The Sony press conference was a masterclass of misdirection

12 Jun 2013  by   Tim McDonald
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The internet appears to have decided that Sony has won E3, if not this round of the console war, based solely on their press conference. I’m not really disputing the former – “winning” E3 always comes down to what the public thinks won E3, and the internet is as good a barometer of that as you’ll find. As to the latter, well… gamers love to complain and are very bad at boycotting anything. Just look at Left 4 Dead 2‘s Steam-based boycott groups, although $499 is quite an incentive to not buy something. Still, it’ll come down to the mass market rather than those of us who watch E3. Time will tell on that front.

But anyway, the press conferences. Microsoft is championing a box that costs $499 (if you’re lucky enough to live in the States, at least; it’s otherwise closer to $670), will not allow you to trade in games the way you always have, is continually watching you with a terrifying robot eye, and has to phone home via the internet every 24 hours or it packs up its toys and sulks. Presumably, the “One” in Xbox One refers to its mental age.

xbox one

I CAN SEE YOU

Sony, on the other hand, is offering a box (which early reports indicate is perhaps slightly more powerful) for $399 that will allow you to trade in games as per the norm, does not have to be connected to the internet for it to continue working, and does not come with a privacy-invading camera that will watch you while you sleep. On all of the points people consider important this year – price, privacy, trade-ins, a lack of rape jokes – Sony wins. (Although I’d be very surprised if they didn’t primarily push a SKU containing a Move controller, for $499.)

The problem is that this ignores a rather large amount of the Sony conference, as well as a rather large amount of the Microsoft conference, and Sony used this to get away with some rather sneaky shit.

First off, let’s take a look at the games. Sony showed off a Quantic Dream tech demo that may or may not be a real game, but was fairly neat anyway. There was The Order 1866, a shooter with a genuinely interesting Victorian London/steampunk setting. Aaaand… that’s about it.

dark sorcerer

This chap is particularly displeased with Microsoft’s licensing policy.

Pretty much everything else we’d already seen, or has already been released/will be released on other platforms: Infamous: Second Son, Elder Scrolls Online, Don’t Starve, Knack, Destiny, Assassin’s Creed 4, Watch Dogs. Even the championed Squenix offerings of Final Fantasy XV and Kingdom Hearts 3 have since been confirmed for Xbox One.

Now Microsoft. In terms of exclusive reveals, we have Crimson Dragon, the Panzer Dragoon-alike. There’s Dead Rising 3. Killer Instinct is making a return. Halo will both be turning up in short order. There’s Crytek’s Ryse and Swery’s D4. There’s Titanfall, although that’s also coming out on PC. Indie games are thinner on the ground, but there’s still Below from Superbrothers: Sword and Sworcery EP‘s Capybara Games.

If we’re talking purely game reveals then it looks like Microsoft have the advantage, and that’s speaking as someone who doesn’t play Forza and can’t abide Halo. Sony have certainly got the indie titles down, but their biggest reveals at E3 were games that aren’t even exclusives.

Don't Starve (1)

It’s honestly nice to see Don’t Starve hitting other platforms, and it should work pretty damn well on consoles.

Aha, you cry, but the games aren’t important. Sony’s making sure we can still trade in our games without extra hassle! Aha, I respond. But aren’t you the people who were complaining that Microsoft’s Xbox One announcement was all about TV? Which, funnily enough, was something Sony spent awhile talking about during their conference.

To be fair, though, it’s hard to describe the Microsoft conference as anything other than a complete fucking shambles even with this line-up. The dudebro agenda made me cringe, as did being talked down to by men in suits. The insistence that phoning home every 24 hours is fine, and that the lack of used game trade-ins is fine, is staggeringly arrogant and indicates absolutely no desire to listen to gamers. And then there was the off-the-cuff rape joke. If heads aren’t rolling in Redmond, I’ll be disappointed.

But I was talking about Sony doing sneaky shit, so: a little while after the conference, I went and checked comments threads and Twitter and every other medium I have for gauging the public feeling. What I saw slightly disturbed me, because I saw a lot of comments saying things like “Microsoft only cares about money; Sony cares about gamers.”

If you think that, then I’m sorry, but you’ve been fooled. That’s a rather naïve way of thinking, and Sony are using it against you.

Typical offerings left at an Xbox One shrine.

Typical offerings left at an Xbox One shrine.

Sony don’t care about gamers. Generally speaking, few big corporations do – their first responsibility is to their shareholders. If they can make more money for their shareholders by acting like they care (good customer service, say) then they will absolutely do exactly that. And the end of Sony’s press conference? Whew, but that was a phenomenal piece of manipulation.

