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Sony Outplays the Competition at E3 2013

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(Photo by Entertainment Software Association)

With two next generation systems launching later this year, the Electronic Entertainment Expo was the place for Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo to prove why its console should be the player’s choice. All three companies showcased fantastic games, but it was the PlayStation 4 that came out of E3 the strongest by earning the consumer’s trust.

Microsoft

After Microsoft’s reveal of the Xbox One in May, with its heavy focus as an entertainment and television box, the company said E3 would be all about the games. Amidst the controversy surrounding many of its consumer policies, Microsoft executives have done an extremely poor job of communicating the Xbox One’s goals and why players need so many enforced restrictions with their console. It continued those missteps at E3.

The first Xbox One exclusive presented was Ryse: Son of Rome from Crytek. Ryse was the worst game showcased for Microsoft, looking uninspired with many Quick Time Events in combat. One of the bigger exclusive reveals was the return of a classic from the arcade and Super Nintendo era. The fighting game Killer Instinct will be an Xbox One launch title. The game isn’t developed by Rare but by Double Helix Games, the studio behind Silent Hill: Homecoming (2008) and tie-in games for the “Green Lantern” and “Battleship” movies.

After the conference the developers revealed Killer Instinct is a free-to-play downloadable game that comes with only one fighter with the option to buy more. There will also be a full roster version available to buy as well. It’s a confusing message on what the game actually is. Considering that when the Xbox One launches it will be 17 years since the last Killer Instinct release, it’s not clear who Microsoft thinks this game is for. The free-to-play model deflates some of the excitement for the franchise’s long overdue return too. The developer behind Killer Instinct doesn’t have a good track record and Rare isn’t the same behemoth it was in the ’90s. Since acquiring Rare in 2002, Microsoft has failed to do anything meaningful with its franchises, but maybe Killer Instinct won’t follow that trend.

Ted Price, president of Insomniac Games, took to the stage to announce an exclusive Xbox One title called Sunset Overdrive. This was surprising because Insomniac Games has never exclusively released a game outside of a Sony platform in the studio’s almost 20 year history, becoming synonymous with the PlayStation brand. After the disappointing multiplatform Fuse, it might be a smart idea for Insomniac Games to stick with Sony. Sunset Overdrive has the look and charm that Insomniac Games has come to be known for though. Capcom announced Dead Rising 3 as an exclusive Xbox One launch title. Capcom is once again saying it’s trying to attract Call of Duty fans with Dead Rising 3. This goal failed with Resident Evil 6 and might take away all the quirkiness and personality of the Dead Rising franchise.

Project Spark shown during the presentation looks to have a lot of potential, giving players easier tools to create their own games. Microsoft also showed a brief trailer for the new and mysterious Halo game on Xbox One. Not much is known about the game besides that it’s Halo. Titanfall looks like a system seller and could be the best game to play over Xbox Live early on for Xbox One. The Microsoft console exclusive (at least for now, according to reports) will release in spring 2014.

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Microsoft’s Phil Spencer on stage at E3. (Photo by Microsoft)

The stagnation of Xbox Live Gold the last few years makes it hard to keep justifying the $60 a year subscription fee to access online multiplayer. Microsoft announced that it will start giving two free games every month to Xbox Live Gold members, similar to Sony’s PlayStation Plus model. The first free games announced were Assassin’s Creed II (2009) and Halo 3 (2007), old games that few care about anymore. On the other side, this week Sony gave out XCOM: Enemy Unknown on PlayStation Plus, a game that just came out last October. Microsoft clearly needs a better understanding of how to offer quality digital enticements before the Xbox One launches.

Microsoft announced the Xbox One will cost $500 when it launches this November, a steep price compared to Sony and Nintendo’s console. The Kinect device factors into the Xbox One’s inflated retail cost. Kinect is a focal point of Xbox One that’s required to use the system, yet again Microsoft showed no reason proving why it’s needed for games. It still hasn’t done that for the Xbox 360, even though the Kinect launched in November 2010.

