1. There is a general perception that the Playstation 3 was not the winner in the dying videogame generation. This is not to say that it lost. The Playstation 3 produced some of the most beautiful games ever created. It is a high-powered machine. The freaking Air Force used it to create a freaking supercomputer. But it didn’t have the mass appeal of the Wii or the swagger of the Xbox 360. It was merely excellent. The Playstation 2 was excellent, also, but it utterly defined its generation. In a weird way, even if the sales tell a different story, Sony is coming into this E3 as an underdog.
2. When attendees filed in to the Playstation event, there were eight different Sony games playing onstage. First-person shooters. The Last of Us. Beyond: Two Souls. An indie game I didn’t recognize. Knack, the funny Katamari-ish Playstation 4 exclusive. A diverse array of gameplay styles, on a diverse array of consoles. The message seemed to be: “We don’t have a defining thing.” Or rather: “The thing that defines us is quality.”
3. Sony is still trying very hard to make the PS Vita happen. “Vita is just beginning its lifecycle,” said the President and CEO of Sony. He stressed that the few people who have actually bought the Vita are engaged customers, purchasing an average of ten or more games. He said that many smaller companies are making games for the Vita. He said that Playstation classics like God of War 1 and 2 are coming to the Vita. He said that the Vita was the ultimate companion device to Playstation 4. He said that the newest edition of Telltale Games’ popular The Walking Dead game was coming to the Vita. He said, quote, “Skype looks beautiful on Vita screens, as does Netflix and YouTube channels.”
4. A theory: The PS Vita is one of the best consoles of the past decade. Now, it’s probably too expensive and too narrow to ever be successful. But the Dreamcast was pretty cool, too. The videogame industry values success over everything, because there is so much ridiculous money on the line for every new product launch. But there’s a place for fascinating failures, too. I’ve always enjoyed playing the Vita. Would I pay $250 for it with my own money? No. But when I was a kid, my parents didn’t buy HBO because it was too expensive, which is why I didn’t start watching The Sopranos — maybe the best TV show ever made, still — until I was old enough to watch it illegally.
5. Sony took its time getting to the Playstation 4. First, it showed off what’s next for the Vita. Then, it took time to show off the last round of Playstation 3 releases. Two of these releases were presented in short teasers that were so abstract and bizarre that they couldn’t help but be interesting. One of them was called Puppeteer, which appears to be a weird platformer; it has a soundtrack by Patrick Doyle, aka The Guy Who Scores All Of Kenneth Branagh’s movies.
6. There was also a preview for Beyond: Two Souls, which completely exploded everything I thought I knew about Beyond: Two Souls. Recall: Last year, Beyond was pitched as the latest cinematic experiment by gamer philosopher David Cage, featuring a lead performance by Ellen Page. It appeared to be a quiet, almost internal game about a young girl and the supernatural presence that possesses her. The preview that played yesterday saw Ellen Page’s character go through boot camp and get sent to the Middle East to track down someone for the US government. Excessive Call of Duty-esque action ensued. In the context of the buzz around Beyond: Two Souls, this made almost no sense. Imagine if you found out that Frances Ha featured a scene where Frances goes undercover in an underground kickboxing tournament to avenge her dead brother.
7. There is some evidence that Sony is playing catch-up with Microsoft in terms of creating original TV programming. Michael Lynton, the CEO of Sony Pictures, came onstage and said:
“Sony Pictures is hard at work on a brand-new original programming plan, and a unique access to content that will be available exclusively on the Playstation Network and Playstation 4…tailored and selected for the type of entertainment gamers want and love.”
That is a very long way of saying: “We wanna do what Netflix is doing. We are still looking for our Spielberg.”
8. Whenever Sony pretends that the Playstation is not about videogames — when Sony pretends that the Playstation is whatever Microsoft wants the Xbox One to be — it looks a little bit ridiculous. There was much talk about partnerships with Redbox and Flixster. When the logo for “Flixster” appeared onscreen, there was actual sardonic applause.
9. But then Sony just got to the videogames, and everything changed. They led off with a brand new major title, from Santa Monica Studios and ReadyAtDawn Studios. The trailer started off with a quote from Malory’s La Morte D’Arthur before presenting a steampunk action scene featuring badass Victorian supersoldiers with mustaches fighting monsters. It looked a bit crazy and a bit like Dishonored and very interesting. It’s called The Order: 1886 (Pictured above), which implies the possibility of Assasin’s Creeding the franchise with different period-specific sequels, all of them hopefully featuring zeppelins.
10. Here is Sony in a nutshell. In about five minutes, the presentation veered from presenting Knack — a kid-friendly action game about a lovable cartoon robot with an intriguing control mechanic — into a preview of The Dark Sorcerer, a weird demo cooked up by David Cage to show off the Playstation 4’s incredibly realistic facial gestures. It was like going from Chuck Jones to Chuck Close.
