Andrew House

While much of the next generation narrative has been pointed purposefully at digital rights management and used games, arguably the biggest discussion thus far has been left untouched like the awful pizza at a Chinese buffet. SCEA executive Jack Tretton may have revelled in revealing the PlayStation 4’s pro-consumer plans during last week’s E3 2013 press conference, but it was group gaffer Andrew House’s almost aggressive declaration of $399 that will be looked upon fondly by the suits that have been haunted by a larger figure for much of the PlayStation 3’s lifespan.

The slide of the presentation itself looked cobbled together; a plain white Powerpoint sheet with a trio of figures penned in Arial Black. But while we don’t subscribe to the opinion that the company decided on the PS4’s price in response to Microsoft’s disclosure – in all likelihood, the platform holder has probably been targeting $399 ever since the system’s inception in architect Mark Cerny’s basement – we do reckon that the Japanese giant saw an opportunity to kick its competitor while it was down.

But in the cold light of the E3 aftermath, what does the disparity between the PS4 and the Xbox One’s pricing actually mean? Well, it’s clear that Sony struck a tuneful chord with consumers, as the manufacturer’s black box of tricks has been outpacing Microsoft’s machine on pretty much every electronics retailer’s website since the conclusion of the company’s press conference. Numbers are harder to come by – we suspect that both consoles are amassing positive pre-order figures – but it’s possible that the Japanese giant’s nose is in front at the moment, if only temporarily.

E3 2013 PlayStation 1

Of course, there’s a lot more at play than merely price. Software, functionality, and the aforementioned used games policies will all factor into every early adopters’ purchasing decision – but we still reckon that the disparity between the respective system’s launch sums will prove decisive as each platform holder cuts the ribbon on the next generation in around four or five months’ time.

One of the biggest problems that the PS3 faced for large chunks of this generation – and is arguably still haunted by today – is that it released with an inflated figure attached to it, that was largely unjustified by the experiences available at launch. An arrogant Sony attempted to make a song and dance about the CELL and how it would serve up incredible experiences wielding supercharged computational power, but until Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune rocked around in 2007, a lot of that potential remained untapped.

And the console looked like a cumbersome boxer-branded convenience cooker as a result, lingering on store shelves while consumers rushed to the much more attractive green machine wearing a distinctly more palatable price point. The Xbox One won’t quite face the same obscene struggles as the PS3 on pricing alone, but it will find itself up against a cheaper piece of hardware this Christmas with many of the same games in its library.

E3 2013 PlayStation 2

And that, more than used game policies and exclusive content, could prove to be Sony’s decisive blow. It even ignores the snowballing sentiment that the PS4 is actually more powerful than its costly competitor. If it’s proven that the console’s able to deliver an enhanced experience for a more affordable figure, then that may truly put Microsoft in hot water moving forwards. But, as SCEUK executive Fergal Gara was keen to emphasise earlier in the week, the console war is not done and dusted yet.

While it’s true that the Japanese giant has proven that it’s more nimble than Usain Bolt in recent months, we refuse to believe that its Redmond-based counterpart is going to accept a kick to the teeth without at least attempting to jump to its feet. And how Microsoft inevitably responds could yet have colossal implications on the PS4.

Executives such as Don Mattrick and Phil Spencer have been somewhat dismissive in the wake of last week’s Los Angeles showdown, claiming that the Xbox One “over-delivers on value”. But you can bet that somewhere among the ball ponds, basketball courts, and canteens serving caviar at Microsoft’s E&D headquarters, there are suits having hurried water cooler conversations about the company’s next move.

E3 2013 PlayStation 3

And the focus of those impromptu meetings may not circle around cost reductions, but subsidised pricing. The manufacturer made no mention of the model during its press conference, but it was a common source of conversation leading up to the unveiling of the Xbox One. Perhaps it hasn’t finalised its plans at this point in time, but an incremental payment system – perhaps tied into the Xbox Live subscription service – could prove a major blow to the PS4.

If Sony can use its affordable advantage to help cultivate a fanbase around the PlayStation Network, its ecosystem, and games, then it could yet exit this generation on top of the Xbox One

The practice may not always benefit the consumer in the long run, but Microsoft has proven in recent weeks that that isn’t its chief source of concern. As such, a headline figure of $299 with a commitment to monthly payments could steal Sony’s thunder, even if it’s unlikely to fly in some parts of the world. And if the Japanese giant's not readily prepared to respond, that could prove a colossal blow to the cost advantage that the firm's spent years attempting to engineer.

Of course, it’s difficult to debate something that hasn’t yet been confirmed, and while it seems likely that Microsoft will dabble in subscription tiers based on the speculation that’s surfaced over the past few months, there’s no reason why the PlayStation maker couldn’t have a similar plan up its sleeve. After all, the platform holder has proven itself uncharacteristically adept over recent weeks.

And assuming that it can continue that – and subsequently keep its nose in front on pricing – the future looks positive for the PS4. History has proven that system’s snowball, and that’s especially true in this online age. If Sony can use its affordable advantage to help cultivate a fanbase around the PlayStation Network, its ecosystem, and games, then it could yet exit this generation on top. For now, though, the system’s merely in a commanding position – and it’s down to the platform holder to ensure that it stays that way.

How important do you think that the PS4’s price advantage is? How do you think that Microsoft will respond to the difference? Let us know in the comments section below.