Almost every developer and Microsoft executive on stage cited how important the cloud will be for creating games on Xbox One. Phil Spencer, corporate vice president of Microsoft Game Studios, said Microsoft proved with its E3 conference how the cloud makes certain experiences only possible on Xbox One. Besides vague promises and grand ideas, this simply isn’t true. Right now the cloud sounds more like a hot marketing buzzword to offset the negativity surrounding Xbox One.

The $500 price is just too expensive for what the Xbox One offers, and Microsoft keeps digging a deeper hole for the system. Don Mattrick, president of Microsoft’s Interactive Entertainment Business, made more completely foolish statements during an interview, saying before Microsoft’s conference that those who can’t play Xbox One because of its policies can instead stick with the Xbox 360, an eight-year-old console. The Xbox One won’t launch in certain parts of Asia until a year later in 2014, according to the Wall Street Journal. No date is even set for Japan.

Even worse news is that for many countries across the world Xbox One simply won’t work at the system’s launch because of its requirement to connect to Xbox Live servers. The Polish developer behind The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt showcased its game for Microsoft’s conference when the team won’t even be able to play it on Xbox One in their home country. The joint-CEO of CD Projekt RED told Game Informer it’s a “sad situation.” That description also sums up the Xbox brand’s hard fall from grace in the past few months.

Looking at the conference outside of the Xbox One’s policies Microsoft had a decent showing. However the whole vibe of the conference was too corporate and by the script. Every Microsoft presenter acted like there wasn’t massive backlash to their policy decisions and those concerns were never acknowledged during the conference. Some great and potentially incredible games were shown but that’s not enough to tolerate consumers losing their rights. Xbox One’s policies are too complicated for the average buyer, with no real, must-own benefits shown for the consumer.

A returning Killer Instinct or a prettier looking Halo aren’t worth buying a $500 console just to play and own your games on Microsoft’s terms. Even with launch titles of Forza Motorsport 5, Killer Instinct, Dead Rising 3, and multiplatform games like Battlefield 4, the Xbox One has an uphill struggle to convince people why they need to buy it instead of the PS4. While it did show plenty of exclusive games, Microsoft’s main goal for E3 should’ve been to reverse negative perceptions of the Xbox brand and it failed to do so. Instead it made things worse for the Xbox One.

Grade:C

Sony

Going into E3 Sony was already looking strong against Microsoft’s blunders, but the company came out even better after its presentation.

Sony started by showing how PlayStation 3 is still important, with games like The Last of Us, Beyond: Two Souls and Gran Turismo 6 still the big exclusive games releasing for the console in 2013. PlayStation Vita was almost nonexistent during the conference. Sony said 85 Vita games would release before year’s end but didn’t showcase much besides what you’ll also be able to play on the PS3, like Final Fantasy X/X-2 HD Remaster or The Walking Dead: 400 Days. Failing to showcase any strong Vita titles during its conference makes the handheld look like a companion to the PS4, not a system to spend up to $300 on to play its own games.

Big reveals from Square Enix in Final Fantasy XV (formerly the PS3-exclusive Final Fantasy Versus XIII) and the announcement of Kingdom Hearts III happened during Sony’s presentation. These games came off like PS4 exclusives but they’re also releasing for the Xbox One, which takes some of shock away. Knack from Japan Studio and Mark Cerny, described as a combination of Crash Bandicoot, Katamari Damacy and God of War, is an overlooked game that could be a top PS4 title early on. 

From this gameplay video, inFamous: Second Son from Sucker Punch appears to be much better than the previous two games on PS3. Sony ended the show with Bungie and Activision’s Destiny, presenting a lengthy gameplay demo. While Destiny is multiplatform, Sony continues to market it as if it were an exclusive. Aggressively marketing these third-party multiplayer games will boost PS4 players on PlayStation Network, an area that the PS3 struggled in with games like the Call of Duty franchise.

