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PlayStation 4 And The Return Of Sony [E3 2013]

The day had finally come in which it was time for Sony to step up to the plate; amounting to what was the ultimate do or die moment.  While not on the teetering cusp they once were during the early days of the PlayStation 3, Sony nonetheless had a lot to prove with the showing of the PlayStation 4 at E3 2013. Not only were expectations high amongst those in the PlayStation nation, but gamers and the industry in general were interested to see how Sony would follow up Microsoft, both in respect to their exclusive software offerings and the now talked about issue of DRM and online restrictions.

Since first showing the console, or at least key software and the controller, back in February Sony has been riding a rather positive wave of energy concerning their next-gen console. Yet as we all know even the biggest titans out there are prone to a stumble or two as I’m sure a few of us are still reeling from the titanic debacle that was Sony’s E3 2006 presentation.  But here we are, right at the start of E3 2013 and Sony has seemingly won both the core gaming contingent and to an extent the industry with the proper debut of the PlayStation 4.

Now before everyone thinks that this will be yet another session of me drinking the Sony corporate cool-aid in an article that may make people raise an eyebrow as to whether or not my pockets are being stuffed with Sonybucks adorned with the faces of Kaz Hirai, Ken Kutagari, and Jack Tretton, such a thing isn’t the case. Yes, I am fond of the PlayStation brand in general, but to be honest I was a bit worried at the start of tonight’s E3 presentation.

Starting off in the rather textbook Sony manner of doing a light session of self-congratulations over hardware support with noteworthy offerings on the PlayStation Vita and PlayStation 3, it seemed like Sony was on track for a massive bertation in which all the steam they had was lost and was seemingly replaced with an arrangement of presentations that one could say was playing “catch-up” to what Microsoft showed us a few weeks ago i.e. the whole “groundbreaking” offering of TV and media selections.

Sure, it was nice to see extended/new trailers for key games like Beyond: Two Souls and Gran Turismo 6, but I think it’s safe to say that when SCE CEO Andrew House came out on stage to discuss the media offerings of the PlayStation platform one could feel the air quickly leaving the room.

Almost an example of a necessarily evil in an industry that is quickly evolving and leaving those in the core gaming camp behind like ancient relics, Sony was effectively forced to trot out their media offerings for stuff like Redbox, Netflix, or even Flixster.  Those of us who grew up in the NES/Sega era may not be fond of or excited when finding out media player X is now on the PS4, but for the mainstream audience, particularly news outlets and people who have no clue what Killzone is, it can be a big deal if they can rent a movie for a night without having to actually leave their home.

However dull Sony’s media segment may have been, the one positive had to have been the announcement of the PlayStation partnership with Sony Pictures Entertainment.  Perhaps looked upon as something that would’ve already been a shoe-in given that they’re part of the same corporate umbrella, the various divisions of the Sony empire have been rather splintered in past years as they’ve each been operated independently of each other. In fact, when the PlayStation 1 first launched in the U.S. it was almost looked down upon by those at Sony, such as former Sony Music head Tommy Mottola who was almost rooting for the platform to fail.

So to see a figure from Sony Pictures Entertainment on stage at the PlayStation presser was a rather big deal, especially considering that he announced Sony would be entering the original content arena for streaming content. Following in the steps of Netflix, who has produced shows such as House of Cards and Arrested Development, creating new content in the streaming arena seems to be a growing trend as Microsoft has set up a department dedicated to bringing such a thing to Xbox Live. While Microsoft’s original content offerings have yet to be revealed, other than the new Halo series, one would assume that the company is taking a serious approach to things – a move which once again could be the make or break moment for the mainstream audience.  So to see that Sony has arranged their own countermove to an extent via the presence of Sony Pictures was almost relieving as it’ll ensure the PlayStation brand won’t be playing catch-up as it did last generation.

Also, given how Sony Pictures has produced some rather engaging TV content in the past, such as the FX series Rescue Me and AMC’s Breaking Bad, the presence of original programing on the PSN/PS4 does guarantee we’ll have something to watch when we’re not gaming.  Whether or not such a thing will be a potential Troy & Abed Community spin-off remains to be seen, but at least we have that option to fall back on once our hands become tired from holding a controller for six hours straight.

