Sony’s Gamescom Conference Was One For the Ages

Without breaking out a single big gun in the process Sony found a way to deliver an unforgettable Gamescom conference.  Despite the worst camera man in the history of moving pictures, what they showed was an extremely tight and focused vision of a console that is designed around games.  Not just games – but a variety of games.  Will the PS4 have FIFA and Madden and Call of Duty and Battlefield?  Of course.  Do we need to see any more of those games? If you don’t know what you’re getting with those games yet you probably never will.

What Sony did so perfectly was show a platform that is built from the ground up to support a variety of developers both big and small. AAA gaming has been called “unsustainable” more times than I can count over the last few years and Sony’s answer was clear:  so what.  Their vision for the future of games is as informed by current trends as it is forward thinking.  What are the lessons that Steam, iOS or even Facebook games have taught over the last several years? To most companies it’s just the buzzwords of “social” and “connected” but there’s more to it.  Steam is an amazing platform because no matter what type of game you want to play you can find it in their store.  The openness of the PC has invited people to take creative chances that have paid off in huge ways.  In the past a game like Minecraft, the Day-Z mod, or even DoTA couldn’t be created on a console (as opposed to ported to…).  What Sony showed today is a console that where this kind of experimentation will be welcome.  Will every game change the world?  Of course not.  But the possibilities are there.

Sony’s presentation started with a cold opening of Shu Yoshida sitting in a chair and moving around the UI.  The UI looked slick – like a mix of  the new PS Store (ugh!) with the XMB (hooray!).  He then watched a friend playing an online game and with a touch of a button joined it.  And from there he tweeted a picture of it.  Was this staged? Probably.  It was good theater though, working accross multiple networks as people on twitter bugged out when the tweet was in their feed.  It was this type of thing… this vision… that set this conference apart.  What Sony showed was cool.  Sony wasn’t cool for a very long time.  This turnaround is about more than GDDR5 and party chat.  Sony have reinvented themselves as the company that loves games, gamers and developers.  All while Microsoft has revealed itself as a company with no clear vision and A LOT of money.

This clear vision of who Sony is emanated through the entire conference.  There were no knock out punches in the conference but it was a parade of good games and good news.  Game after game after game, most of them indie, all of them unique, showing off what the PS4 ecosystem will be like in year one.  They also solved many problems all at once.  The Vita costs too much.  Ok, it’s $200.  The memory cards cost too much.  Ok, they are $20 cheaper.  The PS3 costs too much.  Ok, here’s a $200 unit.  What’s PS+ gonna do other than DriveClub?  Ok, you get the SSHD spiritual successor on day one as well.  When is it coming out?  November 15th.  It was all games and all info and it was all good news.  It wasn’t perfect…  the Vita is still expensive and so are the memory cards.  The date isn’t as exciting as the rumored (WHICH I TOLD YOU NOT BELIEVE ON MY PODCAST!) October date.  They didn’t show any whopping shootbang exclusives.  When they finally did show a big budget game… they also used the opportunity to show off Vita remote play, which was a very nice touch

One of the knocks about Sony coming out of E3 is that they were being rewarded for sticking with the status quo.  Microsoft had a vision of the future of gaming and Sony was stuck firmly in the past.  As we’ve seen over the last few months, Microsoft’s version of the future wasn’t particularly popular.  Sony, meanwhile, while not reinventing the wheel in terms of technology or distribution is actually changing gaming with the games themselves.  You can wave your arms in front of your Kinect or look at your map on your Second Screen Experience™ or “be connected” and “social” and whatever that all means… but what has any of this meant in terms of games?  Nintendo is known to innovate with hardware and they haven’t created a compelling second screen experience yet so we’re supposed to believe Activision is with Call of Duty?  It’s all a bunch of smoke and mirrors to cover up the fact that they are making the same games.  Sony will do this also… it’s not like Killzone is reinventing the FPS or that CoD won’t be on the system.  What they showed, however, was a revolution in gaming by giving power to developers and giving them the freedom to create whatever they want.  While Microsoft thought the thing to copy from Steam was the digital library and DRM…  Sony looked at Steam wanted that breadth of gaming experiences.