Sony showed how important independent developers are to the company and the PS4 by bringing several of them on stage to announce their games. Actually having the developers all on stage at once showed Sony is a lot more serious than Microsoft in its surface-level indie push on Xbox One. Games like Transistor, Octodad: Dadliest Catch and other indie titles are fresh and unique compared to most of the games shown at E3. 

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Jack Tretton announcing PS4′s consumer policies. (Photo by Entertainment Software Association)

Jack Tretton, president of Sony Computer Entertainment America, specifically targeted Microsoft’s anti-consumer policies during the conference. He announced the PS4 supports used games, users can sell their games privately and not to just retail stores and games can be played offline with no need for authentication checks. The audience erupted in cheers, even breaking out into Sony chants like they were at a sports or pro wrestling event.

This fevered response signifies the utter rejection of Microsoft’s core policies that it assumed everyone would gladly accept. Sony flawlessly capitalized on the fears that it would follow the Xbox One’s restrictions with the PS4. It’s a fantastic image strategy, the exact opposite of where the company was when it launched the PS3 in November 2006.

The PS4 will be priced at $399 when it launches this holiday season. That’s $100 cheaper than the Xbox One and without all the restrictions on users. The PS4 is going to have a strong launch lineup with Knack, racing game DriveClub, Killzone: Shadow Fall from Guerrilla Games and third-party titles like Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Sony’s offering a different variety of game styles on the PS4 compared to the Xbox One.

The Gaikai cloud streaming service isn’t coming until 2014 and at first will only stream PS3 games to PS4 and PS3 systems. During the console’s reveal in February this was touted as one of the system’s biggest features. It’s disappointing it won’t be ready at launch because it separates the PS4 from the Xbox One in a big way and would’ve been a key selling point with Sony’s rich game library. It could take even longer to get streaming games from the PlayStation and PlayStation 2.

Sony will need to keep increasing the value of PlayStation Plus now that online multiplayer will be behind the subscription’s pay-wall on the PS4. It’s an anti-consumer move itself, considering parts of full-priced games will now be locked off unless users pay additional costs. Free online multiplayer on PS3 is an important feature that Sony itself routinely highlighted over the years as an edge over the Xbox 360, so it’s disappointing to see Sony take this route.

Only recently in the past two years did the PlayStation Network get to near equal footing with Xbox Live after several years of subpar quality. However unlike Xbox Live Gold, Sony has proven that PlayStation Plus is worth the yearly subscription cost with all its free games and deep discounts on the company’s digital store. It will be interesting to see how Sony continues this approach when a large percentage of PS4 owners will have PlayStation Plus.

The industry is in a sad state when not implementing strict anti-consumer policies gets Sony the response it did at E3, especially since that’s the way it’s been done for the past several decades of gaming. Factoring in PlayStation Plus’ yearly subscription cost, the PlayStation 4 is closer to Xbox One’s launch price of $500, but users will still need to pay an additional $60 a year for an Xbox Live Gold subscription. Sony is still a business chasing after the dollar first, not the gamer. With the extreme backlash over Microsoft’s Xbox One, being on the right side of the consumer just happens to be the smartest move for business at this moment, giving the PlayStation 4 a positive image among consumers.

While the initial buzz has worn off, Sony still came out of E3 looking much better than Microsoft. Sony claimed it’s on the side of gamers, that consumer ownership and consumer trust are important to everything the company does. Sony said all the right things consumers wanted to hear and now needs to make sure those aren’t just empty slogans for the PS4 to be successful.

Grade:A

Nintendo

Nintendo skipped the traditional E3 presentation model this year, opting instead for a pre-recorded Nintendo Direct live stream early Tuesday morning. It got people up early and then the stream didn’t work properly, causing many to miss the initial viewing due to technical errors. This represented Nintendo’s stubbornness to follow its own ways even when indications are everywhere that it needs to start adapting.