Of course the key thing we wanted to see out of Sony’s E3 conference wasn’t TV talk that bordered on being dull and making us want to commit suicide over missed potential.  We just wanted to see the games and of course what the PS4 looked like.  The one “disappointing” aspect of Sony’s PS4 reveal event from February, not seeing the physical box of the PS4 left some people cold while others went into giddy anticipation mode to see how Sony would follow up the classic design of the PS2 and the somewhat classy looking original PS3 model.

With the expected amount of fanfare from Andrew House the PS4 was finally revealed and yes, it’s once again a black rectangle.  Hardly a surprise by any means, the design of the PS4 at least has an ounce of originality to it thanks to the trapezoid like shape, which thankfully prevents the console from being a straightforward black box that can easily be mistaken as a piece of AV equipment from the 1980s.  Almost akin to the PS2 design, the look of the PS4 may not be bursting with an inordinate amount of character that makes it wholly unique, but it is a classy looking machine that thankfully manages not to look like a grill or an elaborate toaster.

Sony’s debut of the PS4 hardware was of course accompanied by the arrival of both new and returning games.  Somewhat odd compared to past debuts, even that of the February event, Sony seemed more subdued in showing off new software from key 1st party studios.  We all know that teams like Naughty Dog, Quantic Dream, and the God of War group are working on some form of titles for the PS4, but instead of amazing us in a quick array of minute and a half trailers like Microsoft did earlier in the day, Sony instead opted to showcase a few games before moving on to other matters.

Honestly it was a bit disappointing not to see more new 1st party software during the conference other than The Order: 1886, the new IP from Ready At Dawn, which in itself was an expected thing considering chatter that had arisen recently.  Now that’s not to take away from how original the game looked as I can’t remember the last quasi steampunk game set in London which had an elite squad of people battling demonic creatures.  It may be easy to look at The Order and be disappointed in knowing it will likely be another shoot-bang affair built or featuring a co-op mechanic, though the quality of Ready At Dawn’s previous efforts have been insanely consistent so it’s exciting to see what will come out of the studio next.

The teaser trailer for The Order: 1886

Again, a level of disappointment may have been felt by those in the PlayStation nation, such as I, with the somewhat odd handling of key PS4 launch games such as Killzone: Shadow Fall, Knack, and Drive Club – all of which were relegated to short trailer snippets on the main stage. In some ways it may have been reassuring that Sony wasn’t building their show around new stage demos of titles we’ve already seen, though it was odd that these games weren’t talked up more to get people talking, more so considering their overall importance in building immediate hype for the platform at launch this Holiday season.

However, Sony did do one thing that showed that they’re on a path that gamers, and more importantly developers can appreciate: they continued to give indie games love.  Sony has already created a name for themselves at being the go-to for indie efforts on the PS3/PSN and such a thing seems to be taking more prominence on the PlayStation 4. Other than existing titles joining the fray such as The Witness from the ever complex Jonathan Blow, Sony did something Microsoft wouldn’t and likely will never do: they brought indie developers out on stage.  Instead of showing quick snippets of an indie game in a trailer that’s barely comprehensible, Sony allowed developers from Klei, Ragtag Studio, Tribute Games, Young Horses, and Compulsion Games to take center stage to show their offerings such as Don’t Starve and Ray’s The Dead – all of which will make their console debut on the PS4.

It’s this dedication to indie games, more specifically those with a small following that recognizes their genius, which is making Sony a company that indie developers can go to without fearing that they’re going to be screwed over financially or be tossed around until a specific advertising campaign begins.  Doing moves like this not only assures a steady flow of games for PS4 users to play, but it in a way gives back to the industry by allowing new talent to come to the forefront and stand alongside giants such as Naughty Dog as opposed to being left behind with only a meager launch to keep the momentum going.  With a steady flow of indie developers joining the Sony camp, even for a brief period of exclusivity, one has to imagine that more will follow suit and gamers in turn will flock to their titles; thus providing the perfect eco-system for an indie developer.

