Sony stays on target as E3 offers an open goal

Tuesday, 11 June 2013 07:24 GMT By Rob Fahey

E3 hasn’t officially started. The dust hasn’t settled on a heavy day of conferences. But Rob Fahey is ready to crown Sony king – and Microsoft has only itself to blame.

Today, we got to see something I’m not sure I’ve ever seen in this industry before – one opponent on the ropes, and the other lapping up the crowd’s adulation as they kept on landing the punches. For Microsoft, this was simply brutal stuff.

I’m usually deeply skeptical of people trying to proclaim “winners” and “losers” from an event like E3. It’s always more complex than that – each conference contains a balance of good and bad, after all, and judging games from brief trailers and demonstrations is just as foolish as judging platform strategy from a few carefully worded sentences from executives. The most impressive E3 conferences often break down in the months that follow as the devil emerges from the details.

I can make an exception to my skepticism, just this once. There’s a clear two-way fight right now between Sony and Microsoft – two next-gen consoles based on very similar architecture and launching within weeks of one another. Today, we got to see something I’m not sure I’ve ever seen in this industry before – one opponent on the ropes, and the other lapping up the crowd’s adulation as they kept on landing the punches. We can pick holes in Sony’s conference, certainly – there are holes to be picked – but for Microsoft, this was simply brutal stuff.

In the end, too, Sony’s triumph wasn’t actually about the games. For the past few weeks we’ve been praying that both platform holders would just focus on the games – and for the most part, both Microsoft and Sony lived up to that promise. Sony started slightly weakly, segueing from a strong commitment to continue supporting PS3 and Vita into a dull piece on movie and music content, but it quickly became apparent that the Sony Pictures exec had been wheeled out early on simply in order to get him out of the way quickly. Once Worldwide Studios boss Shuhei Yoshida took the stage, it was all about games from there until the end of the conference.

Worldwide Studios is working on interesting stuff (30 PS4 titles, 20 in the first 12 months and 12 of those are brand new IP), while the roster of major third-parties supporting PS4 is as much a who’s who of development as you’d expect. Exclusives aren’t terribly thick on the ground within that roster, of course – the slightly glassy-eyed enthusiasm with which largely meaningless exclusive content (costumes, levels and so on) was announced is a testament to how cross-platform the next generation will be, just as this generation was. For exclusives, you need to look to Worldwide Studios (which, in fairness, houses some truly excellent development talent) and, perhaps even more interestingly, to Sony’s commitment to indie developers, which it spent much time and energy on re-stating.

Sony’s instructional video on how to share PlayStation 4 games. It knows exactly what it’s doing here.

In fact, Adam Boyes rapidly showcased eight games from eight different indie studios – some of them well-established creators, others entirely new teams and in at least one case, a team with no commercial releases to their name. All of them looked interesting; not all of them will be great, of course, but as a statement of intent this was remarkable. Boyes reiterated the magic words “self-publishing” and promised that PS4 would be the “most open and inclusive platform for developers”. The contrast with Microsoft’s message is stark; Phil Harrison seemed rather miffed at the suggestion that Microsoft doesn’t work with indies, yet where Sony talked up self-publishing and showed off eight interesting looking games, Microsoft’s response to indie-related criticism was to show off Minecraft – a game which had already made tens of millions of dollars before it came to Xbox. Minecraft is stupendous, don’t get me wrong, but a commitment to supporting creatively risky indie development it is not.

That being said, I’m not sure there was a lot to choose between Microsoft and Sony in terms of game software. I liked the Sony showing better, personally, but individual taste plays a big role in that. It’s telling that both companies ended with a game that essentially mixes Call of Duty with Halo – one from the makers of Call of Duty, one from the makers of Halo. Ultimately, you’ll be able to play most of the biggest hits of the next generation on either Xbox One or PS4, and whose exclusives you’ll prefer will be very much a personal choice.

