I’ve never been a big fan of saying that any one console company “won” E3 in any given year. Sometimes the reasons for declaring a winner are dubious, and sometimes it’s like judging a professional sports draft in the now when you really won’t know how it will turn out for three years or so. So I’m not going to sit here and tell you that Sony “won” E3 with last night’s press conference. But there have been memorable moments in E3s past where the tone was set for console success or failure. Sony have been on both sides of this, with E3 1995’s “$299” setting the stage for the original PlayStation’s crushing of the Sega Saturn, and E3 2006’s “599 U.S. Dollars” setting a more bleak tone for the PlayStation 3 that will likely see it finish in third place in this generation. Last night, I got the feeling that “$399” was positioning Sony to return to the positive side of the ledger.
A ruthless and hungry Sony
It never ceases to amaze me how market leaders tend to get complacent and sometimes, downright arrogant, when they get into their lofty position. Sony dropped to third place behind Microsoft and Nintendo with the PS3 because of this. Now, as the underdog, they’re in an uphill battle in the marketplace. But man, are they bringing the fight. After Microsoft either failed to inspire or downright infuriated gamers with various announced restrictions on re-using games, and a rather high $500 price tag, Sony viciously attacked everything that Microsoft is doing by essentially maintaining the status quo. You can lend a game to your friend. You can sell it. You can buy it used. You can keep it forever. Yes, publishers can still make the decision to implement online passes, but there will be no system in place to track used games like the Xbox One has. And there will be no once-a-day authorization check either. If your household’s on a budget and you rely on game trading or trade-ins to feed your house’s gaming habit, this is good news.
And THEN they dropped the $399 bomb.
On the surface, come this holiday season, gamers (and more importantly, people looking for a gift for gamers) will see two new consoles available at $400 and $500. If price is all you’re looking at (and the Wii U isn’t in play), advantage Sony. Now, add in the DRM restrictions of the Xbox One. Watching the presser last night, my wife didn’t understand why the crowd was cheering Jack Tretton’s announcements about the used game policies and why I was snickering about the direct attack on Microsoft. Once I explained what Microsoft was doing with the Xbox One, she basically said, “WHY exactly do you want to buy that console then?” Other than “So we can review Xbox One games” I couldn’t really give her a good reason. And that was before she was reminded about the “always listening” Kinect sensor and heard the PS4’s price tag.
Multiplayer Online gaming will cost you with PS4
People were so jazzed with the used games announcement that they might have missed an important tidbit: playing multiplayer games online with the PS4 will require a premium PlayStation Plus membership. Remember, online multiplayer gaming with the PS3 was always free. With the PS4, Sony will now be doing what Microsoft have been doing for years with its premium Xbox Live service and charging for it. There are likely good reasons for doing this, since Sony isn’t building online gaming infrastructure into the console price (not at $399) like they did with the PS3, and with more reliance on Cloud gaming and connectivity, online gaming is now more complex than ever before. Still, anytime you start charging for something that used to be free (online PS3 gaming should still be free though), people will not like it.
Luckily for Sony, they will still be providing some services for free that you have to pay for with Xbox Live, plus PS Plus is $10 a year cheaper than Xbox Live Gold. They can also hang their hat on the fact that they’re providing excellent value with PS Plus what with all the free games they’re constantly providing with the service. I’m not impressed enough with Microsoft’s “free games for Live Gold subscribers” plan to declare it equal to PS Plus in that regard yet.
Apples to Oranges
It’s also important to note that the $500 Xbox One comes with a much-improved Kinect sensor. The $400 PS4 does NOT include the PS4 Eye camera that many expected would be bundled with it. For machines with very similar specifications otherwise, the extra $100 for Kinect makes sense. The PS4 Eye will retail for $59, so you could theoretically add it to the PS4 and still be ahead of the game, but that choice is yours. Do remember that the new PS4 controller will have Move-like capabilities (the controller can light up in different colours) so you may find yourself needing this camera, which will bring the total cost up to $458. One thing this does point out is that maybe a mandatory inclusion of a powerful camera and microphone array wasn’t the wisest move by Microsoft as it lessens their price flexibility.
I won’t talk much about games as once again, we didn’t see a whole lot of family-oriented stuff. Knack may be the most promising of the lot but I really need to see more of that, and I supposed to some, Kingdom Hearts 3 with its weird Square/Disney crossover could qualify too. And yes, there are a few games I’m personally anticipating that will be more of the “after the kids are in bed” variety. But maybe the most key aspect of last night’s press conference was Sony’s reaffirming their support for independent gaming studios. Indie studios produce some really cool stuff, and there’s more potential for games that are less shoot-y and kill-y that my kids might actually be able to play. THAT’S what I’m looking forward to. Microsoft have not particularly been kind to indie studios, and they won’t allow them to self-publish on Xbox Live, almost effectively pushing them away. Meanwhile, Sony seem to be welcoming them with open arms, and briefly showed a number of titles last night. Lower cost, inventive games that my kids might be able to play? Yes, please.
One theme I picked up on when comparing the differences between the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One is choice. You will have more choice what to do with your old games. You have the choice to get a camera. You have more choice of games with Sony’s commitment to independent developers. You have the choice whether you want PlayStation Plus for online gaming and free games (if you don’t have Xbox Live Gold, it really neuters what you can do with an Xbox). Sony seems to be focusing more on developers and customers while Microsoft chose to focus more on publishers it seems with their decisions. Developers and customers would welcome choice whereas publishers tend to want to limit choices and exert as much control as possible.
I do wonder how this will turn out. Will publishers slowly abandon Sony in favour of Microsoft’s publisher-friendly policies with the Xbox One? EA featured heavily in Microsoft’s presser and were nowhere to be found at Sony’s. And one could baselessly speculate whether making Respawn’s Titanfall an Xbox One, 360, and PC exclusive was more than just Microsoft cutting a cheque to EA, but also a strategic decision by EA themselves. Or will consumers vote with their wallets, and reward Sony’s gamble? I think this will be a fascinating tug-of-war to watch from a business standpoint.
Sony are clearly desperate to regain the dominant position in the console business that they used to have. Their E3 press conference was a huge first step on that road to recovery. Much can change between now and the holidays when both consoles will be available, and don’t forget about the Wii U, which will almost assuredly have a price cut and a number of exciting new games of its own by then. But Microsoft left the door of opportunity open, and Sony seem to have kicked it down. This will be a very interest lead up to the holiday shopping season.