Console changes muddy the marketing

Now that Microsoft is aligning its Xbox One practices more closely with rival Sony’s Playstation 4, is there any reason to pick up one machine over the other? Will people even care about either machine and it’s unique capabilities?

Microsoft’s big announcements this week came as little surprise to gamers. The company will now ship Xbox One units without the Kinect motion sensor accessory, a glitchy add-on that has earned many complaints over the years despite interesting titles that focus a lot on movement. That puts the Xbox One at $399, the same price point as the PS4.

Microsoft also announced improvements to its Games for Gold program, the equivalent to Sony’s Playstation Plus program which offers many free games, discount prices on new games and online cloud storage space for game saves.

In other words, Microsoft is adapting to the market, which has rewarded the PS4 in the sixth months since both systems hit store shelves. Sony has sold more than 7 million PS4s thus far according to sales figures released last month. Only 5 million or so Xbox Ones have been sold over the past six months.

Responding to customer needs is a good practice, but Microsoft and Sony have a history of making their consoles too similar to the competition. Sony played catch-up with its Playstation 3 only a few short years ago when it mimicked the Xbox 360’s achievement system, among other Xbox accomplishments.

What this ultimately does is force gamers to buy systems based on brand name alone, which is a blessing and a curse for console companies. Nintendo was far and away the winner of the last console generation with more than 130 million Wiis sold worldwide. That’s in large part due to the Wii’s focus on more user-friendly content and less traditional mainstream games, along with the Wii’s unique controller and motion-based controls.

Sony and Microsoft’s systems don’t have that sort of differentiation, and a severe lack of console-exclusive games only hinders each system from showcasing its unique strengths on the market. That could be a big issue down the road, when both systems have many more units sold and have to rely on unique game releases. Each system offers gamers the chance to surf the web and watch online TV apps like Netflix and Hulu. Both systems offer the latest titles, from large mainstream games like “Call of Duty” to smaller, independent titles. Sony has exclusive series like “God of War” and Microsoft has “Halo.”

The average family won’t care about some of the smaller differences in graphics. They’ll care about the add-ons and upcoming titles. And in that department, Sony and Microsoft won’t differentiate from each other any time soon.

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