That is part of the wonder of this conference.  They didn’t have to reveal any of their big hitters, they didn’t need to spend money they don’t have on exclusive third party games.  They had a great conference with smart business decisions and a game focused show.  It won’t win over the entire world – there are many people who just want Madden and CoD and the Xbox One will be just fine for them. What Microsoft and EA showed earlier today was the continuation of a form of gaming they have described as unsustainable.  It’s also exactly what we have right now.   What Sony showed was what the future of gaming on an open platform will be like.  If you like variety and creativity today may end up being the best gaming conference you ever see.  Sony certainly isn’t getting out of the AAA business – because that business is still good.  But they are clearly open to opening avenues around it and to people like me that’s the most exciting news this gen has given us yet.

All of that without a word from any of Sony’s best teams. We may never see a conference this varied or brave again – or this may be the ushering in of a brave new world.  Either way I loved what I saw.

Sony Still Has A Lot to Prove

Since the unveiling of the Playstation 4 in February Sony has been riding on a wave of positive consumer reaction that is in stark contrast to where they were just six years ago. E3 and the subsequent opening of the flood gates of preorders have bolstered that into something more tangible.  Sony is poised to sell a lot of Playstation 4’s this holiday and it knows it.  While their hard work and smart approach should be commended we should not put them on a pedestal just yet.  Sony still has a lot to prove.

There are numerous questions about the experience that the Playstation 4 is going to bring and how committed Sony will be to it. As a fan of the Vita I can tell you first hand what it feels like to see Sony hedge its bets and shake consumer confidence. While it would be folly to think they would do the same with their flagship console there are serious questions as to Sony’s financial situation and how that affects their videogame business.  Many people would argue that the lack of compelling software is the reason the Vita is not selling well and while I do think it does have a lack of high-profile titles that the problem isn’t just software.  The problem is that most of the world does not know that it exists.  Sony has been very reluctant to advertise the machine. Is this because they don’t think it will sell or is this a sign of their financial belt-tightening? Zipper Interactive made what still stands as the best shooter on the Vita and was promptly shut down.  It’s hard to reconcile that… a system needs quality games, a studio makes a quality game, Sony shuts down the studio.  If Zipper was the only casualty there that would be understandable, especially with how Socom 4 and MAG under performed.  Studio Liverpool was also closed down after the release of Wipeout 2048 which 19 months later is still the best racing game and all around value on the Vita.  And while BigBig’s Little Deviants wasn’t particularly thrilling they were a talented studio who had made two superb Pursuit Force games and an excellent Motorstorm game for the PSP.

Why would Sony shut down studios capable of making quality Vita titles?  Really.  I’m asking that because I don’t know the answer.  I can only guess that it has to do with money, because nearly everything does, but if those three studios still existed we would have 3 more high quality games on a platform that is starved for it.  Sony also seems to be reluctant to woo third-party developers with sweetheart deals (aka moneyhats) to develop for the system.  Their third-party people are incredibly passionate and are busting their asses to sign as many studios to produce software as possible but it’s mostly been in the indie space because bigger developers are reticent about the platform and so is Sony.  What we are left with is a wonderful handheld that is getting amazing games from smaller teams but seemingly has very little backing in the form of capital to secure games or advertise which makes it a very real possibility that the system will never move out of its niche status.  Major Sony first party studios aren’t developing for it.  Sony isn’t putting money into advertising it.  Sony isn’t putting money into securing exclusive software.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why the Vita’s install base is growing at an alarmingly slow rate.

We already know that Microsoft is going to put a billion dollars into pushing the Xbox One during its first year.  What we don’t know is what Sony is planning on doing. Whether you love it or hate it, advertising is a big deal.  If you look at the Kinect, for instance, when that was introduced it was almost universally panned by gamers around the world.  As more and more videos surfaced of extreme lag and there was a lack of any software outside of a dancing game that had anyone excited.  So how did Microsoft rewrite the narrative of the Kinect and sell 20+million units?  They spent Five Hundred Million Dollars advertising the device and writing their own version of the narrative that the $500,000,000 made sure got out to everyone on Earth.  The Xbox One is currently in a similar position where the facts about the system don’t paint a picture that is thrilling many people but if you’re going to rewrite history I think a billion dollars could do it.  What will Sony do to counter this?  Again, I have no idea.  And considering that they spent $40,000,000 to advertise the Vita launch, not even one tenth of the Kinect’s advertising, I’m not confident that Sony corporate is willing to spend the money to compete on this front.

