The maturity of the console market and strong sales clearly rubbed off on the Microsoft and Sony this year. Each had their missteps, but they stayed on message and were the most interesting pressers by each company in several years.
Yet Sony and Microsoft took different approaches. Microsoft knows it’s well behind Sony and wanted to present a wide net for potential buyers. They succeeded; onstage content was bright, fun, and diverse.
Sony had the swagger of being in the lead. While Microsoft went wide, Sony went uncharacteristically narrow and minimalist. PlayStation VR got a mention, but the focus was otherwise all on games, many of them first party exclusives.
In past years I’ve criticized Microsoft for their focus on the stereotypically “core” gamer titles. Guns, racing, and sports games typically dominate Xbox conferences. But this year we saw a broader lineup. There was a well edited indie showcase with teaser trailers from the promising Inside and We Happy Few. An unusually high number of Japanese titles beyond the first party Scalebound in the form of Tekken 7 and Final Fantasy. Lighthearted pirate simulators (Sea of Thieves) and collectable card games (Gwent). And the pacing moved fast enough that if one game didn’t suit you, you’d be on to something different soon enough.
There were also gestures to more casual players. Play Anywhere, where a single buy unlocks cross play on Xbox One and Windows 10 PC platforms, adds flexibility. A callout to new Xbox Live social enhancements – finding people to play with, forming “clubs” – helps Xbox newbies.
And the Forza Horizon 3 co-op demo was one of Microsoft’s best in years. Most multiplayer presser demos revel in hardcore gameplay or competition. In contrast, Horizon presented itself more as a platform to hang out with friends and relax. The players were diverse, on different platforms, and the drop in gameplay was breezy. It checked off the boxes you’d expect from a racing game while emphasizing accessibility for more casual players.
Admittedly Microsoft’s hardware announcements dwarfed software news. There’s a big question of how Project Scorpio and the Xbox One S will go over with the general public (subject for a future post.) But if you’re going to unveil Scorpio now, the end video did a reasonable job. Emphasize choice and compatibility. Have the development community, not Xbox reps, push it as a necessary precursor for better games.
With Microsoft bringing heat with Project Scorpio and a well organized presser, I expected Sony to lag in comparison. But Sony confounded expectations by taking their presser in a new direction.
Based on presentation alone, Sony stood apart from everyone else this year. Presser boilerplate – garish color scheme, wraparound video, goofy CG intros, thumping EDM – was gone. Instead Sony rented out the Shrine Auditorium and kept the focus on a single screen in a pitch black theater. The conference opened with a full live orchestra playing an overture without video. It set the tone for the rest of the event: classy, mature, and dark.
Then game after game started rolling through. The edits were lean and mean: just trailers, gameplay and three speakers the entire night. The opening game salvo – God of War, Horizon: Zero Dawn, The Last Guardian, Detroit, Resident Evil 7 – was Sony’s best in years (I found last year’s Shenmue and Final Fantasy overplayed nostalgia with almost nothing to show for it.) Every game felt original and looked great, mostly outpacing the Microsoft demos. And almost every title was a big budget first party exclusive, Sony’s traditional weakness in the PS4 era. If you wanted big spectacle and hype for what’s coming to PlayStation, Sony brought their A game.
Sony’s last few conferences had a habit of dragging. Third party partners would ramble on about partnerships that felt like shareholder obligations. So stripping out almost all stage presence worked for me.
Yet neither conference was perfect. Microsoft’s first party lineup looks a bit thin compared to previous years. Hyped titles like Sea of Thieves and Crackdown are apparently pushed into 2017. And Recore looks like the only first party release that isn’t a sequel of an existing IP. If you’re an Xbox fan wanting hype for big games in the next six months, there wasn’t as much to chew on.
Sony’s tight editing was a smart call, but occasionally the lack of stage presence was problematic. Sony is pushing out a new VR platform in four months, and teasers for a bunch of VR “experiences” doesn’t cut it. I wanted more presenters actually selling how important VR was. And a few more stage minutes bookending the all games narrative would have helped.
However, when you look at the big picture, both Microsoft and Sony performed well. When you examine each company’s stage presence and games released this year, it’s a good time to be a console gamer.