Past showings by Sony have always had this almost defensive or simply rigid front to them which in a way presents a façade that isn’t exactly approachable.  Brief moments of humility and emotion have been shown by Sony execs such as when Jack Tretton addressed the great PSN hack which left the system compromised for over a month, but it now seems like Sony has a new spring in its step – one that isn’t afraid to take direct shots at the competition. As opposed to letting the competition roll over them or merely standing to the side with their hands in their pockets, Sony managed to do the unthinkable by directly taking Microsoft on by addressing the potential of game DRM and being forced to go online to game.

Giving a direct punch, the fact that Sony won’t be enforcing a DRM that restricts used games or how many machines can play a game will likely have Microsoft reeling.  Such a thing may not immediately swing the console war in Sony’s tide as there’s a large portion of gamers who will happily buy a Xbox One to play Halo or TitanFall, yet showing their dedication to the consumer is what could set Sony apart from Microsoft – who have managed to tarnish over six years of goodwill amongst consumers in less than a month.

Sony has a fighting attitude once again.

Going on stage and directly addressing the issues gamers wanted to know the most not only showed that Sony has indeed listened, or at least has more common sense, but it makes their message for the PS4 very clear. We already knew that the machine was a gaming console first as opposed to being an entertainment hub, but now we, and the mainstream press for that matter, knows that Sony won’t be pushing aside the concerns of gamers in favor of the corporate strategy that they or their publishing partners desire. 

Microsoft can certainly change their plans since the Xbox One won’t be released until November, yet the fact that the DRM issue was never once addressed during their press event was a major misstep as this is what E3 is all about – getting your message out there in one fell swoop so the gaming press and news outlets like ABC, NBC, and even the USA Today grandpa (Mike Snider) can pick it up and report it to their readers/viewers.  Reps from Microsoft/Xbox may be able to change their tune now when talking to journalists from outlets like Eurogamer, but it's honestly too little too late considering Sony and Jack Tretton offered the KO punch that in the blink of a minute made people switch their console allegiances for good.

Even the somewhat disappointing aspects Sony decided to reveal today, such as putting online play behind a paywall, weren’t overly frustrating considering what’s being offered to gamers. While playing online may not be free anymore, the fact that it’s tied to PlayStation Plus certainly makes the situation more acceptable considering Sony has already demonstrated that they won’t stop with the Instant Game Collection anytime soon, a prime example being the offering of Drive Club on the PS4 for free.  Such a thing and the arrival of other potential goodies such as beta access and free games, does make it acceptable for Sony to finally ask gamers to cough up some money to pay online.  Yes, the news may be disappointing since we’ve essentially been spoiled for six years, but as long as the quality of the service is solid and improves over time, our investment as consumers will likely be worth it.

Of course the big “is this real life?” moment occurred when Andrew House came out on stage again to provide the one piece of info we all wanted: the price of the PS4.  Debated about for months by paid analysts, would-be pundits, game journos, and gamers, the price of any new gaming console is a big deal since it immediately determines if we’ll pick it up at launch or wait for a price drop to occur unless a second job is procured.

With Microsoft somewhat shocking people by pricing the Xbox One at $499, Sony essentially stole the show by undercutting them by $100, a feat that I think no one expected to happen given the ever notorious moment in which the words “$599” were uttered by Kaz Hirai seven years ago.  In this economy $399 may still be a tad pricey for those who are on a budget, yet the amount is certainly doable in a sense and is more than acceptable in an era of electronics in which an iPad or Sony tablet cost $500-$600.

By keeping the price of the PS4 at a reasonable level, Sony has put themselves in a position that I doubt many would’ve expected several months ago: that of being on top once more. Now I won’t get too ahead of myself since neither of the new consoles have launched and Nintendo is still a wildcard that could come back and do a double whammy surprise, but by doing all the right moves and establishing partnerships with key publishers such as Square Enix which will see the long awaited Final Fantasy vs. XIII finally arrive in the form of FFXV, Sony has set themselves up to catch the attention of gamers and those who may not be as core minded as the rest of us. 

All together it’s a great time to be a gamer with Xbox One titles like TitanFall, Dead Rising 3, and Quantum Break entering the picture, yet last night Sony showed us that greatness is truly awaiting consumers with the PS4.