This lack of willingness to spend money also seems to be spilling over to third-party exclusives.  Microsoft has shown off Dead Rising 3 and Titanfall as two third-party exclusives that they obviously paid a lot of money to secure. What games have Sony locked down?  They couldn’t even close the deal on Kingdom Hearts 3 or FFXV – two games which will sell a ton in Japan where Microsoft isn’t even competing.  Again, this feels like Sony being hesitant to go big.  Their first party lineup for launch is not much to write home about either.  While I am of the opinion that system launches aren’t as big of a deal as many people make them out to be, there is no denying that Microsoft has more big hitters.  Forza is a flagship title for them.  Killzone is a good choice for launch because it’s more beauty than brawn and we tend to enjoy those types of experiences at launch but the series just does not have the gravitas to carry a launch lineup as the big exclusive game.  Driveclub is from one of my favorite developers on the planet but has looked average at best in showings so far.  Knack is a niche title that is getting a lot of play because Mark Cerny is attached to it.  I think Knack is going to be great but I don’t think it will be moving systems.

There are also many questions around what the Playstation 4 experience is going to be like.  While we, of course, beat the “GAMES GAMES GAMES” drum we do require a good experience outside of gaming.  There are millions of complaints around the web about the XMB, the speed of Sony’s downloads, and the PSN Store redesign.  I personally loved the XMB but that love certainly is not universal.  The pictures we’ve seen so far make the PS4’s OS look like the PS3’s new store which is straight up awful.  It will hopefully be smoother but the simplicity of the XMB has seemingly been replaced with a crappy Metro knockoff.  Sony does hardware and Microsoft does software – we know that – and it doesn’t seem like that perception is changing. This will not make or break the system for most of us but it is a big deal and I hope Sony has some surprises up its sleeve when it comes to the OS.  And to be fair we haven’t seen much of the Xbox One’s yet either and Vista + Windows 8 prove they don’t bat 1.000 when it comes to operating systems.

While I do believe the Kinect is an albatross around the Xbox One’s neck there is a very good chance that I’m wrong.  I often am.  If Sony and I are wrong Sony will be in perpetual catch up by not including the camera and the fact that it is technologically inferior. This is a big “if” and I am personally happy that Sony did not include the camera in the box but I cannot ignore the fact that this is a huge question mark going forward.  If the Kinect 2 does change the world like Microsoft is betting Sony’s add-on will have an impossible time playing catch up.

I am bullish on Sony’s chances this generation.  Like most of the known internet I am impressed with Mark Cerny as a speaker and thinker, I’m impressed with Shuhei Yoshida, Adam Boyes, and Shahid Ahmad and the incredible support they give to developers and I believe that it will pay off.  It really feels like a winning strategy.  Sony needs to tread carefully however because they clearly have a lot of work to do to keep this going. Sony hasn’t won the war yet. In fact the troops don’t even hit the ground until November.  Shore up your weaknesses, Sony.  Please.  And advertise the Vita!

 

 

Why the 180s Won’t Save the Xbox One

Microsoft is often seen as a corporation out of touch with reality and having no clear vision. Worse yet, when they do formulate one it’s usually something no one has asked for. Windows 8 was clearly designed to work on tablets and computers and phones and toasters and whatever else you can put an OS on. The problem is that it’s a worse tablet/phone OS than iOS and Android and is a worse PC OS than Windows 7 (or heck… possibly even Vista).  Microsoft decided to enter the tablet market too late and too expensive and are now paying the nine hundred million dollar price with the Surface. Coming up with a competitor to Google a decade after the entire world has adopted the word “google” to now be a verb has not had any substantial success.

