OPINION: The format wars return

The trade will be treated to a good old fashioned format war next week when Sony steps into the motion controller ring – toe-to-toe with Nintendo, and two months before Microsoft’s Kinect debuts.

It’s been a long time coming.

For ages the Wii’s controller has been its unchallenged point of difference, and as we approach Christmas both Sony and Microsoft plan to eat into that margin.

Their strategies could not be more of a contrast.

In one corner is Sony. Move is hugely similar to the Wii, but a much more precise, refined version. PlayStation’s new technology has been developed totally in-house by its teams in the UK and US, completely under SCE’s control. And the marketing and delivery of it is clear and aimed at a slower burn from day one and beyond; there hasn’t been much pre-release noise. Ultimately, this is another extention of what PS3 offers – like 3D, Blu-ray or iPlayer.

Microsoft’s game plan has been the opposite. Kinect is almost esoteric, and aims to push motion control to another level. It’s a gambit on the future of technology, not the present. And its tech has been assembled via acquisitions and third-party deals; there are a lot of moving targets. The hyperbole around it has been sustained since its E3 unveiling in 2009. It comes as a reboot for the 360 five years after the console’s launch.

Is Sony playing it too safe to treat Move as an expansion of the PS3, not a format relaunch?

Has Microsoft banked too much on a direction-changing device that has many working on it say must be experienced to be truly understood?

Neither strategy is wrong – but both are crucial. Right now, only PS3 and 360 have seen hardware sales up year-on-year in the UK. Plans to widen the abilities of both will be further welcomed by retail.

And the current big hits outside the traditional world of gaming (iPhone, FarmVille) say that strength lies in the element of surprise. Both Move and Kinect have technical capabilities that have the potential to surprise mainstream consumers and established gamers. I, for one, am someone who wants both – but then I always do. You’d bloody hope the editor of MCV is interested – the trick is attracting casual and Wii owners and those unconvinced by games.

Fittingly, Sony has the first mover advantage – that might be all it needs to loosen Wii’s grip and fortify against 360. However this latest hardware head-to-head plays out, it’s certain that, against a backdrop that also includes some key releases, we’re in for a hell of a time during the run up to Christmas.

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