Xbox One and PS4: Two peas in an E3 pod

Sony and Microsoft, you're more alike than you realize.

CBS

Who won E3 so far? Was it the Xbox One? Or, was it the PS4 that kicked its butt? Did Sony dominate, totally smack down Microsoft, and run away with Best in Show?

All I know, from a distance, is this: boy, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 look a lot alike.

The picture above is from a classic "Star Trek" episode featuring two different alien races that fought bitterly but were more alike than they dared to admit. Sound familiar?

Microsoft's Xbox One
Microsoft's Xbox One James Martin/CNET

The moment the PS4 was unveiled, in its boxy glory, you couldn't help but be reminded of...well, the other black box that was introduced a few weeks ago. Black box, meet black box.

Sony's PlayStation 4. Josh Miller/CNET

But the similarities don't end there . Both have black-bar camera systems (Kinect and Eye). Both have Blu-ray players. Both have cloud gaming. Both are PCs under the hood. (Both have AMD processors.)

The Xbox One's new Kinect
The Xbox One's new Kinect CNET

Both are attempts to create exclusive video content partnerships, turning these boxes into little gateways to mini TV networks. Both claim to be the ultimate system for gamers. Neither is backward-compatible. The differences are few: one has faster RAM. One costs $499, one costs $399 ($59 camera accessory sold separately). One seems to play nicer with used games and offline.

The PS4's new Eye camera. CNET

But otherwise, the two consoles feel like debutantes who showed up for prom in the same dress.

Another similarity these two share: both seem utterly unappealing to nongamers.

Who cares about nongamers when you're talking about video game consoles, you yell? Well, wasn't that the point just a year or so ago? The Wii, PlayStation Move, and Kinect aimed more at the mainstream.

That feels like a decade ago, looking at these gleaming, dense machines. They scream hard-core. They bleed features. Useful, perhaps, but to the uninitiated, opaque and daunting. The Xbox One looks as welcoming as an AV receiver. The PlayStation 4 continues Sony's traditional design, but it's thick, angular, and not far off that path.

What should concern both Sony and Microsoft, and consumers, just a little bit is that these systems are more alike than ever before from a hardware and positioning perspective. And the video game industry hasn't been faring too well. Which means that, in the video game version of musical chairs, the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 are probably scrambling for the same seat.

The door is open for an alternative
What does it mean when two systems feel so similar? A competitor can arise with a different proposition: less expensive, more family-friendly, less obtrusive. The Nintendo Wii found its way in that door in 2006, despite the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 breathing down its neck, and found unlikely victory.

It would be a shocker if the Wii U were able to pull off that trick again, but the threat could always come from many, many other places: mobile gaming, as it spreads its wings and becomes more living-room-connected (the Nvidia Shield , or iOS devices with AirPlay). PC gaming, as it becomes less expensive and imposing (those Steambox rumors, and the growth of tablets).

Maybe it doesn't matter where the competitor comes from. What matters is that Sony and Microsoft, despite volleying barbs at each other, are in the same boat, relying on the same third-party developers to make games for both.

The tone's getting catty. See Sony's "How to share games" PS4 video below, which is admittedly funny. But it's not the option to share used games that's the point: it's that these systems seem to be struggling to differentiate themselves from each other.

So what now?
The holidays approach quickly, and both systems seem ready to make simultaneous leaps with mounds of new games. Maybe they'll both succeed. But it's highly unlikely. Consider this report from earlier this year on the likelihood of console owners upgrading to next-gen models. Sony and Microsoft will keep selling the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, but again, neither the PS4 nor the Xbox One is backward-compatible.

If the console market is shrinking, how many systems can survive?

The good news is, this plan will succeed for at least one of them. There are too many great games in the pipeline, and the path to development on both systems should be easier than ever, since they're more alike and are basically PCs. I'm just not sure there's room for two platforms -- not with mobile games being more popular than ever, and PC gaming becoming more affordable. Both systems debuting in the same holiday season and sitting side by side on store shelves makes me wonder how this will play out.

I can't afford $900 to buy both. A lot of people may wait and see what happens.

Does console exclusivity even make sense anymore when the systems share so much in common under the hood? Maybe, in the long term, Sony and Microsoft need to evolve into "virtual platforms" where subscription services to games and other content begin to feel like a combination of Netflix and OnLive. These services could run on the same hardware platform. But those considerations are for the future, not the present.

Sony and Microsoft, more than ever before, are after the same thing. And the more the two companies wrestle, the more the walls keep slowly closing in.

To me, the console gaming industry seems more monochromatic than ever.

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