But in the realm of videogames Microsoft has mostly been a positive force.  While the original Xbox saw only modest sales it did innovate in the online space and was more powerful than the PS2.  The Xbox 360 introduced achievements to the world which changed the entire landscape of gaming (including phones but does not include Nintendo because, well, Nintendo).  Cross game parties and party chat were beloved features.  XBLA gets as much if not more credit than Steam for bringing indie games to a larger audience and making stars out of Team Meat, Behemoth and Jonathan Blow among others.

So what in the fuck has gone wrong at Microsoft to get us where we are now with the Xbox One.

“If you have to invent a problem to solve to justify your product; your product shouldn’t exist.”  That is a quote from my wife who has a degree in Industrial Design from Pratt Institute even though she now works in makeup and special effects in film.  But this is Design 101.  Your product needs to have clear reasons to exist or no one will care.  This, I think, is where Microsoft went horribly wrong.  They started trying to solve problems that didn’t exist and now are pulling 180 after 180 because the market has spoken that they don’t want this product.  I have talked to two different sources inside Sony who project that the PS4 is outpacing the Xbox One in preorders to the tune of four to one in North America.  FOUR TO ONE!  Let that sink in for a second.  Microsoft has owned North America for over half a decade and now are on pace to sell maybe 15 million units there lifetime while the PS4 sells 60 million.  When I asked about Europe I was told “it’s even higher there.”

This, folks, is why Microsoft is reversing all of their decisions.  From a business point of view this makes perfect sense.  The market has spoken, the customers don’t want what Microsoft is offering so Microsoft is changing their policies to try to woo that market back.  This will create better fortune for them.  They should be commended to a certain extent for, at the very least, not sticking their head in the sand and steaming full speed ahead with a failed strategy.  At the same time, however, I refuse to look at them as heroes for changing unpopular policies because they believe that changing those policies will make them more money.  That’s what companies do.  They make decisions to make money.

Incidentally, that’s what Sony did as well.  Sony has much more friendly and affable people at the top these days.  A lot of gamers really enjoy listening to Mark Cerny speak to us like we are knowledgeable.  They like the passion that Shuhei Yoshida brings to the table and how he will interact with customers – possibly one of the highest ranking people in any business to do it as much as he does.  The bottom line is they want to make money.  They aren’t doing this because they love you.  They aren’t doing this because they are “cooler” than Microsoft.  They are doing what they are doing because they have a vision in which they think will make them a lot of money.  It just so happens that this vision is extremely consumer friendly and Microsoft’s vision was not. Sony believe that being kind to developers, big and small, will foster a better relationship between them and the consumer.  They believe that focusing their console design on an easy to develop for box that is powerful will be a benefit to gamers and developers alike.  Their entire philosophy seems to be around making these two groups of people happy and trying to solve the problems that have plagued both.  In general this seems to be working.

Microsoft on the other hand decided to reinvent the wheel.  A noble pursuit, to be sure, but to be noble or bold does not automatically mean that you are correct.  Microsoft created a convoluted system which stripped away consumer rights basically so we wouldn’t have to switch discs anymore.  Switching discs is not a problem that requires that level of solving.  If given the option to not switch discs I would take it, as it’s obviously better, but not at the expense of stripping away my ability to sell or lend an item I bought.  They took a very small issue and turned it into a problem that needed to be solved but they misread the market.  Those of us who don’t want to switch discs buy games digitally.  The solution already exists.

The Kinect thus far falls into this same trap.  In Whitten’s answer to IGN in which it came out that the Kinect no longer is required to be plugged in he started the answer with a rather long and PR-sounding statement about all of the benefits of the Kinect.  He said the following :

Xbox One is designed to work with Kinect plugged in. It makes gaming better in many ways – from the ability to say “Xbox On” and get right to your personalized homescreen, to the ability to control your TV through voice, Smartglass and more. Kinect allows you to search for your content, instantly move between games and your personalized dash and more with just your voice. Kinect helps you pick up and play by automatically knowing which controller you have in your hands. No more need to interrupt your friends game or navigate through multiple UI screens to sign in and tell the system which controller you are holding. It will even bind the controller to the console if its currently unbound – no searching for special buttons! Of course – these are just a few of the system wide benefits of having Kinect. Games use Kinect in a variety of amazing ways from adding voice to control your squad mates to adding lean and other simple controls beyond the controller to full immersive gameplay. That said, like online, the console will still function if Kinect isn’t plugged in, although you won’t be able to use any feature or experience that explicitly uses the sensor.

