This year's Electronic Entertainment Expo turned out well for Sony's PlayStation 4 public relations flacks. After all, how difficult can it be to sell your middling show horse when your competition trots out a swaybacked walker riddled with strangles?
I'm referring, of course, to the contentious details of Microsoft's Xbox One, which had been enigmatic to say the least before L.A., but is now portentous of the company's gaming division potentially drinking some of the overwrought, self-congratulatory Kool-Aid as is the rest of Redmond.
If you weren't already confused by the piecemeal and often conflicting information meted out after May's reveal of the One, E3 was of no comfort. Used-game digital rights management can be restricted, but may be instituted on a publisher's whim. A meager launch lineup. A Clintonesque parsing of the definition of the console's need to be connected to broadband. And that price!
Make no mistake, the $499 Xbox One, despite boasting a larger hardware pack-in featuring the next-gen Kinect, will be the biggest factor in PlayStation's game plan come this winter. The mind reels from what Sony, emerging from years of bad marketing decisions, could do to tout the PS4's $399 price tag and free online network.
But therein also lies Sony's Achilles heel: As bad as Microsoft's blunders were, they won't last forever. But they will hang around for a while.
Microsoft seems to be making its problems worse with each passing news release and interview. An Xbox blog post last week shifted the onus for the One's software DRM capabilities to publishers, insisting "Microsoft does not charge a platform fee to retailers, publishers, or consumers for enabling transfer of (used) games." The qualifier came right after admitting — nay, boasting — that Microsoft "designed Xbox One so game publishers can enable you to trade in your games." Whatever that enabling entails, anyway.
Sony, which gleefully gave its presentation after Microsoft on Monday, enjoyed a hearty round of applause after announcing it would not put any restrictions on playing used games on the new console. Well, standing ovation seems more apt; Ars Technica's Kyle Orland wrote that the crowd's cheering after Sony's declaration "was, without hyperbole, easily the most overwhelming reaction I have ever seen to any announcement from an E3 audience." This applause resumed when Sony added it would not require online checks for game licenses, either.
In that light, it would be interesting to see those same people's reaction to Sony America CEO Jack Tretton's admission to Game Trailers that while Sony didn't plan any DRM incorporation into its games, other publishers were free to constrict content however they liked, which is practically the same thing Microsoft said.
"The DRM decision is going to have to be answered by the third parties, it's not something we're going to control, or dictate, or mandate or implement," Tretton said. So good luck buying that used copy of Fallout: Orlando one day.
The crowd's applause is still a good indicator of the gaming public's feelings about Xbox One's cloud-based services, however; specifically its requirements the console be allowed to check in at least once a day, upon pain of being bricked. The U.K.'s Telegraph noted Microsoft corporate vice-president Phil Harrison excused this with a workaround in lieu of broadband.
"In those few occasions you don't have access to your usual broadband connection, you could tether your Xbox to your mobile phone," Harrison said. "The 24-hour ping takes kilobytes of data."
What could be so important that mere kilobytes would need to be uploaded to Microsoft servers once a day, every day? The first thing that comes to mind is usage data, an increasingly touchy subject in the wake of the NSA's PRISM program. That's in addition to prior privacy grousing over the Kinect's voice recognition capabilities and camera usage.
That tinfoil hat stuff doesn't really matter, though. The problem is that Microsoft sought to allay those fears as it did, with the company's chief of interactive entertainment, Don Mattrick, blowing off concerns about functionality without broadband.
"Fortunately we have a product for people who aren't able to get some form of connectivity; it's called Xbox 360," he told Game Trailers. "If you have zero access to the Internet, that is an offline device." What a comfort to anyone wanting to play Halo 5!
There is an argument to be made that if you have the dosh to blow five bills on a game box, you're no doubt part of the 72 percent of households in the U.S. with Internet connectivity. Microsoft even bets on it in their marketing materials, outright declaring "every Xbox One owner has a broadband connection." This comes across as being indifferent about user concerns at best and elitist about demographics at worst.
Compare that to Sony, which basically said, hey, we will still let you trade games like you've done since you were 6 years old, and we won't snoop much more than your PS3 already does. Their announcements weren't overwhelming, if you think about it, but they didn't have to be.
Sony will want to ride this wave of popularity as long as it can, clear into November and beyond, if possible. Judging from Sony's own lean launch-title slate and largely comparable hardware specs, Microsoft's missteps may be all Japan has with which to compete in the next round of the console wars. Nintendo's WiiU has fallen so flat, it may not be long before they go the Sega route.
There'd better be more on the way from Sony, though. Because if there's one thing Microsoft learned after the Red Ring of Death fiasco, it's that a few ants won't necessarily ruin a picnic — even if those ants end up costing a billion dollars to kill.
Joshua Gillin writes about video games and entertainment news for tbt*. Feel free to challenge his opinions at [email protected]