If you’ve seen college basketball games on television, you’ve probably been witness to each team going on a “run” of sorts, when they score consecutive points while the defense shuts down the opposing team. It’s a fascinating aspect of that sport, and part of what makes an event like March Madness so popular every year. All teams go on a run at some point, usually making for exciting outcomes in games.
In the “game” between Microsoft and Sony, it’s pretty clear right now which team is on a run of its own. Sony has seen new life for the PlayStation 3 platform after a long-awaited price cut to $300 and with the runaway success of Uncharted 2, which seems by many accounts to be in the running for overall Game of the Year honors. The latest points scored in Sony’s run have been thanks to Netflix, which announced that online streaming of their Instant Queue library will be coming to the PlayStation 3 in November. This is significant because, aside from the Netflix subscription fee, there will be no additional charge for PlayStation Network users. Compare that with having to pay Microsoft’s yearly subscription fee (which I’m still bullish on seeing an increase in for 2010), and there’s one less advantage for the current HD platform leader.
Granted, there is a small caveat for PS3 owners in that they will have to use what is essentially a boot disc in order to use the streaming Netflix service, but that’s a minor inconvenience when you’re only paying as low as $9 per month and no other fees. Microsoft has gone on the record to say that the Netflix service will continue to be offered only to Gold-level Xbox Live members, while also trying to talk up some of the other “perks” that Gold members have.
Let’s stop right here for a moment.
On a personal level, I’ve been largely satisfied with my Xbox 360 experience. I’ve rarely had any connectivity issues on Xbox Live, I’ve really enjoyed what Xbox Live Arcade has had to offer, and the Netflix streaming feature has been a big plus. I’m not out to pick on Microsoft here or grind some sort of axe with them. Unfortunately, it doesn’t take a Michael Pachter to see that Microsoft is spinning its wheels– or even going in reverse in some areas– while Sony clearly has the momentum and seems to be making many of the correct decisions as of late. (At least with the PS3. I refuse to comment on the PSP Go “experiment”.)
What’s Microsoft doing wrong? Let’s recap:
- To fee or not to fee? While it’s still free to play and download games, demos, and videos on the PlayStation Network, it’s looking likely that Microsoft is gearing up raise its yearly fees for Xbox Live. In order to get the “full” Xbox experience right now– complete with all of the same bells and whistles that PSN users get now– consumers actually are looking at a list price of $350. That’s $300 for a console and $50 for an Xbox Live Gold subscription. (Note: I don’t want to hear about how you can buy Xbox Live sub cards for less than $50 if you look around or about how the Xbox 360 Arcade SKU is still kicking around, either.) If you consider that Microsoft is likely going to raise the yearly fee from $50, then that total cost is also going to go up in 2010, while Sony’s cost remains the same.
- Where are the big exclusives? Yes, Halo 3: ODST has moved a ton of units so far… but what else is there? Does Microsoft expect that game to have staying power against Uncharted 2 and God of War III? Where’s the big guns? There’s no Gears of War on the horizon, and Halo: Reach isn’t due for another 12 months or so. Microsoft is basically relying on Left 4 Dead 2 and Modern Warfare 2 (which is a multiplatform title) to be the big movers this holiday season. Mass Effect 2 is coming in late January, and Alan Wake and Crackdown 2 are due next spring. There’s no Microsoft answer to Sony’s new Ratchet & Clank title, or to Nintendo’s New Super Mario Bros. for the Wii. There just seems to be a lot of stagnation on Microsoft’s part, or “Wait ’til next year.”
- Features? Yeah, so? While I’ll admit that it’s something of a novelty to have Twitter and Facebook integration for Xbox Live, neither application is earth-shattering. Without a web browser, the Twitter app is half-broken because so many links are shared. The Facebook app run sluggishly and pictures show up in weird resolutions. I will say that the Last.fm application is great, but certainly doesn’t help to justify paying a yearly fee for Xbox Live Gold membership status… and now that Sony’s getting Netflix streaming, that’s a former exclusive that’s now cheaper on the other side of the fence.
- Perception is everything. Despite Microsoft’s best efforts to handle the well-documented hardware failures that Xbox 360 owners constantly deal with, I can almost guarantee that a strong majority of these owners still feel their pulse race a little bit when they turn on their consoles, wondering how much time is left before the seemingly inevitable Red Rings of Death appear. Even with extended warranties and generally painless procedures to replace faulty consoles, it’s still a pretty depressing experience to have to go through and console exchanges usually do not happen overnight… leaving consumers without a console to play their games on. This perception will haunt Microsoft for the rest of the console’s life cycle. On the other side of the fence, Sony’s hardware issues with the PS3 seem minor in comparison. Sure, there is a seemingly endless parade of firmware updates that can possibly wreak havoc with the console, but it’s generally a pretty stable platform.
2010 is shaping up to be interesting for Microsoft, though. There are some solid first-party games coming that we know of already, and more are possibly under wraps. Perhaps those games, and few other features, can help Microsoft build and sustain a run of its own and tip the momentum back into its favor in the high-definition console battle. For now, though, Sony is running Microsoft up and down the court with this run they’re on, and it’s very possible that this run will carry them to a surprising showing over Microsoft for this year’s holiday season.