How Sony Won E3 2013
Game journalists are obsessed with the idea of “winning” E3. We want to be standing in the ring, holding the gloved fist of the champion in the air, as his defeated opponent sulks beside us. Google the terms “E3″ and “win,” and you’ll be inundated with results. Change the search parameters to early June in 2012, 2011, 2010, and you’ll see a similar avalanche of articles.
Maybe it’s because game journalists are also gamers, and we spend a lot of time thinking about “winning” and “losing” things. Maybe declaring a single winner makes us feel powerful. There is, of course, a strange chicken-egg phenomenon — various products “win” E3 simply because people are saying that they won it, not necessarily because they’re objectively great. Games can also win simply by being the best of a pretty mediocre bunch, like Watch Dogs did last year.
This year is different. Microsoft and Sony arrived in L.A. with two new consoles to show off; the narrative of “winning” was in place from the beginning. Two men enter, one man leaves.
But it wasn’t just that. As this week’s news unfolded, Sony really did win. Not only did it win, it won in a blowout, a skunking, a straight-sets obliteration. The reason? Sony was the company that realized it was playing a game.
Microsoft has been self-immolating in slow-motion ever since the first rumors hit that the Xbox One would require an “always-on” internet connection. The big reveal on May 21st generated a firestorm of bad publicity, fueled by weeks of confusion about what the Xbox One actually did and how it did it. When Microsoft got around to addressing, fan concerns, it lead to more embarrassing equivocation about always-on, privacy, and used games.
Sony could have just let this bad press speak for itself. Instead, it went one step further, waiting until the end of its E3 press conference to show slides that explicitly repudiated all of Microsoft’s most controversial practices. In many ways, the Xbox One and the Playstation 4 are very similar, especially in terms of the hardware inside. But Sony went out of its way to emphasize all the specific ways that the PS4 was different: more indie games; no always-on; support for used games. Even the price-point was carefully chosen to be $100 less than the $499 Microsoft is charging for the Xbox One. Sony might lose money at first with every device sold, but the initial coup might still be worth it in the long run.
This all made it easy for journalists to craft the winning narrative. Forbes, not necessarily known for its hyperbole, said in a headline that “PS4′s Price And Policies Humiliate Microsoft’s Xbox One.” As this headline and many others attest, Sony won not because the Playstation 4 is a great console (although that might well be true), but because it went out of its way to make the Xbox One look like a worse console — expensive, confusing, and anti-consumer.
The Japanese company even saved its best for last: as soon as the press conference ended, Sony released this video of two high-ranking executives openly mocking the Xbox One’s byzantine used-games policy:
It’s possible that, in the past, one multi-billion dollar corporation has trolled another. Never quite like this. All the talk about hardware, about games, about features, about exclusive titles, about consumer protection — it all boils down to one 22-second video. One slam dunk. One home run. One headshot. Sony made a joke about Microsoft; everyone laughed. To the victor go the spoils.
In case there was any lingering confusion, Microsoft spent the next few days shooting itself in the foot. Someone told a rape joke at the press conference. In an interview with journalist Geoff Keighly, Don Mattrick, Microsoft’s President of Interactive Entertainment Business, appeared dangerously out of touch. First, he reduced all the people worried about the Xbox One’s always-on policy to one lame anecdote about a blogger who works on a nuclear submarine. Mattrick got smugger: “Fortunately, we have a product for people who aren’t able to get some form of connectivity — it’s called Xbox 360.” As if on cue, the news broke today that the Xbox One will only be able to play games at launch if you live in certain specific countries. Nuclear submariners may be be out, but so are the Portuguese.
Meanwhile, Sony are making it look easy. A rumor about restrictive used-games policies was cleared up quickly by a call from Game Front to Sony P.R. They told us that the policy was identical to the one already in place on the PS3. The next day, Sony did one better, saying in an interview with Gamasutra that it doesn’t intend to support online pass systems at all.
Still, as Cliffy B’s tweet reminds us, this is a war, not a battle. The overall success of the Playstation 4 and the Xbox One will be decided far in the future. But the result of the initial battle can often decide the course of a war, and Sony would know: in 2005, the Xbox 360 was the consensus winner over the Playstation 3, which spent the next eight years playing catch-up (which, it should be pointed out, was largely successful).
This time around, Sony made sure it understood the game. It arrived prepared to win. And it didn’t just win — it was a flawless victory.