The “day zero” E3 press conferences by the big two console manufacturers feel like a relic of the pre-digital era: largely predictable, bloated, expensive, and with a lot more emphasis on style and spectacle over details. Yet they’re still important to set the tone and general focus of the Xbox One and PS4 platforms over the next year. In that regard, both Microsoft and Sony had solid, if unspectacular, B grade efforts. Microsoft played it safe but remained extremely polished and focused in the process. Sony had some more interesting, diverse announcements but were marred by some poor pacing and presentation.
Judged strictly by presentation alone, Microsoft handily trumped Sony this year. To answer criticism from last year, they stayed laser focused on games. Though their briefing lasted over 90 minutes, it rarely dragged, with well-crafted transitions and trailers between the larger titles. Xbox head Phil Spencer was clearly on a mission to woo core gamers back to Xbox, and it did so by playing to traditional Xbox boilerplate: racing games, first person shooters, and fantasy medieval combat.
Yet even with a solid effort, Xbox’s exclusives felt underwhelming and almost completely unsurprising. Forza Horizon 2, Crackdown, Fable Legends and The Master Chief Collection are sequels or reboots on existing IP. They’ll likely be fun, but it felt like safe genre territory Microsoft has heavily covered in the past. Also, as more third party publishers go multi-platform, we’ll see Microsoft’s genre reboots overlapping with other publishers (e.g. Ubisoft’s The Crew in the same space as Forza Horizon 2, Bungee’s Destiny competing with Halo 5). Die hard Xbox 360 fans now have stronger reasons to make the jump to the Xbox One now versus last year. But without a clear exclusives victory on sheer numbers or originality, I don’t expect Microsoft to sway those on the fence between the Xbox One and PS4.
In contrast to Microsoft’s showing, Sony, at least on paper, presented a more interesting set of games. Their exclusives were fewer but packed serious punch: Grim Fandango is a classic, cult adventure game from famed designer Tim Schafer and was potentially the biggest surprise of the day. No Man’s Sky is a very unique, indie sci-fi darling and potentially more ambitious than any game shown at E3. Then there’s Bloodborne, a gory RPG from the creators of Demon’s Souls. Round that out with a few anticipated indie exclusives for 2014, most notably Hotline Miami 2, and Sony showed off an exclusive (albeit occasionally timed or console only) roster that was more diverse and daring than Microsoft. And Sony was able to go toe to toe with Microsoft on their own set of exclusive betas and DLC for a few big name AAA games—likely a reflection of Sony’s stronger momentum and sales heading into E3.
Almost all those news was revealed in the first hour. Then came a lackluster middle section that dragged with a scattershot focus and left viewers with more questions than answers. They hawked a graphic-novel TV series with only concept art to show; its ten minutes on stage killed the presser’s momentum. A firm date was set for an “open beta” for the Playstation Now streaming service but few details on games and pricing were offered. The Project Morpheus VR platform was glanced over while Sony’s Andrew House punched down at the Xbox’s Kinect. The PS Vita was mostly ignored; no bundle with the PS4, no price drop, and few standout games.
Overall, Sony’s presentation felt like a slightly larger missed opportunity compared to Microsoft, but neither side was particularly earth-shattering. One factor this E3 has made clear is that many hyped games have been pushed back well into 2015, so it’s unlikely Sony or Microsoft will have a big system seller on its hands this year. There are two notable exceptions: Destiny (a strong performance could overshadow the Halo series and thus help Sony) and The Master Chief Collection (which, if Halo fanatics show up in droves for, could help Microsoft close the gap.) Either way, it’s going to be fascinating to see how each company positions their consoles this holiday season. It’s smaller, intangible factors that could now make a deciding difference among those that haven’t jumped in this console generation.