Ahead of tomorrow's launch, Ed Smith explains why an Xbox 720 that's almost exactly the same as the PS4 would be a good thing.
As the 48 billion rumour round-ups I've done over the past six weeks will tell you, I don't actually know what to expect from tomorrow's Xbox reveal. I'm almost sure there'll be some news about better video streaming, a new Kinect and probably some exclusive games. It'll be, I imagine, a lot like the PS4 reveal; I don't think there'll be any surprises.
And that's good, believe it or not; that's encouraging. In a whimsical and hastily aborted blog post from a few months ago, I started to imagine a world in which technology had reached a point where it couldn't get any better. This "pinnacle-end" hardware would put to rest the combative, graphics-driven console race that we know so well and usher in an era where license holders had to differentiate themselves with ideas rather than shininess. Since everyone would have access to the same, equally flawless equipment, it would be what you could make with it that mattered, not the toolkit itself.
Games, at last, would become a creative rather than technological pursuit.
It feels now, kind of, like we're about there. I'm not saying the technology behind new consoles is impossible to build on (like space exploration, technology is something that never really "ends") but it feels like there's very little apart from exclusive games that the consoles can use to distinguish themselves. As far as I can tell, both Microsoft and Sony are shooting again for that miraculous all-in-one box. The PS4 and the Next-Box will both have video streaming; they'll both have access to indie games and apps; they'll both have share functions. The hardware and features will be, so far as I can see, very similar.
Rather than a console war, this next generation is shaping up like a console Cold War. We have two sides with equitable resources both working for supremacy over the same market. It's not like the sixth generation where Microsoft was a late-comer, or the seventh generation when it was still an upstart: We now have two firmly entrenched console makers with a lot of money, both able to pour every function - video, internet, social - into their machines and match each other graphically. What we have is a stalemate; it's mutually assured destruction.
In the way that access to my imagined "pinnacle-end" tech would be a great leveller, Sony and Microsoft's practically equal share of the console market, and shared vision of reaching a universal audience of casual, hardcore and non-gamers, means their hardware is going to look pretty much the same. But that doesn't mean an end to a console war, only how it's fought. To strain the Cold War metaphor further, in the way the East and West battled using espionage and politics rather than big guns and open fighting, this next console war will be fought with games rather than flashy hardware. It will be a war, I hope, of ideas rather than technology. It'll be something we probably won't be able to call a war at all.
So by that reasoning, I've my fingers crossed that tomorrow's Xbox reveal will be really boring. I want to see exactly what I saw in New York in February, except with a Microsoft logo on it rather than a Sony one. I want the hardware, the vision and the marketing to be almost precisely the same; I want the two consoles to be virtually indistinguishable from one another.
Unlike my "pinnacle-end" daydream, this one seems plausible. In terms of periphery, the added incentives like apps and motion controls that were used to flog last generation's consoles, it feels like we've reached a saturation point. I don't think Microsoft would allow for a hardware gap but I also don't see what it can do that's any more: The PS4, hell, even the 360 and PS3, have more than enough additional bells and whistles to make anything extra irrelevant. It's only games that are left now to fight over.
And it feels like both companies have already picked up on this. The PS4 launch had presentations from AAA, first-party and independent developers: It was very much about the games.
A centre point of the Xbox reveal will be Call of Duty: Ghosts, which is set to be unveiled in full alongside the new console.
Already, it seems like the new machines are being sold on the quality of the games they support rather than what's under the bonnet. I didn't hear a lot at the PS4 launch about new and amazing graphics; it was much more about the software. I'm expecting the Xbox launch to go down the same way.
Or maybe not - maybe the Next-Box will be all about the apps, the sharing and the all-inclusivity. Maybe it will be more a living-room PC than a game console; maybe it will download biscuits. We don't know. But what I'm hoping to see tomorrow is basically another PS4. I'm hoping that from 6pm GMT onwards, I'll be bored to death listening to marketing pump about video, sharing, social and casual. I hope the only things interesting about the Xbox launch are the games, the console itself needs to be exactly the same as its competitor.
IBTimes UK will be covering the Xbox 720 launch live on Twitter at @IBTimesUKTech and will be reporting details, analysis and opinion after the event.