-Mark Whitten  Source = IGN

He does not list one feature in there that actually fixes a problem.  All of the functions merely make easy things even easier.  “The ability to say ‘Xbox on’ and get right to your personalized homescreen” is the Kinect’s answer to picking up your controller and hitting a single button.   “Kinect allows you to search for your content, instantly move between games and your personalized with your dash with just your voice” replaces having to use a controller for maybe 5 seconds to do the same thing.  “No more need to interrupt your friends game or navigate through multiple UI screens to sign in” saves you maybe 10 seconds and happens to us older gamers maybe 3 times a generation.  It also will bind a controller with the system, which will actually save you from having to get up and hit a button – possibly the biggest “solution” they’ve presented yet.

So this is his PR for why the Kinect is essential before he says that it doesn’t need to be plugged in.  These features, which are all solutions to problems that don’t exist and no one ever asked for answers to, justify why this device is in every box and if you believe the leaker on Reddit costs around 50% of the entire system.  These features and this device is why a less powerful gaming machine costs $100 more.  $100 more so you can turn it on with your voice because the millions of people who were so, so, so put out by hitting a button in the middle of their controller.

Microsoft is doing 180s on most of their major decisions because they created a multimedia system which was going to fail and once data came in that proved that they decided to do something about it.  These changes will help.  People nervous about the Kinect may buy it now.  People who love indie games will be more open to the platform because Microsoft is going to offer some form of self publishing.  People who like to sell or trade the games they buy will be more open to it because those inane policies were reversed.  This will obviously help.  The problem is, and it’s a GIGANTIC problem, the system was designed around these ideas and a lot of money was spent implementing them. It was built from the ground up to install games, to use the Kinect, to focus on TV…  and general gaming was an afterthought.  So now that they are 180ing themselves into being a gaming machine what we are left with is an underpowered and overpriced machine that is in this shape because Microsoft tried to fix things that weren’t broken.  They can 180 all they want to create as much feature parity with the PS4 as possible, but when it really mattered was when the machine was being built.  Cerny and company got it right during design and even if Microsoft does a full 720 it won’t change the fact that they fucked up in design and it’s far too late to do anything about that. Policy changes will only take them so far.  The underpowered and overpriced hardware won’t be able to finish the job.

 

Doddcast 202: Alcoholism

Jameson_Mood

Thank yous and appologies, Pikmin 3, Dragon’s Crown, and Divinity: Dragon Commander.

Music:  This place is a prison by The Postal Service, Ill with Want by The Avett Brothers, Moonshiner by Cat Power.

Here is where you can stream it.

You can also grab it off of iTunes.

Reach me at:  petedodd@gmail.com

Hire me.

Double K.O.

Player One Podcast

Check Platform Nation

There is a little forum on The Fanboys Site!

Dodd Scientifics

Pete’s Twitter

Doddcast 201: Infidelity

dragonscrown

This week’s episode is a site exclusive because I don’t have any room left on my podcast host to upload new files for a week or so.   My lovely wife Arnee Dodd joins me as we talk about Dragon’s Crown, Carpel Tunnel, the ethics of steam cards and free to play games, and how insidious Candy Crush Saga is.

This podcast will not appear on itunes/zune/stitcher/whatever.  Sorry!  Out of room!  You will have to download it off google drive which sometimes gives errors saying too many people have downloaded a file (trying again in a minute usually fixes it).

Music: Damien Jurado – Sheets,  Pedro the Lion – Second Best

Download that sucker here! 

Reach me at:  petedodd@gmail.com

Hire me.

Double K.O.

Player One Podcast

Check Platform Nation

There is a little forum on The Fanboys Site!

Dodd Scientifics

Pete’s Twitter