Sony’s winning the PR war, but Microsoft is playing a longer game

August 23, 2013

Andrew House, president and group chief executive of Sony Computer Entertainment, presents the company's PlayStation 4 console at E3. (Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg)

Sony made it clear this week: It's preparing for an all-out console war. But while Sony has scored some early points, it's still a fight Microsoft can win.

Running high off momentum from its launch events, Sony beat Microsoft to the punch at this week's GamesCom conference by announcing a Nov. 15 release date for the PlayStation 4. But that's not the only Microsoft-beating that it did.

Sony execs on stage at the German gaming conference continued taking thinly veiled digs at its main rival, framing it as inconsistent and out of touch.

“While others have shifted their message and changed their story, we were consistent in maintaining a message that is fair and in tune with consumer desires,"  Andrew House, president and group chief of Sony Computer Entertainment, told the crowd.

Ouch. There's no doubt Microsoft's had a rocky Xbox One launch thanks to controversy over its policies for game-sharingprivacy and game-streaming that have prompted Microsoft to clarify or change its positions — and opened it up to gleeful needling from Sony.

In addition to a cheeky tutorial on how to share PlayStation games, the Japanese firm has also released well-timed tweets noting that game-streaming is a premium feature on the Xbox One but a basic feature for PlayStation gamers, and gotten in public digs about Microsoft's smaller spread of launch-day markets.

But while Microsoft may be getting the brunt of gamers' displeasure and losing the marketing war at the moment, it's still way too early to call a victor in this battle.

Microsoft does have work to do. With the dust settling on its policy changes, the Xbox One is still facing the obstacle of price, namely that it costs $499 to the PlayStation 4's $399 price tag. On store shelves, that $100 is going to look like a mighty big difference.

But it doesn't have to be. The company has announced that European customers will have a chance to pick up consoles bundled with games — a $60 value that goes a long way to closing that gap. It's a good strategy that MIcrosoft should employ elsewhere.

Another sticking point for the Xbox One is the controversial fact that Microsoft is bundling each Xbox One with its Kinect motion controller. That hasn't gone over well, particularly since Microsoft wasn't always clear that you could turn off the camera/recording device and still have your console function. (You can.)

But despite calls for a separation,  Microsoft's made it clear that it won't be selling a Kinect-free Xbox One. And a flip-flop here, while not unthinkable, is less likely.

That's because it's actually a better value for Microsoft, as a company, to keep the Kinect. For one, the hands-free motion controller offers a way for the Xbox One to distinguish itself from the PlayStation, which has a different approach to motion gaming. Having Kinect by default with the console means developers have more incentive to make games, exclusive games, that use Kinect.

And, perhaps more importantly, the Kinect is at the heart of Microsoft's dearly held ambitions to make the Xbox One into a broader entertainment device. Its voice controls and gesture recognition are what make the Xbox 360 good for streaming video — don't underestimate the appeal of being able to say "Xbox, pause!" at a critical moment.

With doubts already floating about how much longer dedicated consoles will survive in this cloud-crazy world, Microsoft has been clear it wants the Xbox One to have broad appeal, and it's looking to make that pivot sooner rather than later.

With a Kinect in every box, that gives the Xbox One a better chance of becoming the console of choice for a broader audience. And if Microsoft can pull that off, it may be happy to let Sony appeal to the hearts of core gamers — and pick up the rest of the market itself.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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