How Sony May Have Won E3 With the PlayStation 4

At its E3 2013 presser, Sony aims, shoots and scores

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No, I don’t work for Sony, thanks for asking. But just to be up-front, I’m about to type a bunch of positive things about Sony (having typed a bunch of negative things four months ago). That’s because its E3 presser resonated quite a bit more than Microsoft’s, which aired early Monday morning. E3 (and, you know, life) isn’t made of perfectly balanced events where everyone comes out equally potent. Sometimes that’s just how things roll.

For starters, what some took for a subdued performance for much of Sony’s presser — the sort of subdued where anodyne music plays and presenters actually spend time talking substantively to the audience instead of visually assaulting it — was something of a blessing, a respite from the juvenile techno-infused thump-thump-thump party vibe that tends to hang over these spectacular spectaculars like a locker-room miasma. Nintendo and Apple are masters of this let’s-treat-viewers-intelligently approach. Sony seemed to be learning how to pull that off (whereas Microsoft still has no idea how it’s done).

I was neither impressed nor unimpressed by the actual PS4 system reveal: it’s basically a trapezoidal PS2, but who cares what it looks like, really. For all intents and purposes, it’s a black brick, just like Microsoft’s black brick. For most players, it’s going to sit on a shelf, only be visible from the front and not move. If Sony withheld this reveal to give its E3 presser extra pizzazz, it hardly needed to.

Gamewise, I saw exclusives that interested me and others that didn’t — the same reaction I had to Microsoft’s no more or less engaging lineup. (I admit games predominantly about cars, guns and sports tend to live at the bottom of my play list nowadays.) Notables: The Order: 1886, KnackKingdom Hearts III, inFAMOUS: Second SonFinal Fantasy XV (née Final Fantasy Versus XIII) and every one of the demoed indie titles. Microsoft’s Xbox One indie shout-out by comparison during its event: another Minecraft port. (Update: Square Enix just revealed that KHIII and FFXV will be on Xbox One as well.)

I’m still not sure if The Dark Sorcerer is a game or a tech demo or both, but Quantic Dream’s little vignette starring a wizard, a goblin, some crazy pyrotechnics and a genius twist was a nice little kick in the ribs to grumps like me, inclined these days to associate show-off graphics with developmental laziness. In the right developmental hands, Quantic Dream’s saying, all the extra horsepower so often wasted on visual chrome has the potential to instead deepen our experience of dramatically more humanlike characters existing in rich worlds with emotional palettes as visually nuanced as our own. That said, it’s one thing to put together a clever little piece of ironic cinema and another to fold in compelling game play. Quantic Dream and Sony were just making a point. Whether developers live up to the potential or just throw all those extra processor cycles at more god-ray-light-bloom-polygonal-whatever draped over the same tired experiences remains to be seen.

But the unexpected and arguably watershed moments came toward the end, as Sony Computer Entertainment America president and CEO Jack Tretton aimed, then delivered, several full-contact body blows to Microsoft’s Xbox One. Microsoft badly — let me say that again, badly — underestimated how important these next two issues are to players.

Yes, the PS4 will play used disc-based games, said Tretton, crucially adding that Sony will impose no new restrictions on their playback — a line that drew the loudest sustained applause I’ve heard at an E3 presser since Microsoft handed out free Xbox 360 slims at E3 2010. Just to be clear, Tretton said players could trade in PS4 games at retail, sell them to another person, lend them to a friend or keep them forever. That, for reasons I’ve laid out here, was exactly the right position to take with disc-based games in 2013. Both companies plan to offer Day One digital downloads at launch, and so both companies are in that sense future-proofed. Sony’s simply letting consumers steer what’s still, by any measure, a vibrant secondhand market, instead of using its clout to shoehorn gamers into a discless, ownership-unclear, potentially corporate-domineered future.

The next shoe — yes, there were more than two — was Tretton revealing that the PS4 won’t require an Internet connection to play games. Microsoft’s Xbox One does, demanding you connect at least once every 24 hours or forfeit access. That’s less a sales point for me — in the 21st century, the Internet’s become like electricity. But I’ll grant the symbolism, and for those remaining few who don’t yet have reliable Internet access, it’ll be a slam dunk.

The third surprise was actually a step back: you’ll need a $50-per-year PlayStation Plus subscription for online multiplayer access with PS4, effectively aping Microsoft’s current model with Xbox Live. That’s a shame, because elementary multiplayer still feels like it belongs outside pay walls. Microsoft’s made partial inroads over the years by improving Xbox Live’s multiplayer ecosystem and crafting an elegant online community. Sony, whose PS3-based PlayStation Network lags well behind Xbox Live in these areas, needs a PS4 interface that’s at least as compelling out of the gate if it wants to brush multiplayer-pay-wall criticisms aside.

The final Xbox One kick? The PS4 will cost $400 — $100 less than Microsoft’s new console. I’ve not heard gamers cheer as loudly for a price that just a few years ago would have seemed, well, unseemly — a sign, I suspect, of how perturbed many are with Microsoft for its draconian licensing and online-access requirements. Yes, Xbox One includes Kinect, and no, it’s not yet clear that’s going to matter.

Sony’s windup was long and slow and for some a little tedious, but when it finally swung — “Concepts like true consumer ownership and consumer trust are central to everything we do,” said Sony’s Andrew House in summary — just boom, out of the park. Who knows if that wins the company the war — the real competition for these systems lies elsewhere, as far as I’m concerned — but as opening moves go, Sony clearly played the better hand.