeist I don’t know, but I find myself more and more of agaming scholar than a gamer. Saying it like that also makes me a wanker, but I figure by now that’s par for the course. But I spend way more time thinking about games in a meta-sense than I do playing them any more. If you want to talk about the new Uncharted game, I’m probably more likely to wanna discuss story-gameplay convergence.
I guess the point of all this setup is that neither of us really has a horse in this race, yet we are so eager to discuss it as if we do. One of these days the PS5 and the Xbox Ouroboros or whatever will come out, and the whole current debate will be forgotten in the dust like so many GameCubes and PS2s. But I’m a sucker for analysing gaming history. So I might as well analyse the history that’s happening now.
The most original bit of posturing I’ve heard came from, of all sources, my stepdad.
What he found interesting to think about was the difference in direction Sony and Microsoft are taking here (I’ve mentioned it briefly before). I think it’s well understood by everyone, at this point, that every console is basically a PC in a differently shaped casing. In the past we used to compare and argue over polygon counts and rendering abilities, but nowadays the argument’s become increasingly obsolete. It’s getting more and more difficult to tacitly play along with such contretemps, and we’re shifting accordingly to less tangible qualities to squabble over. We argue about direction.
What Sony has built is, by all accounts, a machine dedicated to playing video games. You connect it to your TV, and, like in days of yore, put a disk inside it and play a game. On the other hand, Microsoft wants to create an entertainment hub – if the pop-culture is accurate, a Living-Room Godmaster Overlord of sorts to distribute your TV, movies, Call of Duty, internet, social media, and whatever meetings of these twain that may occur. They’re such different beasts that they’re barely even going after the same market demographic. My stepdad nailed an alluringly compelling reason as to why.
My stepdad worked doing a lot of business things with Japanese companies back in the eighties, and picked up a fair share of relevant canniness while he was there. The cultural axioms of how businesses interact with each other are very different in Japan than they are in America (and by extension, Australia, and most of the west). The example he cited was the Honda-Yamaha War in the eighties. Basically, Yamaha saw an opportunity to muscle in on Honda’s dominance over the motorbike industry, and they went for it. This wasn’t how the game was played, so Honda dedicated themselves specifically to punishing Yamaha for the impertinence. I know that sounds like something out of a racist Michael Crichton novel, but I swear I’m not kidding. They literally changed their company’s mission statement to “ヤマハ を つぶす”, which means “We will crush, break, smash, squash, butcher, slaughter, and destroy Yamaha”. And they did. In the end, Yamaha’s presidentpublicly stated that the entire debacle was their fault, and that Honda was the dominant motorbike company. Can you even imagine that being said by a US company? Can you even imagine it being publicly implied? (Plus, they called it a war. That’s playing hardcore.) It’s often about saving face in the west, too, but we have a very different conception about what that means for a corporation. And it’s not about making conflicts personal or admitting wrongfulness, either. I’m not advocating or damning one or the other approach; I just think both are interesting, especially when they have the potential to come into contact.
Which is basically the drive of what my stepdad suggests is happening between Microsoft and Sony: these two ways of thinking knocking up against each other. Microsoft and Sony went head to head in the console generation now drawing to a close, and between the PS3 and the Xbox 360, I think it’s safe to call it in favour of Microsoft (we’re ignoring Nintendo for the moment, like your stereotypical Call of Duty gamer). The Xbox One is trying to enter the market of ‘entertainment hub’ rather than ‘games console’, and Sony are leaving them to that. I don’t wanna say that Microsoft is letting games take a back seat to the Xbox One’s other endeavours, but those other endeavours are certainly receiving a lot more of Microsoft’s publicity push. And in turn, Sony are really working the ‘buy this rectangle to play games’ angle. Microsoft, while not really operating on the same business axioms, are probably perfectly happy with this ‘don’t tread on each other’s toes’ approach. They’re currently trying to compete with Apple and Samsung in the tablets-and-phones market, so stretching themselves thin unnecessarily would seem… well, unnecessary.
Obviously it’s not entirely that simple. Sony have played the game far too well for that. But as the idle opinion of an observant businessman who worked for a long time with both Japanese businesses and western ones, I find it kind of fascinating.