Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Sony E3 2013 Conference: So close, but missed the target

Sony's E3 2013 Press Conference has concluded, and boy was much of it a direct slap in the face to Microsoft. I have to say in terms of effectiveness at building hype and rhetoric, they knocked it out of the park with their game lineup and hardware reveal.

You almost had me believing, Sony.
Keeping in line with Sony's previous strategy during their Playstation 4 reveal, their focus was very much on the games, and I found it especially pleasing to see such strong support for the indie scene, with Transistor of Supergiant Games being at the forefront of the bunch. This is definitely the right strategy for building momentum with their audience.

That said, I couldn't help but notice that for the majority of titles showcased--especially outside of their indie lineup--there was an overabundance of guns. Lots and lots of guns. We couldn't go for ten minutes without having another gun shoved in our faces. I understand the reasons for why this is the case, but nonetheless I really do wish there was more creativity in the industry today. I am starting to share some of the same sentiments as industry veteran Warren Spector regarding how cheap and easy it is to do violence in games. Not to say that I'm opposed to violence; just that it's certainly an overused gameplay device and we need to start offering more variety in our games again beyond mindless pointing and shooting. At the same time, I realize these design choices are largely out of Sony's control; they were just smartly picking games to showcase from developers that they thought would be most appealing, and furthermore, I'm willing to forgive them on this front simply because they made such a strong effort to support indie games as well.

Among some of the highlights of the conference, I was fairly impressed by the look of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag and how they seamlessly mixed gunplay with swords and showed off some shipboard combat. I had been getting a little fatigued of the Assassin's Creed series at this point, and if they can keep the rest of the game as interesting and well-executed as this, I could be convinced to pick it up. However, there were some technical issues towards the end and the demonstration had to be cut off early, but this didn't bother me too much. Bugs can always be worked out in due time with a little software ingenuity.

We also had more gameplay footage of Watch_Dogs which is shaping up pretty nicely, and it appears Final Fantasy Versus XIII has finally been properly renamed to Final Fantasy XV, as it never really made sense to me to use a naming convention that implied relation to the original FFXIII despite sharing none of its characters or setting. Kingdom Hearts 3 was briefly announced which I'm sure has fans excited (though I personally have yet to get into this series), and finally we have Bungie's Destiny, which appears to be a Halo-meets-Borderlands experience with co-op loot-based shooter gameplay. To be honest it didn't look that impressive to me though. I like the character art design, and I know a lot of people are excited for this, but I couldn't ignore the overwhelming feeling that I've already played this game before since the gameplay mostly amounted to the same point-and-shoot monotony we've come to expect from Bungie, and it didn't at all delve into the lore to get me intrigued. After ODST and Reach, I've been burned out by Bungie's lack of creativity and inability to restore the magic that was the first time I played through Halo: Combat Evolved.

Last but not least, Sony couldn't resist taking a gigantic jab at Microsoft with the sudden reveal of their used game and DRM policy, which is to say they have no DRM whatsoever and used games are fully supported. It's incredibly sad that this is something to get excited about when normally these features should be taken for granted as a standard part of any decent console worth its two cents, but regardless this was the most pleasing news of the day for me, as I could breathe a sigh of relief that the industry hasn't totally fallen into darkness with gross abuses of online functionality. To add further insult to injury, Sony announced their price point for the PS4 to be at just $399 USD; a full $100 cheaper than Microsoft's Xbox One. At this point I was getting giddy with excitement. Sony was playing nearly all their cards right and this almost seemed like it could be the perfect next-gen console.

Almost.

Unfortunately, while I see many gamers cheering victory and feeling vindicated that there is an option in the market that isn't totally anti-consumer, Sony has gone and cleverly snuck in subscription fees for online play behind our backs right when we were all most vulnerable. This was the main feature that convinced me to sell my Xbox360 to pick up a Playstation 3 in the first place. I found the practice to be a shallow nickel-and-dime measure considering that my gaming PC has been doing online play free for over a decade now and counting.

