THEY are technical powerhouses vying for a place in living rooms across Britain, promising not only progressive gaming, but an entertainment experience that will render every other black box under your television obsolete.
Consumers across the world are gearing up for the launch of the next generation of consoles later this month when Microsoft and Sony release their new machines. Each hope to corner a market which contributes £947 million to UK GDP and is expected to be worth £52 billion worldwide by 2016.
In Scotland, home to a critically-lauded and thriving game development scene, several firms are working on titles for the Xbox One and PlayStation 4, with the head of one suggesting that, in a few years, the latest iterations could be “in every single home”.
Microsoft will have the first bite of the cherry when it launches its £430 console on 22 November with 22 games. A week later Sony releases its £350 machine, accompanied by 21 titles. Already, both firms have signed exclusivity deals with various developers to secure coveted intellectual properties like Titanfall and Killzone, a process bound to reinforce the tribalism that characterises the console market, where brand loyalty is all.
Games, however, are only part of the multi-million-pound sales pitch. The array of features boasted by each console is testament to the medium’s evolution from 1980s bedrooms to the cultural mainstream.
Microsoft’s marketing strategy has zoned in on the Xbox One’s ability to play, watch television and browse the internet at once, using voice commands and hand motions to flick between media. The US giant has also commissioned its own television series, including a strand based on its hit Halo franchise and a remake of Blake’s 7.
Sony, while focused on the PlayStation 4’s strengths as a gaming powerhouse, promises its own original programming, with access to thousands of films and shows along with a music library of millions of songs.
Chris van der Kuyl, chairman of 4J Studios, the Scots company behind the eight-million-plus selling Xbox 360 version of the sandbox (creative play) building phenomenon, Minecraft, believes the new generation will succeed like never before.
“There’s never a huge amount of software at launch,” he told Scotland on Sunday. “It will be early adopters buying the consoles at Christmas, but as we get into 2014 and must-have games start to appear, I think you’ll see they become ubiquitous.
“As we saw with the current generation, once the price starts to fall four or five years into the cycle, the popularity really increases, and this could be the generation of consoles that is in every single home.”
However, Michael Pachter, a respected games analyst with Los Angeles-based Wedbush Securities, cautioned against excitable sales projections.
He explained: “The current generation saw around 260 million consoles sold – 100 million Wiis and 80 million each of Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. It is highly likely that the Wii U will flop and sell only 20 to 30 million units, and it is unlikely that all of the purchasers of Wii last generation will buy an Xbox One or a PlayStation 4.
“I think more likely, half of the Wii audience has migrated to mobile, tablet or social games, or no games at all. It is possible Microsoft and Sony will expand their appeal geographically, but unlikely they will make up much more than the number lost by Wii. I think the next generation will most likely be about the same size as the current generation.”
Brian Baglow, founder and director of the Scottish Games Network, the trade body for the industry in Scotland, said: “Consoles now have competition. Real competition when it comes to playing games. A whole new generation of non-dedicated devices are available at lower prices and which do far more than the current or next gen consoles.
“Smartphones, tablets and even web browsers are now the norm for a huge part of the global gaming market, who’d never dream of buying a dedicated games device.”
Although around 90 per cent of Scottish developers are devoted to this market, a handful are producing titles for the new generation, including Edinburgh’s Rockstar North, tipped to release versions of the acclaimed Grand Theft Auto V.
4J Studios, meanwhile, is developing editions of Minecraft for both platforms at its East Linton offices.
No-one knows how the battle between the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 will pan out, although the consensus has Sony slightly ahead at present.
“Right now, Sony is the winner, solely on price,” said Pachter. “Microsoft can fix that by cutting price, but they’re stubborn, and unlikely to do so until Sony takes a clear lead. I think Sony wins until Microsoft cuts price, then they run neck and neck for the next few years.”
Van der Kuyl agreed: “As things stand I think PlayStation 4 is the gamer’s console of choice at the moment. But it’s almost like a split between Democrats and Republicans. People are either or the other, and they’ll never cross the divide. It’s the swing voters you have to convince.”