After a long drought, big titles are finally coming to the Wii U. Super Mario 3D World, Mario Kart 8, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze and more of The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD were shown. Tropical Freeze is a platformer from Retro Studios that stars a returning Dixie Kong. With Nintendo games finally starting to run in 1080p, the new Wii U games visually look so much better than the Wii games from a few years ago. More casual games like Wii Party U and Wii Fit U are delayed until October and this winter. Nintendo also announced Mario Kart 8 and Super Smash Bros. are coming in spring 2014.

The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker HD, Super Mario 3D World and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze are all system sellers that are releasing by the end of the year. These look like incredible games that each could be game of the year contenders, which would help move a lot of Wii U consoles at retail this holiday season.

However third-party support on Wii U is still weak, with nothing coming from Electronic Arts, one of the industry’s biggest publishers. Exclusive Wii U third-party games are still slim too. Ubisoft told Nintendo to sell more consoles before it would put exclusive games on the Wii U. Meanwhile the 3DS continues to grow into more of a powerhouse, with games like Pokemon X/YThe Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, Yoshi’s New Island and Super Smash Bros. on their way for Nintendo’s handheld. If only Nintendo could transfer even half of this magic over to the Wii U, its home console would be revitalized.

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Shigeru Miyamoto discussing Pikmin 3. (Photo by Entertainment Software Association)

With important games like the new Super Smash Bros., Mario Kart 8 and Bayonetta 2 launching in 2014, there’s still a sense that players will have to wait even longer for the Wii U to finally get rolling. Monolith Soft, creators of the Wii RPG Xenoblade Chronicles, will have its next game X out in 2014 as well. No price cut for the Wii U was announced during E3 either. The 32 GB Wii U system costs $350. The PS4 will be only $50 more. That’s hard to justify paying that much for a console that right now really only plays Nintendo games for the near future.

Nintendo is stuck in a cycle where it keeps it too safe. For a new console, the Wii U is filled with familiarity. These E3 titles are all games everyone knew would arrive on Wii U. Adding the blue bomber as a playable fighter in Super Smash Bros. is a nice addition for fans, but a real Mega Man game on the console would be incredible news for the Wii U. When one of the biggest Wii U surprises from E3 is that the Wii Fit Trainer will be a character in Smash Bros., there’s something wrong with Nintendo’s lack of urgency. Some major unknown first and third party exclusives are needed to compliment the games already announced.

Even after these great game announcements, it still doesn’t feel like there’s much energy or momentum behind the Wii U. The E3 Nintendo Direct felt like one you would watch in the middle of March, not during the game industry’s biggest media presentation of the year. The games will soon be here, but the way Nintendo markets its system leaves a disconnect between the quality of those games and hype for the Wii U. Something drastic needs to happen for the Wii U brand.

The Wii U released a year ahead of its competitors, and unlike when Microsoft did the same with the Xbox 360 in 2005, doesn’t have any advantages to show for it. Nintendo showed it has an amazing lineup ahead just like its done for the past 30 years. Those games might get overshadowed by the launches of the PS4 and Xbox One, but at least Nintendo is slowly starting to gain some traction with the Wii U.

Grade: B-

Final Thoughts

This holiday season could be the best console launch in gaming history. There’s plenty of quality games coming for all three systems. After years of the Xbox 360 topping charts and being the most popular system among gamers, the momentum radically shifted in Sony’s favor in such a short time, due in part to Microsoft’s own statements and arrogance.

Right now Microsoft has given no reason to support the Xbox One or invest $500 into the system when the company doesn’t value consumer rights and will continue to do what it wants regardless of how much water its sinking ship takes on. Microsoft needs to do something big in response to Sony’s announcements but it might be too late to revamp the main complaints against the Xbox One.

While the idea of console wars is a relic from 15 years ago, Sony came out of E3 looking the strongest. We’re still caught between a digital future and a physical past, but regardless of your allegiances, this is an exciting time for games.

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