Some people think graphics hardware are the only thing that matters in a game console. They're wrong.
We are now less than two weeks away before Sony's PlayStation 4 is launched in the U.S. on November 15th, followed just one week later by the Xbox One from Microsoft on November 22nd. However, there seems to be a ton of Internet chatter over the past few days that the Xbox One has lost the next-gen console war before it has even begun, and for the filmiest of reasons. The controversy even has its own slogan now: "Resolutiongate".
As we have reported, two games that will be available for both consoles on their launch dates, Infinity Ward-Activision's "Call of Duty Ghosts" and DICE-Electronic Arts' "Battlefield 4", will run natively at 720p on the Xbox One. The PS4 will display those games at higher native resolutions (1080p for "Call of Duty Ghosts" and 900p for "Battlefield 4"). The consensus from many Internet pundits is that this is a crippling blow for the Xbox One.
Let's be honest; it would be terrific if everything was perfect in the world and two of the biggest games of 2013 could run natively at 1080p on the Xbox One. Yet, everyone who has condemned Microsoft and its upcoming hardware for this apparent discrepancy seem to be blind to several other factors, not the least of which is that most gamers will likely never notice the difference in the looks of the two console ports when compared side-by-side.
Even Infinity Ward executive producer Mark Rubin told Eurogamer this week that the graphics differences between the Xbox One and PS4 versions of "Call of Duty Ghosts" will be hard to spot. He stated, "I think both look great. Some people might notice if they had them right next to each other. Some people might not. The Xbox One is 1080p output, it's just upscaled hardware wise."
The point is that the small differences between the Xbox One and PS4 versions of these two games, at least to the human eye, are not the end of the world for the Xbox One; far from it. In fact, Microsoft is promising that you will be able to do things with their console version of "Call of Duty Ghosts" that the PS4 version could never do, such as engage in a video chat with a buddy while playing a game at the same time or get help from video tutorials.
The PS2 outsold the graphically superior Xbox and GameCube with over 150 million units.
There's also the fact that in the past two generations of game consoles, the one with the most powerful graphics hardware has not been the most successful in terms of overall sales. Sony's PlayStation 2 was well behind the original Xbox and Nintendo's GameCube in visuals but has now become the most successful game console of all time, shipping 150 million units before ending production earlier this year. Nintendo's Wii console has shipped more units, over 100 million of them, than the Xbox 360 and PS3 in the current console generation even though its graphics hardware couldn't even handle HD displays.
"Minecraft" is a massive hit for the Xbox 360 but is far from a graphical standout.
The graphics-centric critics of the Xbox One also seem to forget that some of the best games ever made for consoles are not the best looking. The greatest example in this current generation is "Minecraft". The Xbox 360 port has been a huge seller, both in download sales and in retail stores but the graphics are not exactly aiming for photo realism; in fact, the retro look of the game is part of its charm.
"Beyond: Two Souls" is a game that looks incredible but offers little in gameplay design.
The opposite can also be true. A bad game that has photo realistic graphics, has a 1080p native display and runs at 60fps is still a bad game. Take a look at "Beyond: Two Souls", the recent PS3 exclusive game from developer Quantic Dream. Visually, it looks like a live action movie, thanks in part to motion capture performances from actors like Ellen Page. However, critics took points off in their reviews because the gameplay was lacking.
Finally, there's one more thing "Resolutiongate" pundits need to understand; launch games for new consoles are almost never the best looking or playing games compared to what is released for those devices in the future. When the Xbox 360 first went on sale in 2005, most of its its launch games were average at best. It also got saddled with titles like "Perfect Dark Zero", which Microsoft hyped up before it launched but ended up being a poor excuse for a first person shooter.
The best games for the current console generation have come several years after the hardware becomes available. "Grand Theft Auto V" may be the best game ever made for the Xbox 360 and PS3, yet Rockstar Games released the title near the end of the life of both consoles.
Even Rubin remarked in his Eurogamer interview this week that the graphics in future Call of Duty games from Infinity Ward will almost certainly look better on the Xbox One, stating " ... look at Call of Duty 2 versus COD 4. It was a massive leap forward in graphics, and that's just because it takes time to get through this."
Ultimately, the winner of the PS4-Xbox One battle is way too early to predict, and trying to do so at this early stage is futile. The only thing that we do feel comfortable in predicting, based on the consoles and games released in the past, is that the winner of this next-gen console battle will have the best games in their library, not the best graphics. That fact may be the toughest obstacle that the developers of games for both the Xbox One and PS4 will have to overcome.
Images via Sony, Activision, Microsoft, and Quantic Dream