So the moment when Sony “won” E3 wasn’t about games; or rather, it had everything to do with games, with your right to own and enjoy them as you see fit, with all the horrible corporate nonsense about licensing and reselling and sharing that we’ve been forced to sit through in the weeks since the Xbox One reveal. Many of us expected that Sony would announce something similar, albeit perhaps less restrictive than Microsoft’s plans. After all, Microsoft had presumably implemented this anti-sharing, anti-trade-in system at the demand of game publishers; wouldn’t Sony face the same demands?

The moment when Sony “won” E3 wasn’t about games; or rather, it had everything to do with games, with your right to own and enjoy them as you see fit, with all the horrible corporate nonsense about licensing and reselling and sharing that we’ve been forced to sit through in the weeks since the Xbox One reveal. You can forgive Jack Tretton, then, for milking the moment.

You can forgive Jack Tretton, then, for milking the moment. Sony may have faced the same demands, but it has faced them down. The PS4 places no restrictions on ownership beyond those we already understand – you can buy games, sell games, trade games and share games just as you do on your existing console. It doesn’t require an online connection to play games. It doesn’t need to check in with the mothership every 24 hours. Tretton couldn’t stop grinning as he spoke, announcing that the PS4 would do none of the things gamers have criticised about the Xbox One in the past few weeks. He kept drumming home the points, tearing apart Xbox One’s strategy bullet point by bullet point. The rousing cheers from the crowd as Tretton essentially announced “we’re going to do the same thing we did with PS3” were partially adulation for Sony, but they were mostly condemnation for Microsoft, whose entire strategy now looks isolated, anti-consumer and downright nasty. Tretton slaughtered them; last time I saw a massacre on this scale, The Rains of Castamere was playing.

From that moment on, this conference must have been agonising to watch in Redmond. Discussing PlayStation Plus, Tretton effectively announced that subscribers are going to get some of the launch software for PS4 free – an impressive giveaway which almost but not quite masked the fact that PS Plus is now going to be required for online multiplayer, although I suspect gamers will forgive Sony for slipping in that one piece of bad news. Next came a more subtle blow at Microsoft, as Halo creators Bungie popped up for a lengthy demo of Destiny, a hugely ambitious open-world shooter that looks a lot like Microsoft’s most cherished Xbox IP. It’s not an exclusive on PS4 (although there’s an “exclusive partnership”, whatever that’s meant to mean), but its very presence there will rankle, no doubt.

Finally, Andrew House took the stage again for one final bombshell. PS4 is out this November in the US and Europe (not in Japan?), and it’s going to cost $399 / £349 – a full $100 cheaper than the Xbox One, despite higher system specifications and less restrictions on ownership. It was a killer blow; a delighted House looked like he wanted to drop the microphone and walk off stage there and then.

Sony didn’t do anything truly special. It’s Microsoft who provided an open goal – Sony just kicked the ball in a vaguely straight line and scored one of the most dramatic goals in E3’s lengthy history.

A $399 console with some decent games which doesn’t demand constant connection to the Internet and allows you to share and trade-in your games is, well, exactly what we expected and wanted from this generation. It’s not a radical departure – it’s just a solid, reasonable console business model, spiced up with some clever things like indie self-publishing and cloud gaming support. That’s, in some ways, the extraordinary thing here – Sony didn’t do anything truly special. It’s Microsoft who provided an open goal – Sony just kicked the ball in a vaguely straight line and scored one of the most dramatic goals in E3’s lengthy history. All the adulation, the cheering, the “thank god for Sony!” comments on websites and social networks – this is all a response to a company simply doing what it’s always done, in the face of a competitor making the huge, stupid mistake of treating its consumers like idiots and thieves.

It’s a long way to November and, while it will undoubtedly be embarrassing, Microsoft still has time to backtrack, while Sony still has time to mess things up. “Winning” E3 doesn’t mean a lot in the final analysis; it’s how you back up your E3 showing in the months and years that follow that actually matters. Yet, all that being said, I’ve never seen an E3 victory like this one. Winning actually wasn’t about the games, in the end. It was about something even more fundamental – showing some respect to the people who buy your products.

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