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E3 Analysis: Sony's Still Got It

E3 Analysis: Sony's Still Got It Exclusive

June 2, 2009 | By Leigh Alexander

[Sony had a high wall to climb to match the impact of Microsoft's E3 presentation yesterday, and in this analysis, Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander finds that the company impressed -- with a caveat.]

In contrast with the arena-style lightshow of Microsoft's presentation, Sony's was slightly more understated, preceded by an outdoor pavilion hour, finger foods and cocktails -- yes, at 10:00 AM on a muted gray morning.

"If I were Sony I'd wanna drink right now too," an attendee was overheard to murmur. The general mood resembled something like sympathy -- like a prelude to a wake -- after Microsoft's high-powered presentation yesterday. With so many early press leaks ahead of E3, many wondered if Sony had any cards left to play.

All the buzz revolved around what, exactly, the company could do to trump that dominant performance -- that is, when people weren't snarking about Nintendo's fairly by-the-books show. As the last of the Big Three to present at E3, Sony had a lot to prove.

"Thank god you guys showed up," joked SCEA President Jack Tretton as he took the stage. His self-deprecating, nervous laughter was directed at all of the company's leaks -- even Sony boss Kaz Hirai admitted the PSP Go! was "the worst-kept secret of E3."

But Sony's audience was there to applaud every stat: 364 games are coming to PlayStation platforms in the next year; the platforms generated 30 percent of total retail sales for the industry in 2008. "It's just the beginning of what we expect in 2009," Tretton said.

Starring The Games

More applause when Tretton said: "I suspect the reason some of you have bags under your eyes is because you've been playing Infamous since it came out last week." Applause, cheers -- and audible gasps -- for the frankly breathtaking Uncharted 2 footage presented by Naughty Dog's Evan Wells, who said it "sets the new gold standard in limit-pushing."

Whoops, cheers, howls, for Modern Warfare 2, Rock Band: Beatles, Ratchet & Clank Future 2 and Heavy Rain; for Metal Gear Solid Peacewalker (stressed numerous times as the franchise's "true" sequel), Gran Turismo 5 and God of War III, for new exclusive Rockstar IP Agent and shock reveal Final Fantasy XIV Online, and for the unrelenting barrage of PS3 exclusives shown on a day when nobody was expecting very many.

The audience only fell silent for the unveiling of Fumito Ueda's latest dreamlike game, confirming video footage that recently surfaced online. The long-rumored and long-awaited project was clearly the presentation's crown jewel.

The mood inside the Shrine Auditorium gradually took on an eagerness and enthusiasm not present in quite the same way during the other presentations.

Chalk it up to rooting for the underdog, perhaps, but the environment at Sony's event made it clear that when the company falls back on touting the strength of its brand and the duration of its presence in the video game marketplace, it's not entirely blowing smoke. Those who once loved PlayStation still do, and fiercely.

"'Only on PlayStation'... is not just a quantitative statement. It's also a qualitative statement," said Tretton, aiming to enforce the idea that certain types of games are only possible to develop on PlayStation 3.

Sony's Answer To Natal

After proving it could still pull exclusives and impress with software, Sony revealed that it, too, had a motion and gesture-based control solution in the works.

Microsoft's Project Natal presentation hinged on the idea that the use of a control device was a barrier to accessibility. Sony now posits that an item in hand -- with buttons -- is actually necessary to the experience of play.

The remote control-sized motion wand prototype is topped with a luminous sphere that the PlayStation Eye can track 1:1. The user can be shown holding any object in the game world, like a tennis racket, sword, gun or flashlight, and it features buttons for interaction.

"We learned from EyeToy that buttons are needed for some experiences," said the team's Dr. Richard Marks. "There's really no other way to do this without a trigger."

Even in prototype phase, the demonstration was impressive, particularly the precision of the gesture sensing -- "sub-millimeter accuracy," said Marks. The demonstration showed that, projected on screen as a knight holding a sword tapping a skeleton with varying degrees of force in different anatomical zones, users can interact with objects in extremely targeted ways.

