The console war begins with a rather unfair fight…
The differences between the Sony and Microsoft E3 conferences were incredibly noticeable.
Microsoft was cautious, afraid and nervous. They didn’t discuss their DRM plans or anything on the backend in case of offending people. It was a softly-softly approach, an inoffensive yet ultimately predictable and bland selection of browns and metal shines that seemed to melt together into one mass. It was a conference based on trying to skip around a minefield already laid out for it, and just getting through with a sigh of relief.
Sure, Rare showed off the beginnings of a Killer Instinct for the new generation. EA showed off the impressive-looking Battlefield 4. And there was a teaser for a new Halo game. Games wise, it was fairly safe. Titles like Ryse showed off a more subdued sense of style and poise, whilst Project Spark effectively appears to be an answer to Sony’s ever popular LittleBigPlanet more than a serious games creation tool (although with what many have made in LBP, Project Spark might be worth checking out…). Crimson Dragon, the spiritual successor to Panzer Dragoon, was nice but didn’t quite snatch the sense of awe that it could have done, and Dead Rising 3 as an XBox One exclusive (for now) looks amazing but time will tell, Capcom are fairly notorious for going back on their words when it comes to exclusivity deals.
The star of the show was arguably right at the start; Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Whilst I may mock that for all the real-time stuff they can’t simulate a guy smoking a cigar properly for some reason, the sheer scale of the title was something to behold. A more open, less bitty stealth game, with the freedoms to explore and do things in ways previously impossible. The characters looked amazing, interesting and stylish – but this much you expect from a Hideo Kojima production. The man is capable of creating amazing characters. It seems finally the gameplay has caught up with the characters, and what we have is a project that is ambitious, creative and devilishly handsome in every way. It’s a game to be excited for, and I certainly look forward to playing it.
But the caution was rightly poised; with a price point of $499.99, it’s a very expensive machine. And one for which Microsoft still have no easy answers when it comes to their stance on digital rights, a stance that seems to be even more amazing when you consider Phil Harrison, formerly of Sony Entertainment, now works for Microsoft. No attempt was made to square off the DRM, the used game sales, the Kinect spying on you all the time. No attempt was made to reassure or retract any of these options. No effort was made to soothe the concerns of many gamers, and that was the most troubling thing to come out of the Microsoft presentation. It was the disconnect, the aloof sense of it all that ultimately hung over the whole show like a thick blanket of cigar smoke, smothering everything else. Microsoft promised all games and delivered on that promise, but everything was just “nice”. Aside Metal Gear Solid, there was no real killer shot, no hook.
And Saberwulf looked awful. Call me a traditionalist, but I liked the old Saberwulf design. I don’t much care for this anime grey-styled wolf in no clothes. Killer Instinct may be wanted, even desirable, but the gameply has to be matched by the character designs and on Saberwulf at least (a fan favourite), there’s a LOT of work to be done.
Sony on the other hand were less cautious. Between Final Fantasy XV (formerly XIII Versus, which we all knew was inevitable for a game delayed that long), Mad Max, The Order: 1886 and more, even Diablo 3 couldn’t quite sour the celebratory mood. Titanfall – which everyone assumed until last week was going to be a Blizzard showing – appears to be a human war with big-ass mechs, and everyone loves big-ass mechs. It’s no Zone of the Enders, but it was smooth and slick and very interesting.
Perhaps the biggest – and least revealing – showing was Kingdom Hearts 3. Now, as gamers we all love Kingdom Hearts. It’s almost a crime not to love it, and it has been a considerably long time since we checked in proper with Sora, Donald and Goofy, but it would appear that we have reached the point finally where the game is official, and in production, and can be shown off. True, Kingdom Hearts isn’t the most graphically intense game to show off – its looks are more down to a fantastic art style more than a serious focus on the technical prowess under the bonnet. And it’s true we basically only saw Sora jump into a string of heartless bat creatures and off again, which is all the pseudo-gameplay footage we got. But still, Kingdom Hearts 3 is a very big deal for a lot of people, and a sure-fire hit in the gun for Sony.
But, aside from all the games, the real lasting impression came from the thorough denouncement of the XBox One’s extensive DRM policies. Sony left it until the end to drop that particular tactical nuke on the scene, for the maximum amount of impact. No DRM, no forced online checks every twenty-four hours, no restriction on used games, no camera requirement, no spying and no security issues. Sony’s thorough distancing of themselves from the XBox One provides something very interesting, something that I may have to discuss this week, and that is where developers and publishers will, in the first year or two, ultimately fall. Because the business ends of Sony and Microsoft are so completely different, something tells me there will be less crossover than we’re used to. This means that EA is unlikely to be seen on the PS4 initially, whilst Square-Enix may not be seen on the XBox One.
But the ultimate finishing move was to price the PS4 under the XBox One, officially underlining that not only do Microsoft’s policies cost money, but that they’re not in the interests of the consumer because of that. There’s no point to experimental DRM techniques if ultimately it pushes the cost of games up. At $399.99, the PS4 generated cheers from the crowd, chants of “Sony! Sony! Sony!”, even from the press who participated because, heck, you have to admire the balls.
It wasn’t all good news for the PS4 – online play requires the paid PS+ service. However, with free games across all three platforms for an adjusted price of under $5 a month, as well as access to Sony’s cloud database next year, it’s a cost that doesn’t seem grossly unfair for what you’re getting. Still, it was casually glossed over, so perhaps we’ll hear more of that soon.
All this said, one thing did concern me at E3 this year on stage; the technical stuff.
Battlefield crashed. Some games stuttered, stalled and blurred, when they were supposed to run at 60fps. Assassin’s Creed 4 on the PS4 was as guilty of this as any, with noticeable loading times between jumping parts, the very thing that effectively everyone criticised with the Wii U version of Darksiders 2. We saw close-ups of grass blades being jagged, blocky messes. We watched textures under strain warp and bend with the camera. We saw some minor screen tearing.
This was supposed to be the show side of things. The stuff they WANT us to see, and what we actually got was a lot of bugs and technical errors.
Now, I quite like the idea of honesty in advertising. Games have bugs, we know that and we will have to come to accept that. But on the show floor, for both Sony and Microsoft, such things are counter-productive and ultimately question whether rushing the software out for the hardware is a good idea. No doubt Assassin’s Creed 4 looks lovely, as does Battlefield 4, and there’s obviously a point to be made that this is still work in progress and some bugs have yet to be squashed. But you want to show off the hardware in its best possible light, and I’m not entirely sure this was a great step in the right direction. In some cases, it seemed like people were desperately struggling to contain the monsters under the hoods, and ended up with tearing and stretching and loading times. But games crashing? This is not a great sign of the future. Games crash, but they shouldn’t crash on a stage like that.
This said however, at least they were convincing. After the whole Aliens: Colonial Marines thing, perhaps a few bugs, glitches and crashes here and there demonstrate that heck, it is the real deal.
Nintendo obviously come later on/tomorrow, so it’s not over yet. Nintendo may not be having an E3 conference, but they do have an E3 presence and their own successful Direct show with which to substitute the lack of an E3 showing. There won’t be huge cheering crowds, admittedly, but sometimes it’s nice to just get it straight without the flim-flam. No-one as of yet knows the titles Nintendo will be showing off; we know some of them, because they were mentioned before; Mario Kart U, Super Mario U, Smash Bros. and a Zelda, hopefully the new one and not Wind Waker HD. But Nintendo has a lot of time to talk about other games and other projects in the pipeline, and it will have to really if it were to give the Wii U a fighting chance.
That said, Nintendo’s value has gone up considerably in the wake of the Microsoft XBox One stuff so I certainly wouldn’t put it past Nintendo to come in at least a credible second if nothing else. Nintendo has a good hour or two to discuss games with us, and Nintendo has some of the most valuable IP in the world so I am expecting to see some new reveals. Nintendo is great at dropping bombshell secrets on us, and there’s always a massive amount of speculation every year as to what this years bombshell will be.
