GameSpy Director of Technology Todd Northcutt says Sony is pulling ahead of Microsoft in the online milieu, where it’s “definitely beating out Xbox” in some areas.

“I don’t think you’ve seen the same pace of innovation from Microsoft as you have from Sony recently,” Northcutt said in an interview with Develop. “It’s been steadily improving the PlayStation 3 as an online gaming device and an entertainment device while the Xbox 360 has had its half-yearly updates but there’s nothing groundbreaking that’s been released, other than a couple of changes to the marketplace.”

GameSpy has middleware licensing agreements with both Sony and Microsoft and also serves as the exclusive online partner for the Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection, placing Northcutt in a particularly good position from which to monitor trends in online performance. “We have a really good relationship with Sony and it’s great to see the evolution of the platform,” he continued. “I think it’s experienced a lot of evolution and in some places PlayStation 3 is definitely beating out Xbox.”

He also challenged the assumption that Nintendo is far behind Sony and Microsoft in terms of the online features for its Wii console, saying the company simply has different ideas about how it wants to approach online gameplay. “We’re working very closely with Nintendo but the vision is all about how to make the online multiplayer environment less scary to its audience. Nintendo is very sensitive about that and it’s refreshing. It applies a critical lens to the issue,” Northcutt said.

“For example, with Mario Kart Wii, there’s not a high-score list,” he continued. “Instead your ranking is shown on a much more friendly distribution curve so you’re not a number. You’re not 451,479th best player in the world. You’re somewhere in the middle of the bell-shaped curve, maybe a bit better than average, which is important because most players aren’t going to number one in the world and don’t care about that. But they might care about being the second-highest rated player amongst their friends or the best player in their zip code.”

Northcutt’s comments are particularly interesting in light of Microsoft’s E3 announcement of the Xbox Experience, the coming update to the Xbox 360 dashboard. Changes include the integration of Netflix, the ability to play games from the hard drive, a new Xbox 360 Guide, the addition of avatars and more. In fact, Xbox Live avatars are intended to make the service more inviting to casual gamers and bear more than a passing resemblance to Nintendo’s Miis, although famed Nintendo designer Shigeru Miyamoto didn’t appear to have any concerns about Microsoft’s imitation. “To see that a company like Microsoft has taken something we’ve done and kind of looked at it in a way and brought it out on their platform to kind of show that what we’ve done has become the standard, I find quite flattering,” he said. “But on the other hand, I think probably the basic ideas behind perhaps those two different systems are different and because of that I think they will probably develop in different ways.”

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