But alas, the hype train has already taken off at full throttle and can't be stopped, so already I am forced to address the many excuses being laid out for Sony's dubious decisions. Let's get crackin' folks.

"But it comes with a bunch of free games!"

They're not free if you have to pay a subscription for them, and more importantly, if I wanted those games, I would just go buy them myself, so woohoo! Congratulations! I get a bunch of random games I don't want. In the meantime, my PC still lets me play for free, and I don't have to feel obligated to play in order to get my money's worth.

"It's only $50."

A year. $50 per year. This generation has been running... what? About 7 years at least? So let's do the math. 7 x 50 = $350 I could have better spent on other games I actually wanted, or better yet, $350 I could have saved for more important things. This effectively puts the console's true price at $750 minimum if you want it to offer all the same functionality that the PS3 originally had during its lifecycle (to put things into proper perspective). Even if you still find this acceptable, it should be opposed at the very least on principle, as it sets a bad precedent and leaves an open invitation for them to continue to find ways to short change you because they know they can get away with it.

"Sony has to make up for the manufacturing costs of the console."

Yes, it's true that at its price point (and likely the Xbox One's as well) it will probably be sold at a net loss for Sony. But guess what? That's what the *games* are for! Every game sold on the system has to pay royalties to Sony for being distributed through their platform, and traditionally that has always been how they could recover the costs. Now they're doing that... PLUS nickel-and-diming you extra through PSN. The Playstation 3 was able to survive just fine on the old model even despite its rocky launch, so please, let's stop pretending here like Sony has no other choice or else they'd go broke.

"The money can be used to improve the service."

I've been told many times that Sony's online service is lacking in comparison to Xbox Live, but truth be told, while I do agree that XBL's feature set is more robust, PSN did do its core function well enough; it lets me play my games online, and I'd take it in its current state any day over needing to suddenly pay for the service only to receive arguably marginal improvements.

Sigh, it was just too good to be true. This is really disappointing, and yet so masterfully handled by Sony (and I don't mean that as a good thing). They have covertly gone and stripped away a basic staple feature of their console, and now they're charging you extra for it, and no one cares because they're just happy to not be even more thoroughly abused by Microsoft. This is why lack of competition is bad for the industry. Microsoft is currently unable to offer anything to compete with them, so Sony is allowed to get away with stripping away features we should be able to take for granted. The fact of the matter is, the PS3 already offered no DRM, no used game restrictions, *and* online play for free, and now they're downgrading it. This is a slippery slope if I ever saw one folks; now let's wait until Microsoft announces their *next* next-gen console with fully always online every-second check-ins, and then suddenly everyone will be OK with it when Sony comes out with their check-in being "only" every 24 hours. What? What's the big deal? It's still better than Microsoft!

Don't be fooled by it. You are getting less for more. And look, I get it. I know it sucks that with the seemingly constant stream of bad news in the game industry as of late, you want to have someone in the industry that you can glean a shred of hope from; someone that can offer you an alternative out of the endless river of corporate BS, but currently that someone just isn't Sony. Not yet. But the good news is this: you can make them into that someone. All you have to do is vote with your wallet and your voice; the same as you would with the Xbox One. Let them know that you don't tolerate being nickel-and-dimed for services that have always previously been provided free, and they will listen when they see their money drying up. And once again, when the software is patched back to normal, you can go out and buy your PS4 anyway. I want to reiterate as I have done in my previous blog entry that this isn't about hating on any one company or being a negative Nancy. This is about holding the industry accountable and preserving its integrity for the future. I'm afraid though that with the current hype now generated around Sony, this message will probably fall on deaf ears, and so it appears that though the industry may have temporarily staved off the Internet dark age, it still seems poised toward an age of nickels and dimes at the very least.

And with all that said, I now give my rating for the conference. I was thinking of giving them a B since they came out initially opposed to Microsoft's practices and had a solid game lineup (though nothing totally groundbreaking to get my jimmies rustled), but given how despicable I found their move with PSN and how cleverly they shielded it from us, I'm going with a D. Bad Sony. Please try again, and stop pretending to be the good guy until you actually are.

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