Noah J Nelson on Tuesday, Jun. 11th
We've never quite had a head to head matchup like this before in the video game business. One Christmas shopping season, two major console launching with nearly equivalent processing power and almost identical lineups.
Yesterday's press conferences for Sony (championing the Playstation 4 console) and Microsoft (touting their Xbox One) should have been a fencing match.
Instead it was a street brawl by way of the Price is Right as Sony undercut Microsoft's price by $100 while simultaneously playing into the demands of the most vocal game players online.
Both companies needed to make a case that game players should trade-up to a new console this coming holiday season.
Microsoft went the "exclusive content" route, heralding multiple games coming out of their first-party studios. It is a tactic usually associated, ironically, with Sony. So too was the very first game they showed at their press conference: the latest installment in the Metal Gear Solid franchise. (No exclusive there for that Konami game, however.)
The Redmond giant came into E3 hurting in the eyes of Joe Q. Gamer, however, as a complex policy around used games and digital rights management left the most vocal corners of the gaming public angry and confused.
The Xbox One is designed around the idea that games will be loaded onto the hard drive and played from there. Of course, if you have a game disc you can load the software onto many different machines. To prevent copies from being generated like wildfire there needs to be some kind of limitation in place, a way for the game code to be verified.
In the current generation of consoles the solution is to keep the disc in the drive and use that as authorization. Microsoft decided to use online verification, and that choice seems to have buried them.
At Sony's press conference the veteran console manufacturer used the rival system's need to check in with corporate servers and limitations on private loaning, trading, selling and renting of games as a cudgel.
And then they delivered the coupe de grace: the Playstation 4 will retail for $399, a full $100 less than the Xbox One's $499.
Both companies read the winds in gaming and came up with very different answers. Microsoft appears to have taken their cues from Apple and the Steam platform owned by software maker Valve. Those two companies run robust digital marketplaces that make resales and trading completely impossible.
The Steam platform, however, relies upon frequent "fire sales" that slash prices on popular titles but make up for the margin losses in sheer volume. Both of these rival platforms are focused more on inexpensive gaming experiences–$5-$20 games–as opposed to the $60 titles that current console games retail for.
To recap: from a business standpoint, today was a nightmare for Microsoft.
Now to dive into some cultural issues and then some notes about the games themselves. (I'll even reveal where my own purchasing thinking is going at this point, just for the sake of disclosure.)
Women and Gaming
There's a real problem in "geek" communities in terms of gender relations. The intricacies of that are beyond the scope of this article, but there are two notes I want to make about the two major platform holders attitudes in relation to this.
We've now, since February, had two major press conferences announcing the new consoles. During that time there was all of ONE woman represented on stage at the Sony events.
There are a hell of a lot more women than that working in games. At today's Sony event the only woman on-stage was part of third-party developer Bungie's team.
Here's somewhere–at least–where Microsoft was doing something right when compared to Sony… you'd think. Before I get to where they blew it I want to acknowledge that at both of Microsoft's events women executives outlined core parts of that company's content strategies.
Nancy Tellem is heading up Microsoft's original video content initiatives and 343 Industries Bonnie Ross acts as the public face of the division entrusted with guarding Microsoft's most potent intellectual property asset: Halo.
Which is what makes the incident on stage today so galling.
In the middle of the presentation, just when it seemed like the game train would continue unabated the lamest note possible was sounded.
It started out well enough: a female Microsoft community manager came out on stage to demonstrate the seamless way the XBox One's ecosystem works.
She was there to demo how a player can cross over from a tablet device to single player game, then in the blink of an eye jump into a multiplayer match of a fighting game Killer Instinct. In that match it only took a voice command to begin live-streaming the game to the web.
That was all very cool, the kind of whiz-bang futurism stuff that we go to these events to see.
The problem was with the scripted banter. What was supposed to be a "pool shark" narrative where the "hapless" community manager exacts revenge on the game producer took on a decidedly darker tone. In the first round the male game producer, who was defeating the female manager soundly–told her to "Relax, it will be over soon."
This unnecessary, tone-deaf, scripted moment laid bare in a singe second every problem there is with the gender politics of the fighting game community. Somewhere a writer was thinking "this is authentic gamer trash talk", believing that dredging up some of the worst tendencies might win fighting game fans over.
They already had the fighting game fans when they announced they were unthawing the long-dormant Killer Instinct franchise. It was those of us who like our gaming without the side of casual misogyny who were thrown out of the technological narrative.
That this should be happening at the press conference where women were shown–quite accurately–to be in positions of power in the gaming industry is a damn shame.
The Games, The Advantage
The short version: Microsoft stayed wholly focused on games today, and while they managed to showcase new exclusives with a lot of promise–Project Spark, Quantum Break, Sunset Overdrive, Crimson Dragon and the episodic D4 all intrigued–they were drowned out in volume by the shooter bombast of Battlefield 4 and Titanfall.
This left an impression that Microsoft was up to "more of what works".
Meanwhile Sony played to their perennial strength: the sheer diversity of their catalog. This is something they usually accomplish through strong first party support, but instead this conference was carried by a wall–sometimes literal–of third party games.
Sony put indie games front and center during a key part of the conference, and pledged that the titles would have their console debut on the Playstation 4.
There's a deep irony to how this has all played out. In the last console generation Sony built a technologically forward looking system and pushed their first party development studios. They also priced their system out of the hands of many consumers at $599.
Meanwhile Microsoft got out a year ahead with a less technologically advanced system and a raft of third party support at a lower price point.
The two giants seem to have swapped roles. The major difference being that there's no year-long head-start, and Microsoft's technological advantage lies with cloud-based systems that have historically been unreliable. PC game players who suffered through the launches of SimCity 4 and Diablo III can testify to how badly those kinds of systems can go wrong.
In terms of the news-cycle there's no doubt: Sony won the day. Hand-on time with the games over the next few days will effect the final outcome, but going into the show Sony has the advantage.
For my part, I'm going to skip picking up a new console this year. There's some other fine gadgets I'd like to get my hands on, and most of the games that I am truly excited about will have current generation versions.
I suspect I won't be alone in playing the "wait and see" game this holiday season.