It’s been a couple of days since the “PlayStation Presents” chat-show style opener for PlayStation Experience and… yeah, thankfully I think I can join the many who found the whole thing a tad on the underwhelming side.
From the focus on VR – again – to the audience participation of Detroit: Become Human, in a scene where a child is in a life-or-death situation, with timed events and all… something about it didn’t gel. Maybe that is down to the late-night chat-show format – sadly, this always seems to be the problem with prolonged shows of this nature as we’ve seen many times at E3. Most people in the industry who rise through the ranks aren’t exactly getting by on their wit, charm and innate likeability. It was stilted, stiff and just a little too starchy and considering we had the Microsoft Gamescom showcase and the oh-so-Japanese Switch Reveal in January, limboing under that bar is quite impressive. Yeah, it was a dud.
But it highlighted for me Sony’s problem throughout 2017.
I’ve been waiting months to unload on Sony. It’s not because I hate Sony at all – I like my PS4, and aside my regular anger at the processed cheese durability of the DualShock 4, it’s not been a complete waste of a year. Sony opened up with Nioh and Nier: Automata, after all. But then something strange happened. I started to realise something that made little sense – or perhaps it makes perfect sense, who knows. That realisation is thusly; Sony took 2017 off.
On the whole, this wouldn’t have been much of an issue – it’s not like the XBox One was putting up much of a fight. Except Microsoft was not the droid Sony was looking for – that particular little beast should have been the Nintendo Switch, which took everyone by surprise this year… that includes, of course, Sony. I think Sony forgot the old story of The Tortoise and The Hare; with so much distance, Sony must have thought okay. We got games in the pipeline but they’re all going to be delayed into 2018 so we’ll just stand back for the moment. And it’s that void, that gaping hole that Sony left there for all to see, which allowed Nintendo way more wiggle room than I think anyone would have otherwise afforded the little hybrid console. Nintendo is on track to sell 15 million units this year and that still isn’t meeting demand in some regions – and Sony? Well… Sony just let Nintendo have the spotlight. And now the Switch could, if it keeps up the pace, catch up to the PlayStation 4 by 2020 or 2021.
It’s not uncommon to have a quiet year in the mid-generation lull, of course. This happens, and it happens to most consoles. The disaster for Sony wasn’t simply letting Nintendo in, but letting Nintendo in fully armed.
This year we got several award-winning Switch games; Super Mario Odyssey, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Mario+Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, ARMS and that’s the tip of the iceberg for what has been an insanely strong first year for the Switch. And we already know what’s coming in the next year to eighteen months too – Metroid Prime 4, Bayonetta 3, Pokémon Switch (which is likely to be MASSIVE as a release) alongside Yoshi, Kirby and more. Nintendo is dumping out big-brand games like its never done before, and it’s an incredible sight to behold. To say Nintendo was ready for this is an understatement. Nintendo let the Wii U stay on life support until it could arrange most of this content making the “Switch” to the Switch.
Sure, Sony has a few key games lined up. But they’re not likely to be massive sellers – God of War is perhaps their more sure-fire seller, but Shadow of the Colossus has always been a niche game and I’m not entirely sure this darker direction serves the game any real purpose (the darkness in the original was implied through deed and consequence; the wide open, bright world was at odds with the inherent darkness under the surface). Monster Hunter World looks gorgeous, but seriously – it’s another niche game and it’s unlikely to be the massive runaway success story Capcom is hoping for. Detroit: Become Human is also a bit niche. And whilst Death Stranding is suitably bonkers, reports are this game has already cost $100 million and we don’t even have gameplay to go on yet. This is a money-sink just to keep Kojima on board, and whilst that’d be a good strategy in theory I think Sony may find the reality to be painful in the long term.
It also doesn’t help that Sony’s advertisements have backfired spectacularly on them. I know these deals are inked months in advance – it’s the way of things, ads don’t magically spring up overnight as some think they do – but attaching itself to games like Star Wars: Battlefront 2, Call of Duty: World War 2 and Shadow of War: Middle Earth is proving to have been a poor move.
Sony’s biggest problem during Gen-8 has been because it was ‘the only game in town’. Sure, that meant the PlayStation 4 got many good games… unfortunately, it also left Sony open to get dumped on when things went very, very badly wrong in the way they have this year. Sony attached itself to big brand, “Triple-A” games at a time the whole rotten facade was crumbling around them. Of course, Sony couldn’t have known it would happen this fast – or be nearly as brutal as it has been the last few weeks – but it showcases a short-sighted nature to what is currently I suppose the second biggest name in video games.
I also think Sony has become too dark.
Whilst I get Sony wants to be a place for grown-up gamers, I think the trailers for Detroit: Become Human and The Last of Us: Part II showed us the company might be trying a tad too hard to maintain that moniker in a period a lot of grown-ups are actually moving to the Switch, which works more in and around lives than the PlayStation 4 currently does. Yes, context is key – I said this was the main issue with the Paris Game Show teasers – but it also seemed weirdly blunt for Sony. Ooh look violence ooh look scary things ooh look child abuse we’re still edgy. Ironically, Sony seemed to have lost its own edge in the process – these things didn’t cut clean, rather landing with a dull, messy thud.
It is not being helped that big third parties are now pretty much all rushing to the Switch, to support that whilst there’s still healthy money in its economy. I don’t think Sony will lose many – if any – actual exclusives in the process. The Switch is a different beast, after all. But if Sony lets its own third party support push it aside whilst they sing from the rooftops about their Switch support, it’s going to start looking kind of embarrassing for Sony playing second fiddle to what, in essence, is what the Vita tried to be and failed at.
Getting momentum back after things have stalled is hard work – the Wii U showcased that, and Sony itself is no stranger to this process either after the Herculean effort that it took to get the PlayStation 3 back on the tracks after it derailed (twice). Sony of course has form in doing this – but it took Sony almost six years to get the PS3 even remotely back in our good graces. And the PSN Hack certainly could have killed lesser companies dead many times over. Sony can’t afford to wait years to get the PS4 ball rolling again – 2018 is already shaping up to drop some major Switch games (and if Pokémon does land, as is believed, in Fall 2018 – the Switch is going to go mental in sales figures terms).
Gen-7 saw Sony capitalise on a loss of momentum from both Microsoft and Nintendo. Sony knows how this goes. It knows how hard it is to get it back once its gone, because it both had to counteract the PS3 launch and the PSN hack and it took advantage of the fall from grace of the XBox 360 and the Kinect. Sony knows it has only one real shot at getting this momentum back – and if it fails, well, the PS4 becomes this generations Wii. By that I mean, the sales will just start to tail off rapidly whilst another platform moves into pole position. That system I think we know will be the Switch. Hell, even if Sony is partially successful – it may not be enough now. The Switch is stealing the headlines, and if Nintendo has another round of big names to drop in the coming year – it could realistically continue to do that and stay one step ahead of a Sony playing PR Catch-Up.
But Sony needs that edge back in order to have any chance of fending off a challenge from the Switch right now. “PlayStation Presents” was duller than a butter knife, and more stale than a two-week old loaf. People actually stayed up to watch this, wanting some of that old Sony sparkle again. They were left wanting. Sony just got boring for some reason, and this is the kind of thing which it must shake off. And quickly, if again reports of a January Switch Direct are to be believed (well, the thing was leaked by an EA employee working on Fe promotion so I think we can say that’s more or less confirmed at this point). If Nintendo drops a few big names – that could, indeed, carry Nintendo the whole year.
And to get that edge back… Sony is going to need to make some sacrifices and I hate to be the “I told you so” guy but I think those sacrifices will come in the shape of PSVR and the PS4 “Pro” 4K Updates. I don’t think either is really what the market is asking for right now. It’s directing time, attention and money away from projects and ventures which should absolutely be pushed far more readily on the whole.
Hopefully 2018 will be a far better year for Sony. Hey, I even sort of get why Sony was a bit cocky this year. They launched an open-world action-RPG with a strong female protagonist in a world populated by robot dinosaurs. I mean, that’s PR and Awards fodder right there.
And they got hammered by The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.
… right in the jibblies, that’s just not sporting Nintendo…