Opinion: Xbox One vs PS4 is a contest of cheap put-downs

Keith Stuart asks who’d launch a next-gen console?

 Launching a video game console is, and always has been, an act of corporate insanity. Those blinking plastic boxes cost many millions to research and develop, then millions more to launch and market, and then the manufacturers spend the next year losing up to $100 on every unit sold because they have to keep the price artificially low. Come on, who’d want to be in that racket?

Now, though, thanks to social media and forums like Reddit and NeoGaf, it’s getting worse, as every product announcement seems to herald a global sarcasm apocalypse.

Take the Xbox One reveal in May. With one hour to extol the virtues of an incredibly complex consumer hardware proposition, the firm chose to focus on certain specific features: its ability to run live TV, some Kinect innovation – oh, and two of the biggest game franchises in the world, FIFA and Call of Duty.

Yet this wasn’t enough. Within seconds of the event’s start, Twitter was a bear pit of rage and derision. Why weren’t there more games? Where were the indie developers? And loudest of all: what about pre-owned sales? Seriously, at the grand announcement of a piece of next-gen hardware many years in the making, Microsoft was meant to spend precious time telling the world’s press how they could trade in their used games? But within the self-righteous cacophony of the internet, this somehow made sense.

Twitter is essentially a sweatshop of snark. Everything about its format, from the limited word count to the notion of “followers”, encourages users to become passive conduits of mass negative emotion. It doesn’t take long for a message to transmute from “That Xbox One event was disappointing” to “Microsoft is Satan and wants to destroy gaming”.

Games designer and academic Ian Bogost puts it simply: “Console reveals have become something akin to bad dates or awkward television. It’s as if they exist solely to give us something to complain about – as if we needed more of that on the internet.”

The same thing happened after the PlayStation 4 event in February. This time, plenty of games were shown, but it was the lack of an actual machine on display that maddened web commentators – even though Sony has a history of announcing its consoles before showing them. Indeed, the original PS was revealed to the world via a press release sent out in a mid-week lull, and it limped on to the shelves with eight games, six of which were instantly forgettable. Yet the gaming community was beside itself with excitement.

Now, though, it’s all about inexplicable fury and attention-grabbing put-downs. There’s not much Microsoft and Sony can do to change it, either, because these events aren’t actually for gamers at all, they’re aimed at investors and mainstream consumers.

“The gaming industry is at a crossroads and it’s causing tension,” explains analyst James McQuivey. “Hardcore gamers are sensing that gaming is expanding to include people that do not fit their preconceived or historical notion of what gaming is about. Essentially, their culture is under fire.”

Yet as E3, that bloody Colosseum of unreasonable gamer expectation, has further proven, video-game tech is now far too complicated to explain in sound bites. Thankfully, outside the social-media vortex, there are people who actually still want to be excited by shiny new things. And it is because of them that this corporate insanity continues.

Keith Stuart is The Guardian’s games commissioning editor and runs alt-E3 event ETooLondon.com