Wow, do I not want to be a Sony executive right now.
First there was the “No PlayStation Experience” announcement; which is fair enough, I suppose. Last years chat-show style landed with a dull thud, and it wasn’t as if we saw anything that we couldn’t have gotten during The Game Awards. It was a bit of an eyebrow-raising decision, but thinking about it – that shouldn’t have been a big problem.
But now Sony is pulling out of E3 2019. Like, completely. No press show, no presence on the floor (aside maybe some third-party representation)… just nothing. And THAT tells me something is very, very wrong.
Let’s tidy this up a second.
Sony recently announced it had sold 86.4 million PlayStation 4 consoles – which still is a healthy lead (I still bundle Wii U/Switch together, which I think right now puts Nintendo at 37 or 38 million, and Microsoft is probably somewhere around the same ballpark), but this is the five-year watershed. During the last three generations – 5, 6 and 7 with the PlayStation 1, PlayStation 2 and Nintendo Wii respectively – the market leading console has always hit 100 million within that five year period, if not sooner in the case of the PlayStation 2 and Nintendo Wii. This is the accepted benchmark, one Sony themselves set and even proposed by saying it was targeting 100 million sales back when the PS4 was about to drop. But it hasn’t happened within the five-year window, and it appears PS4 sales have slowed to a bit of a crawl in the last couple of years. I say “crawl”, we’re still talking millions of units a year, but can Sony get 13.6 million sales in the next twelve months? If they can’t, that will be a massive embarrassment.
And this has been somewhat exacerbated by the very well-made point by some industry analysts (and myself ages ago) that Sony should have crushed that sales window. From even before the launch of the PS4, the competition was non-existent. Microsoft screwed up its XBox One launch reveal, and Nintendo… well, the Wii U is far too complicated an issue to talk about here and yes I am going to postpone that analysis as long as I can. Up until the launch of the Switch, the PS4 was really the only place for any serious gaming. Sony had literally no competition for three years and four months, and it STILL hasn’t hit that 100 million in five years benchmark.
Slice this any way you want; the PS4 has sold about as much as the PS3 did. And the PS3 was last generations loser. Unpack that one and try to stay standing.
Still, getting to that 100 million target – which Sony promised – should be a priority. So Sony taking another year off – almost entirely by the looks of it – seems really troubling. Aside a couple releases like Day’s Gone and possibly Ghost of Tsushima (at this point I think we should also be prepared for Ghost of Tsushima and The Last of Us: Part 2 to be transitioning to the next-gen consoles, it’s certainly a likely outcome right now), Sony’s 2019 is quite silent and bare for the moment. Hardly the final push to get to that 100 million before we get out of this generation and into the headaches of a 4K-Driven Generation 9.
The last time Sony took a year out was 2017, and that was the Year of the Switch. An unparalleled lapse in judgement, Sony walked off and Nintendo stormed in and dropped a carpet-bomb of content in those first nine months the likes of which we’ve never seen before in the industry. And 2019 could be the year Microsoft starts to show off the XBox “Scarlett”, their next-gen offering, which is either Holiday 2019 or early 2020, since I think the Switch has also demonstrated you don’t need to launch in the middle of the Holiday season to get all the sales.
It’s just not the time for Sony to get complacent.
Abdicating E3 2019 is a terrible idea though. For those who say “It’s just a games show” – to you and me, sure it is. We tune in for all the big announcements, and to watch EA fall flat on its face year in and year out. It’s a tradition we all enjoy. For consumers, E3 is ‘just a games show’.
But it’s also the industries largest trade show. Let’s put it this way – Nintendo showed up at E3 2016 with just one game, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and whilst their confidence in that was justified in 2017 without question… it wasn’t the only reason Nintendo was at the show. Behind the scenes, Nintendo was showing off the first proper build of the Nintendo NX, later Switch, to developers and publishers and it hooked in UbiSoft, Capcom and of all companies to go ga-ga over Nintendo, Bethesda. Trade shows are also where business is done. It’s where companies demo what they’ve got behind the scenes, talk quietly to publishers who may not be returning their calls normally and so forth.
E3 is the biggest Trade Show (and it was and is a trade show – the current consumer-focused E3 was birthed by Reggie Fils-Aime back in I think it was 2004, maybe 2003, where early footage of his presentation went “viral” before that term was even a thing), and you’d think not having the market leader there is bad. But Nintendo is going to be there. And Microsoft will be, no doubt about it, probably equally with some early hardware to demo behind the scenes. And it seems most other developers and publishers will be there too.
So Sony is leaving the whole industry – or well, most of its biggest players – alone with Microsoft in a massive trade show next year. Knowing, as we do now, that Phil Spencer appears to have a chequebook with a limitless credit balance and isn’t afraid to use it. I mean, as dumb ideas go, this could very well be Sony’s dumbest to date. At the cusp of a generational transition, leave your biggest competitor alone at the biggest trade show in the world with the likes of EA, UbiSoft, Activision, Capcom and Square-Enix. If you just groaned, yeah. That’s snatching defeat from the jaws of victory – an own-goal of truly unbelievable proportions.
And… I don’t understand why Sony is doing this.
My two theories are either Sony is developing a massive ego-complex (again) and has decided (again) that it doesn’t NEED to “fight” for its position in the market – everyone will transition to a PS5. Maybe if the cost ends up $599.99 they’ll tell us all to get second jobs again. This is going (again) to get Sony kicked in the netherparts. If Sony hasn’t learned from the PS3 – which really was not that long ago – then frankly, it deserves everything that’s coming to it. I’m sorry, I love Sony and I love my PS4 (mostly) but I’m not going to defend a company that thinks its too good for the rest of the industry. And I’d probably not buy a PS5 on launch.
The other theory is something is wrong behind the scenes and Sony is in a desperate scramble. Maybe some projects have gone bad, maybe they’re having some issues with the PS5, maybe they’re having to spend more time reassuring shareholders that things are okay… there could be any number of issues that they’ve got to fix and the end result is… their last year-and-a-bit in the market is going to be unusually quiet.
Of course, they’re not going to abandon the PS4; if they did that, I’d honestly say Sony’s future is in a critical condition. But going quiet in a year which Microsoft will be pushing a new-gen console and Nintendo will likely be showing off a revamped Nintendo Switch – which could be anything at this point, I’m aware – is a terrible decision regardless of what problems Sony has. If Sony is distracted by internal squabbles over maintaining the connections to the industry it needs for its future survival, moreso for a next-gen move where everyone starts again from zero (and that is a mechanism I love in this market – there’s always a second chance!), then… that’s terrifying.
Not long ago I said that Sony just needed to take a short breather and work out what to do next. This year Sony also lost on resisting cross-play, which was a pretty big embarrassment to the company. It’s had a few knocks, I surmised, but Sony will bounce back. At least, that’s what I assumed. No more. I’m genuinely worried at the direction Sony is headed now. And spooking the industry, shareholders and consumers all in the space of a few weeks? That’s a recipe for a big mess.
Maybe it’ll work out. We all thought Nintendo was being stupid, after all, and look how that turned out. But Nintendo didn’t outright not turn up to E3. It was still there. It had something to show.
And I can’t imagine how insufferably smug the cheese-eating grin is on Phil Spencer’s face tonight, realising next year he has an entire E3 floor largely to himself (and Nintendo, but Microsoft seems content to co-exist with the Switch).
That’s an image I really didn’t need before heading to bed…