11. A significant part of the Playstation 4 pitch focused on games produced by indie developers. The Bastion guys came onstage and pitched Transistor. And then eight other game developers came onstage to show off their new games. These games all had names like Don’t Starve and Octodad and Ray’s the Dead and Secret Ponchos. The latter is a shooting game and a fighting game which is also a spaghetti western. And, for good measure, there’s a remake of Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee coming to the PS4. Oddysee is one of the defining weird games of the original Playstation era. “We pride ourselves in supporting small game developers,” said the Sony guy. ” We have impressive blockbusters coming in the near future…[but] cultivating a wide variety of experiences is critical to our DNA.”
12. Listen, cards on the table: I’m the kind of gamer who loves to hear stuff like that. We named Journey our best game of 2012. Small games like Bastion and Limbo have beaten out big blockbuster AAA titles on our list before, too. So when Sony makes a point of announcing their support for that kind of game, I am in the demographic of people who really care. As a long-term marketing strategy, I have no idea if this can be successful. It would be a little bit like if a movie studio said: “Listen, we’re proud of all our upcoming superhero films, but we’d also like you to take a look at this low-budget Swedish movie about a robot ghost fighting ennui with a magical trident that fires lasers.”
13. Actually, why don’t any movie studios do that? Isn’t that a better business model than making Battleship?
14. Square-Enix beamed in a trailer for their newest Final Fantasy, which I think is called Final Fantasy vs. XIII, although apparently now it’s called Final Fantasy XV. It featured the usual completely inscrutable mixture of protagonists with gorgeous eyes and hushed intertitles advertising kooky new-age slogans like “A meeting predestined by the divine” and “Eyes that see the light of expiring souls.” It looks very impressive and I had no idea what was happening.
15. Square-Enix also announced Kingdom Hearts III. This will sound goofy, but just hearing a soundtrack cue from Kingdom Hearts made my heart cry a little bit. Question: Given Disney’s recent acquisitions, is it possible that Kingdom Hearts III will feature the Muppets and/or the Marvel superheroes and/or Star Wars? I mean, wouldn’t it be cool if they even just featured C-listers like Iron Fist or Mon Mothma?
16. The demo for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag looked fantastic. Unfortunately, it also froze several times. When your fancy new videogame system freezes several times during its big debut, that is probably not a good sign.
17. There was no sign of The Last Guardian. It’s never going to happen now, never never never.
18. Late in the presentation, Jack Tretton came onstage. He is the CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment of America. Without ever saying the words “Microsoft” or “Xbox,” he fired a whole array of broadsides directly at the competition, like some kind of assassin with a creed firing cannons off the pirate ship he owns. Microsoft’s Xbox One was infamously introduced with a whole array of caveats: The console has to always connect to the internet; it will stop working if it doesn’t authenticate every 24 hours; you can’t trade in games anymore. Tretton began his attack by putting a sentence on the big screen: “Playstation 4 supports Used Games.” The applause was deafening, and lasted a long time.
19. But Tretton didn’t let up there. “When a gamer buys a PS4 disc, they have the rights to use that copy of the game.” Loud applause. “You can trade in games at retail, sell it to another person, lend it to a friend, or keep it forever.” Loud applause. “If you enjoy playing single-player games offline, PS4 won’t require you to check in online.” Loud applause. “It won’t stop working if you haven’t authenticated within 24 hours.” Loud applause. Nothing he was saying was revolutionary, and everything he said was received rapturously. Microsoft just let Sony win an entire news cycle by doing the same thing the industry has always done.
20. Microsoft also let Sony concretely establish a persona for the Playstation 4: The next-generation console that is also an old-fashioned console, the standardbearer for How Videogames Have Always Been. Does this also mean that the Playstation 4 will be just plain old-fashioned? Is Microsoft’s weird “Let us control your entire living room” mentality actually a vision of the future? If this is the last console generation, is the Playstation 4 the last console, in the same way that Clint Eastwood was the last gunslinger in Unforgiven? And can that actually be successful in the modern economic climate?
21. Another lesson in Winning the PR War: The Playstation 4 is one hundred dollars cheaper than the Xbox One. It’ll be available for $399 this holiday season. When the Playstation 3 launched, the cheapest version cost $499. A possible subtitle for Sony’s Playstation 4 pitch: “We have learned from our mistakes.”
22. The final game shown off at Sony’s event was Destiny, the new first-person online RPG from Halo creator Bungie. It looked like a fascinating attempt to take the structure of a PC MMORPG and transform it into a console game, more approachable for less-hardcore gamers. This not too different from what happened with Halo, which transmogrified the PC first-person-shooter into a console-friendly form. Destiny isn’t exclusive to the Playstation 4. But when they said that it was a game “best experienced on the Playstation 4,” it didn’t just sound like an empty gesture. It sounded like the subtext of the whole Playstation-Xbox holiday fight. There are games that you can play on either system. So which system would you like to play those games on? The expensive Orwellian machine? Or the inexpensive machine with the great graphics and Octodad?
23. The presentation of Destiny froze a couple of times, too. People are inclined to like the Playstation 4 right now. But if all those people buy a Playstation 4 and it freezes just once on the first day, there will be nerd rage.
Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich