The buildup to the releases of the Microsoft (MSFT -1.22%) Xbox One and the Sony (SONY -0.68%) PlayStation 4 saw the two devices compared to each other at nearly every facet and juncture. As two similar pieces of hardware from rivals in the gaming space that will play host to a great deal of the same software, these comparisons are certain to persist throughout each console's respective lifecycle. While the Xbox One can broadly be said to offer more in the way of media functions, Sony's PlayStation 4 offers more powerful hardware at a lower price.
The respective launches of these two consoles saw versions of premier titles from Activision Blizzard (NASDAQ: ATVI), Ubisoft (UBSFF 1.31%), and Electronic Arts (EA 0.33%) offer better performance overall on Sony's console. Will this trend continue throughout the console generation? If so, will it have a significant impact on market share results?
Opening act stumbles
Given that launch software has typically been a poor indication of what systems are capable of, there has been at least some reason to hold off on making judgments as to whether the PS4 version of multi-platform games would typically run better than their Xbox One counterparts. Which version of a game runs best will often be a question of which platform the lead version was developed on, and that was frequently the Xbox 360 in the last console cycle. With the PlayStation 4 having a hardware advantage and being much easier to develop for than its predecessor thanks to a more conventional system architecture, this trend is not likely to continue.
Released on both the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One, Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition is an updated version of publisher Square Enix's 2013 action adventure game that saw the reinvention of famed heroine Lara Croft. The title was one of last year's best-selling console releases and was listed by many critics as one of the best games of the year. The amusingly named Definitive Edition is also the latest instance of a multi-platform game that offers better overall graphical performance on the PlayStation 4.
The PS4 version of Tomb Raider: Definitive Edition generates display images at 60 frames per second while the Xbox One version is said to hover around 30 frames per second. With the PlayStation 4 version of the game being an average of 30 fps more definitive than the Xbox One version, the name is generating easy controversy in online communities.
Sony's console is known to have a more powerful GPU, and Definitive Edition will not be the last game that runs better on PS4. There may also be another explanation for the considerable difference in performance, however. Two separate teams were tasked with porting versions of Tomb Raider to the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. It has been said that the team that handled the PS4 version has more experience.
The question of whether Xbox One will almost always have trouble matching the performance of PS4's versions of multi-platform titles is worth considering. News that 2013's Call of Duty: Ghosts would run at only 720p on the Xbox One while rendering at 1080p on the PS4 kicked off the initial rounds of performance controversy. Subsequent announcements that Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed 4: Black Flag and EA's Battlefield 4 also offered graphically superior PS4 versions were the beginnings of a trend that will likely persist throughout this console generation.
There's talk that Microsoft will be unlocking some of an approximate 10% graphical processing reserve in a coming update for One. Such a move could improve the system's performance by a small margin, but would not approach bridging the current tech gap that comes from PS4's GPU and RAM advantages. The PlayStation 4's lower price point has likely been the main factor driving its early sales lead over Microsoft's new console. If Sony's system routinely offers graphically superior versions of multi-platform releases, the fact that Xbox One costs $100 more becomes increasingly problematic.
A battle of content vs. performance?
Microsoft has a successful history of making deals to secure exclusive content. Not only were last gen's "Call of Duty" titles developed first on Xbox 360, they also featured exclusive downloadable content for the system. This has continued with Ghosts for Xbox One and EA's Battlefied 4 also features timed-exclusive DLC. On the other hand, Ubisoft's latest "Assassin's Creed" currently offers exclusive content on the PS4. These types of deals arrange for (often temporary) points of distinction across versions that are usually very similar. In order to make up for the considerable performance gap between the two consoles, Microsoft could wind up pursuing exclusivity contracts even more aggressively than it did in the last cycle.
Having the definitive version of third party software matters
There are multiple ways to define "definitive." PS4's power advantage is real and it is significant. Whether Microsoft can arrange the right partnerships and realize its multi-media integration goals will determine how the broader consumer base comes to view PlayStation 4's power advantage.