Hopefully we’ll see at least a solid performance from Nintendo. To do that will put Microsoft in a very awkward position, one which it is not used to finding itself – on the outside, pushed aside by gamers. Microsoft spent millions of dollars pushing the XBox and the XBox 360 into the hearts and minds of consumers the world over, and it seems almost unthinkable that for a company who made it their mission to get into the good graces of gamers across the globe that they would so idly sit by as Sony and Nintendo swallow their market from underneath them.
I suspect in the next few days, Microsoft will begin to slowly undo its DRM restrictions. It will have to, in the face of Sony and Nintendo, or be doomed to an also-ran. Microsoft will have to work its PR departments nipples off in order to make up the huge gulf of ground that sits between it and its rivals currently, and answer some harsh and unforgiving questions as to why it thought this was even a good strategy to begin with.
There is no shame though in Microsoft undoing these things. I totally understand the importance of security and safety, but arguably not at the expense of personal privacy and control of ones own data. Microsoft were eager to announce a new digital strategy because it was experimental, exciting and about giving control to the publishers. But publishers do not sell consoles – first party games do, and that has ALWAYS been the case as far back as we can remember. Publishers may like control – some anyway – but ultimately consumers are the people who decide and I’ve been informed in the last minute of typing this that PS4 pre-orders have spiked beyond control. I suspect and expect that the XBox One pre-orders will pale in comparison, and Sony may even enjoy the same first-month success Nintendo did with the Wii U of three million units.
That is, of course, if Sony can get enough out there.
The thing that is impressive is that Nintendo had three million Wii U consoles ready to ship at launch. Most console companies struggle to keep up with demand, which usually ends up making it desirable, sure, but more expensive. And it helps sales momentum if people are still waiting for their orders. Nintendo’s big mistake was to sell that many in the first month, which left no real market in the proceeding months to balance out things. Sony’s PS4 is a technological marvel, but will it be able to supply enough to meet the obvious demand that it is going to have when it launches in November? Sony were glibly quiet on that front, so I would assume not, and that the console design is still relatively new.
If supply cannot meet demand, could Microsoft capitalise on that? Or will Nintendo dominate sales with its deluge of games over the Holiday Season? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
It’s interesting that I’m talking down Microsoft, but ultimately I feel no other option. Sony really pulled a rabbit out of a hat here, and Microsoft were not prepared for it. With all of the PR blunders in the last few weeks, Microsoft were desperately hoping for a weak Sony showing. It clearly didn’t get it. Sony smelled blood and went right for the jugular of the issue at the end, possibly finishing any prospect of Microsoft ever making this DRM/Kinect Spy concept acceptable or wanted.
And it’s what consumers wanted to hear as well. We WANTED to hear Sony say “No DRM!”. Which they did. We wanted them to say, “No online checks every 24 hours!”. They did. We wanted them to say, “You can buy used games!” – guess what? They did! Sony answered everything people wanted them to answer, whereas Microsoft did everything it could to avoid the issue. That is a massive difference that could fundamentally change the dynamics of the market, and Sony not only know it but are likely to reap the rewards in terms of pre-orders and share price increase. Because it’s not simply about pleasing us as consumers – if we are happy, shareholders are happy, and happy shareholders invest more money, meaning Sony end up with more finance to play with.
Ultimately though, it’s amazing that we’ve had such a turnaround. At the start of the last generation, the XBox 360 was focused on games, gamers and pleasing the gaming world, whereas Sony were trying to smuggle in Bluray at a very high price, with a callous disregard for its consumer base. At the start of this new generation, Sony have learned that it’s the consumers who create success – not novel concepts and ideas and expensive additives. It is Microsoft struggling to smuggle in the new Kinect and DRM software, at the expense of consumer appreciation. The game has completely switched sides, and it will be interesting to see just how that plays out in terms of sales at the end of the year.
There’s some ways to go, and plenty of technical hitches to iron out. But I certainly wouldn’t count Microsoft out. It may have lost the battle, but this is a war and there is still time to change. Failure to do so will hurt Microsoft more than it realises.
Time will tell. But here’s hoping there’s a proper fight sooner or later. Because this wasn’t much of a fight…