Objects in the game world also respond with realistic physics to the user's movements -- like string tension on an archery bow, for example.

"This is the foundation for the ultimate sandbox; you could build anything in here," said Marx.

The scheme was used to move RTS units, paint and write, and made a strong case that having a physical object with which to act in the game world may actually be preferable.

More significantly, although the demonstration featured only a prototype, Sony's tech is apparently not substantially far off from launch. The company promises more news "in the near future" -- and is targeting a Spring 2010 launch.

Following Up LittleBigPlanet

One of the presentation's highlights was United Front's user-generated content-based racer ModNation Racers, presented as a segue from the "play, create, share" paradigm established by LittleBigPlanet.

Like that title, the racer is compellingly cute and offers limitless customization of characters resembling vinyl Munny figurines, and the utility to create and play one's own racetrack was impressively simple and deep simultaneously.

In this way, Sony seems intent on building -- and dominating -- the user-generated sandbox play genre on consoles.

So? We've Got That Too

In terms of how it matched the luster of Microsoft's show yesterday, Sony at the very least went tit for tat -- it's got its own motion recognition solution, its own Rockstar exclusive, its own major Metal Gear title, and it's got the next-next Final Fantasy, number XIV, on lock (aside from the PC version, which was, of course, not mentioned).

God of War III, Uncharted 2, Mod Nation Racers and the new Ueda game might even tip the content scales in Sony's favor, depending on what type of consumer one is.

And the company shows it's as committed to digital media as its rivals, promising that all future PSP titles will be available both as downloads and at retail. PSP Go users can access the PlayStation Store directly from their handhelds -- "The bottom line is this: There will be more content that is easier to get onto your PSP," said Hirai.

Sony also said it's signed content partnerships with Showtime, G4, E!, HDNet, Starz TV, TNA, Magnolia Films and new anime and sports partners for its video content. Despite this, however, there's an interesting role reversal taking place this year at E3.

The New 'Media Hub'

When Sony first launched the PlayStation 3, it positioned it as less of a game console and more of a "media device," to a decidedly negative reception. It was the Xbox 360 that was the true "hardcore" console, while Sony seemed to struggle to make PlayStation 3 the all-purpose living room device it wanted it to be.

This year, though, Microsoft's presentation was most impressive for its implications for "home entertainment," while the PlayStation 3 focused solidly and largely on the games. While past Sony briefings have insisted on emphasizing the console as a "media hub" to the point of fatigue, there was none of that talk at all this year.

While no one could accuse the Xbox 360 of lacking a compelling core software lineup, to say the least, Microsoft this year nearly seemed larger than E3; Nintendo, clearly comfortable with Wii's position as a mainstream consumer product, made many question its need to present at E3 at all.

But Sony put on the kind of show reminiscent of the "old" E3, evoking more than a passing reminder of why its platforms used to dominate the industry. Audiences filed out smiling, talking excitedly about the games they'd seen as if they were much younger kids.

"We will never become complacent, despite what we've accomplished," said Tretton.

The Announcement Sony Needed To Make -- And Didn't

There was no price cut for any of Sony's platforms announced at the briefing, as just about everyone had hoped there'd be. Many eyebrows lifted at the PSP Go!'s $249 price point -- the company is making such a strong push to broaden the handheld's userbase, yet tags it so high?

With the PlayStation 3 desperately in need of a reduction -- analysts say taking any less than $100 off the sticker wouldn't even be worth it -- it raises the question: what good's all this content if no one can afford the hardware?

Sony's portfolio of content is impressive. But it's taking a big gamble on the idea that content will sufficiently drive hardware sales, when more often it's hardware sales that foretell software sales. And when the platform ultimately needs developers far more than developers need it, it'll be tough to sustain momentum.

The company's still got it; Sony was not outdone at E3 this year, and depending who you ask, it outdid, maybe even handily. By the time its press conference ended, even the sun had decided to show its face for the first time in Los Angeles since E3 kicked off.

But until price adjustments and marketing initiatives position Sony's platforms better in the market, the clouds haven't passed yet.

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