The Xbox Exodus: How the PS3 could become a promised land

As Xbox Live continues being a disaster, providing headaches for gamers everywhere, tension is running high. A trip to the forums shows gamers with pitchforks and torches, storming the company’s virtual castle and demanding satisfaction for their stressful gaming experiences. As people becme increasingly frustrated with Microsoft’s XBL problems and shoddy hardware, all that Microsoft can do is shrug its shoulders and say “we know, we’re great.”

Why should it do more than that, though? It’s not like these angry customers are cancelling their subscriptions in droves and going over to Sony. The Xbox 360 currently has very little to fear in terms of customer retaliation because it’s still the best thing on the menu, despite leaving a bitter taste.

What if, however, something more palatable finally arrived? What if Sony cooked us a meal so delicious, it took away the aftertaste of yet another Red Ring of Death mixed in with another session of Halo 3 that saw you get booted halfway through? What if we stopped all these food metaphors? After the jump, I explain how we could one day see an “Xbox Exodus,” a time when people finally have an opportunity to go elsewhere and a day when a true rival emerges.

It is safe to say that the Xbox 360, despite becoming the console of choice for core gamers, having the highest software attach rate of the current generation, and generally being a decent piece of kit, has had its fair share of problems. In fact if we’re being honest, the issues that gamers have had with this system have been abysmal. Between shocking hardware failures, bad customer service and a multitude of concerns over Microsoft’s crown jewel, Xbox Live, it can sometimes feel like gaming with the 360 is tantamount to very hard, very stressful work.

I had a PS2, and even though there were tales of its hardware failures, I never experienced a problem and it still runs after all these years in my brother’s house. I’ve owned GameCubes, Megadrives, all manner of systems, and never once have I had a problem — until I bought an Xbox 360. First I managed to buy a (brand new) console that had been flagged for banning on Live, then I bought two in succession that had disc read errors. Even without hardware problems, I’ve had issues with shoddy customer service, bad discs and the recent Xbox Live faiure that has made a multitude of players very angry indeed. This is my fourth console … and that makes me one of the lucky ones.

Yet for all the problems, we keep going back to Microsoft like battered wives, and why? Most consumers would have given up after the first broken console, let alone the fourth, the sixth, or even the eighth. The answer of course, is simple. While most consumers would indeed switch loyalties to the competition, Microsoft HAS no competition. As I read complaint after complaint from enraged gamers who couldn’t enjoy a crippled Xbox Live during the holidays, one running theme was found in their complaints — If the PS3 provided everything the 360 did, these people would have given up on Microsoft by now. 

That led me to a very interesting thought — when/if Sony finally gets its act together and the PlayStation 3 starts proving to be a significant rival, will we see a mass exodus as burned gamers move away from the 360 and return home to Sony?

Let’s face it, if the PS3 were anything like the PS2, we’d all own one by now, without question. The PlayStation 2 was, and in many ways still is, the best console out there. Affordable, easy to use and with a huge library of games, it was always a wonderful machine, even with its faults. In many ways, it is the Xbox 360 that has essentially become the new PlayStation 2. Where the 360 differs, however, is in the sheer amount of headaches it can cause for gamers, people who by now have expected technology (especially technology costing hundreds of dollars) to make their lives more convenient, not provide hindrance and anguish.

However, it’s a pain we must endure, because for all its faults, the Xbox 360 is the only complete package right now. Providing a wide plethora of games, an as-yet unmatched online console service, and pure accessibility, it’s a simple fact that the 360 has what the core gamer wants. Both the PS3 and the Wii are fine machines in their own respective ways, but they currently lack the kind of pure gaming potential that we crave. The software attach rates alone show this.

But what if the PlayStation 3 started to give the majority of gamers what they wanted? A solid core of first party exclusives flanked by third party titles that looked better and played better, a PlayStation Network that was as lively and had the same type of killer multiplayer titles as Xbox Live, and a price point that most consumers found acceptable. With both the extra technical power and the comparatively robust, more trustworthy hardware behind it, would you be tempted to give Microsoft the finger and return to the Sony camp you once so lovingly danced in?

The PlayStation 3 needs to do three things (all no-brainers) in order to become a viable alternative choice: It needs to be less expensive, it needs a bigger game library and it needs a PlayStation Network that can match Xbox Live. The first speaks for itself and will come with time. As for the second, this is another issue that will hopefully be resolved as the months pass. This year sees at least one important release for Sony’s console — Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. Whether this will remain exclusive or not, for the moment it is officially only going to be available on the PS3 and that is going to give the machine some leverage in 2008. One big title simply isn’t enough however, and MGS is no mainstream system pusher like Halo 3, as much as I prefer MGS. Those waiting for a huge library of killer titles from Sony are going to just have to be patient.

As for the PlayStation Network, this is where things could get interesting. Right now, those who argue that the PSN is already superior do so on one major point — it’s free. While this is true, millions still pay for Xbox Live, and it’s simply because Xbox Live offers more for the money. You can play more games and you have more people to play against. The PS3 has very little in comparison, and this is why it’s free — it’s simply not a service worth exchanging money for. However, should it improve, Sony will charge for it. Those gamers currently showing off that the PSN is free will have to swallow a bitter pill if and when the service finally becomes worth paying for. If you believe that Sony won’t charge for something that people would willingly buy, then you are very naive.

But the question is this: Will the PlayStation Network ever be worth money? Right now, it simply is not and Sony knows this because it’s not charging. Furthermore, it does seem that western companies make more strides in online console gaming than Japanese ones. Nintendo took years to adapt to the idea of online games, as the Wii makes baby steps, and Sony’s consoles have never had a strong presence on the Internet. In contrast, western console developers are the frontrunners in online gaming — Rainbow Six, Gears of War, Halo, Call of Duty — all western.

However, the advent of Home and Metal Gear Online should go some ways to bridging the gap, and from there, it just needs some good developers to back the service even more. The PSN has all the tools to make it, provided the people behind the wheel are paying attention and keeping their hands on the wheel. If Sony makes the PlayStation Network into a service that people value and will break out their credit cards for, then I think it will be the sign that Sony has arrived to bite back at Microsoft.

Which leads me back to the question at hand. If the PS3 ticks the right boxes and the PlayStation Network becomes a worthy rival to Xbox Live, will people put down their 360 controllers and embrace Blu-ray en masse? It’s hard to tell for sure, but right now I’m going to say there’s a strong possibility that an exodus of sorts could happen. Right now, Microsoft doesn’t have to do anything to provide an excellent service, because gamers have nowhere else to go. However, people are neither forgetting nor forgiving, and resentment toward Microsoft bubbles under the surface of many gamertags. It is, in fact, very possible that some customers are just waiting for the day that the PlayStation 3 becomes something they want. I certainly am waiting for such a day.

The trust and loyalty of gamers can be a weak currency, and it’s one that Microsoft has been spending with wanton abandon. As it does so, however, Sony still lives, and this generation still has everything to play for. While Sony has faltered and floundered, its potential is unquestionable and its rise to power is still attainable. 2008 is said by some to the be the year that the true power of the console is revealed, while the Xbox 360 seems to have only flaws left to show us. For Microsoft, the clock is ticking, and while it may be impossible right now to predict where this generation will ultimately lead us, it’s quite clear that the Xbox 360 has a lot of customers just waiting for another option, and a rival that has the means to provide that very rival.

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James Stephanie Sterling
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