It's all about the games. This is the mantra of the games journalist, hardcore hobbyist and amateur industry-watcher alike. It's a truism that's now so well used that it's been worn to a smooth patina of clichť; so rehearsed that it slips down unnoticed.
Maybe that's why we were all so ready to forget this sage bit of platform agnosticism at E3 this year. We got our first scent of a proper console war in years and immediately bayed for blood. So-ny! So-ny! So-ny! Where do I put down my pre-order for a PlayStation 4?
I was as caught up as everyone else, but it now looks like I might have missed the boat when it comes to securing a launch PS4. And I'm OK with that - relieved, in fact. Because the battle Microsoft so humiliatingly lost at E3 was fought in the theoretical and mutable realm of sloganeering and policy. It was pure propaganda. I've looked at the only bit of data that matters - the release schedule - and come to the conclusion that there's only one console purchase that makes sense for me in 2013:
A PlayStation 3.
Let me explain my situation. No, my PS3 isn't broken. It's a fat mark 1 with some serious miles on it (and not nearly enough hard drive space), but it's still trucking. It's in very regular use as a Blu-ray player and iPlayer... player. It's the favoured games machine in the living room because my wife grew up playing PlayStation, has no professional obligation to be unbiased, and despite enjoying a bit of Halo now and again, regards the Xbox controller with a horrified suspicion she usually reserves for moths and celery. She's also a huge Grand Theft Auto fan, so GTA5 is the disc my PS3 is going to be spinning as 2013's nights draw in - with a bit of Diablo 3 couch co-op on the side, perhaps. Lovely.
There's just one problem: Gran Turismo 6. I'm as obsessed with Kazunori Yamauchi's automotive nerdgasm as my wife is with the Housers' slapstick mob operas. Also, I need (yes, need) to play it on my steering wheel, which is a space-hugging eyesore and can only be properly set up at my desk in the other room. And let's face it - the spectacle of me driving imaginary cars in my dressing gown for hours at a time is probably best kept behind closed doors if we're to keep the marital fires stoked.
I don't relish the prospect of lugging the heaviest games console ever made back and forth twice a day any more than I want to deprive my wife of her favourite game so I can play mine - or ask her to play it on a controller that, in her eyes, might as well have been designed by David Cronenberg. If dropping £150 on a super-slim PS3 is the cost of a happy household this winter, that's fine by me.
But so what? This is beyond anecdotal, not to mention a bit self-indulgent, right? Thanks to my jammy job, I'll get to try the new consoles at work anyway, won't I? What does this sordid domestic arrangement have to do with the rest of you? Bear with me a second. It does illustrate a point.
Grant Theft Auto and Gran Turismo are games that don't just sell consoles, they sell them twice over - and at launch, PS4 and Xbox One have nothing to match them
My wife and I care about GTA and GT so much that we're willing to go to mildly silly lengths to enjoy them to their fullest. These are games that don't just sell consoles, they sell them twice over - and at launch, PS4 and Xbox One have nothing to match them. (Well, almost nothing, but I'll get to that.) I'm quite happy to spend £200 to play GT6. £400 for Driveclub? Not so much.
Sony's succession of crowd-pleasing PR slam-dunks has conveniently papered over the fact that PS4's launch line-up is drab. (Yes, it bears the promise of many interesting indie games - which will also be playable on mid-range PCs.) Xbox One's roster of exclusives is better, actually, a fact which was equally obscured, inconveniently this time, by Microsoft's blinkered blunders. Ryse is transparently awful but Dead Rising 3 looks fun, while Forza Motorsport 5 is arguably the most advanced and slick next-gen game in the world right now - as it should be, with a team of 400 working on it.
Racing fan that I am, Forza 5 is the one launch game that could convince me to buy a new console. But that's a pyrrhic, almost ironic victory for Microsoft, because it happens to be going head-to-head with a rival game of a supposedly obsolete generation: Gran Turismo 6.
Although I have a longstanding respect for Turn 10's series, there's nothing in this comparison to convince me to dish out an eye-watering £480 for the shinier game. Forza 5 will offer superior graphics (if you look quite hard - both games run at 1080p60) and online implementation (it's safe to assume, based on pedigree), plus the suitably nebulous promise of cloud-powered AI. Meanwhile, in the blue corner: a more exciting catalogue of cars and tracks (based on pedigree again) and the best handling physics anywhere. Can you still make out those returns diminishing in the rear-view mirror?
If a PS3 game can match its next-gen rival blow for blow, why do I need to upgrade? The third-party games that flesh out both consoles' launch line-ups beg the same question. We don't yet know how much better Watch Dogs, Battlefield or FIFA will be on the new Xbox and PlayStation than they are on the old ones, but I'm willing to bet it's not £400 better. Call of Duty players certainly don't seem convinced yet.
I've bought a launch console once in my life. (It was a GameCube, and the vindication of that impulsive decision by the brilliance of Super Monkey Ball was, if I'm honest, a total fluke. No one would have predicted Sega making Nintendo's killer app, then or now.) I've never been an early adopter, and this is why. I'm not immune to the excitement of new hardware, and I don't really blame anyone for succumbing to it. But I'm wary of the deflation that follows when you have no games to play that can justify that excitement.
So this year I'm voting for the old guard with my wallet. I'm getting that second PS3 and the months of guaranteed delight it comes bundled with.
This isn't about me buying a Sony product rather than a Microsoft one. It's about the games. We spend a fortune on hardware to enhance our gaming - ask Martin how much his Thrustmaster steering wheel cost if you want to see him go white, stare at the floor and mumble - but without the right software, it is absolutely worthless. Yet just one £40 game - or £4 game, or even free game - can transform a ruinously expensive paperweight into a treasured portal that makes hours disappear by the hundred. It's a contradiction of sorts, but the alchemical transformation that takes place when you introduce software to hardware is exactly what makes video games such a thrilling art form.
Your personal alchemy might be in Magic 2014 and an iPad, Dota 2 and a new graphics card, Street Fighter and a Sanwa fight stick, Animal Crossing and a 3DS. Mine is in a steering wheel, a PS3 and Gran Turismo.
If you're buying a new console this year, more power to you and I certainly hope you enjoy it, but remember: you're not defined by which console you're playing. Your console is defined by the game you're playing on it.