The end of Sony’s press conference was a staggering series of bodyblows targeted directly at Microsoft, and Microsoft have no-one to blame for this but themselves. SCEA president and CEO Jack Tretton took to the stage and announced that the PlayStation 4 would let you trade in games with no extra fuss. That used games would work, right out. That you could lend games to friends. That the PS4 didn’t have to phone home every 24 hours. And the crowd, with good reason, went fucking wild. And off the back of this, Jack Tretton implied that a PS Plus subscription will be required for online multiplayer.

ps plus bulletpoints

Hiding in plain sight.

Did you notice this? Check it out: when discussing PS Plus, Jack Tretton states: “For less than $5 a month, members will get discounted games, cloud saves, automatic game updates, early access to beta programs, an instant game collection, as well as the ability to fully immerse themselves in the incredible PS4 games with online multiplayer.”

Even the big bulletpoints on the back of the wall said as much. “Immersive multiplayer online on PS4”, right next to the PS Plus logo and “Less than $5 a month.” Still not convinced? Right after this, Tretton adds: “And PS4 gamers that aren’t PS Plus members will be able to enjoy the single-player games for free, and access to all of your media services won’t require PS Plus.” Emphasis mine.

Heavy implication: “If you want to play online multiplayer, you’re going to pay us every month.”

Very few people seemed to notice this. Fewer still seemed to care. This, if you’re championing Sony as a bastion of gamers’ rights, is a problem.

PlayStation Plus

Seriously, PS Plus’ Instant Game Collection is a pretty good deal. If you don’t prefer the PC, anyway.

See, here’s the thing: the PS4 is a hell of a lot more consumer friendly than the Xbox One. I’m not disputing that. PS Plus, particularly its Instant Game Collection, is a fantastic deal. The ability to trade in games and play used games is a big thing for a lot of people.

But it’s less consumer friendly than the PS3. Sony are chipping away at the status quo too, but because they sugarcoated it in “Look, we’re not as awful as the Xbox One”, nobody bloody cared.

One of the big things with the current generation of consoles is that the 360 requires an Xbox LIVE Gold account for online play, while the PS3 lets you play online for free. Whenever anyone mentioned the PS3’s lack of functional cross-game chat, or poor store layout, or download/streaming issues, or the Sony hack that resulted in the personal details of 77 million people getting out into the wild (which was kept silent for a week) as well as the total shutdown of the PlayStation Network for a month, the response was “but we’re not paying £40 a year for it.”

misdirection 1

I’ve run out of relevant pictures, so here: have kittens instead.

Welp, now you are. The PS4 is offering you what has always been the industry standard for used games and privacy, but they’re now charging you for online play. You’re cheering them on as defenders of gamers’ rights while they’re actually offering you a worse multiplayer deal than you got with the PS3.

I can only imagine the relief in the Sony offices when Microsoft made such a Titanic-level gaffe with the used games bullshit. It gave them the perfect opportunity to position themselves as the champions of gamers’ rights by doing exactly what they’d always been doing (and had no plans to change), while simultaneously demanding money from PlayStation gamers for something that had previously been free. I can’t blame them for this – Microsoft painted a target on its own back and handed Sony a knife, and Sony would’ve been stupid not to take the opportunity – but I’m a bit disappointed by how few people actually seemed to notice.

The Sony conference was a phenomenally targeted piece of manipulation that took careful aim at Microsoft and opened fire, and then snuck in a removal of free online play with few people noticing. Those who did notice were so elated by “we can still do the same things we always did” that they didn’t really care about the additional charges being levied. Sony have since added that any additional DRM will be decided on by publishers, so if everyone wants to go with online passes for PS4’s pre-owned games then you’ll be paying extra cash to unlock the ability to play online, and then paying Sony for the privilege every month as well. Champions of consumer licensing, indeed.

misdirection 2

Totally not trying to misdirect you and prevent you from flaming me in the comments, by the way. Just saying. Anyway: look! Kittens!

If you’re still not convinced that this is an issue, then look at it like this: assume that Microsoft’s press conference hasn’t happened, and that we know nothing about the used games/online authentication debacle. Assume that this is months ago, and Sony have gone first, and have tried to sneak past a mention that the PS4’s online multiplayer will require $60 a year. People would’ve gone apeshit. All journalistic eyes and internet fury would be aimed at Sony for trying to rip off gamers. Everyone would be asking Sony “so, this ambiguous wording means that you’re now charging for online multiplayer, yes?” and Sony execs would sweat and squirm and try to get out of making a flat confirmation.

But Microsoft single-handedly offered themselves up as a target, lost E3, lost gamer trust, and helped position their primary competitor as the saviour of games. They took aim at their own foot hoping for a flesh wound, and accidentally blew off both legs.

I’m not arguing that the Xbox One is wonderful. I’m arguing that Sony is only wonderful by comparison, and that taken on its own, Sony – the company that cares, according to the internet – is performing a fantastic bit of misdirection to get their hands on more of your money while making you think they’re on your side. By all means, get a PS4, but don’t fall for this. They’re not the gamers’ champions. They’re just the lesser of two evils.

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