Sony's E3 2014 Conference Played to the Crowd

By Keza MacDonald on at

Last year’s Sony conference was a kick in the crotch for Xbox. I’d never seen any company go for the opponent’s jugular like that before in a press event. It was an important time, though, on the brink of the next generation, and in the wake of Microsoft’s terrible early decisions around the Xbox One and its messaging, perhaps some aggression was called for.

This year’s was less combative; Sony Computer Entertainment boss Andy House couldn’t resist one sly dig at the Kinect, but otherwise the presentation was all about Sony’s own games rather than taking chunks out of its rivals. Sony did not show as many of them as Microsoft did (in particular, there was a distinct lack of 2014 titles by comparison). It did, though, show more games that I personally want to play, which is a plus. The variety of what was shown gives me confidence that the PlayStation 4 is likely to be home to the many of the most interesting games on console, but very few of them are coming out before next year. Microsoft, with its robust lineup of 2014 titles, has the chance to catch Sony up in the meantime.

Following today’s other three press conferences, I was relieved at the total absence of anything military or military-themed from Sony’s presentation. It began with Destiny – which is getting a PS4-exclusive alpha weekend and exclusive content – and continued with The Order, but after that guns were pretty thin on the ground. Entwined, a surprise twin-stick game about (I think) a bird and a fish who are in love but can’t be together, was announced and promptly uploaded to PSN.

Then LittleBigPlanet 3 suddenly appeared, with absolutely no fanfare – just four people standing on stage, showing off Sackboy’s new friends. Judging by the levels of platforming failure going on in that demo, it looks like they still haven’t sorted out the jumping mechanic – but hey, there’s a dog and a birdie this time, and all of the custom-created levels from LBP 1 and 2 will be transferred to PlayStation 4 for LBP3, which really is going above and beyond. LittleBigPlanet 3 was one of a very few games shown for 2014; it’s coming out in November.

Project Beast was finally sort-of revealed, which made me involuntarily whoop out loud. Unfortunately, I still have no idea what it is. Going by the trailer it’s a dark, violent fantasy, unsurprisingly, and given that it’s FROM and Miyazaki it’s safe to assume that it’s a third-person action game, but I’m desperate to know more.

Far Cry 4: Wrath of the Elephant (as it shall henceforth be known) brought things briefly back to guns and pachyderm rampages before Dead Island 2 was revealed in a rather crass trailer that didn’t leave me hopeful that the series had gotten any cleverer (not that the vast majority of Dead Island fans will mind). Magicka 2, though, with its unemployed wizard and accidental cat-murder, is definitely in the running for trailer of the show.

The surprise announcement of a Grim Fandango remake in partnership with Disney was massively popular in the auditorium, and set the flames of hope alight in our hearts for remakes of other classic LucasArts adventures (come on, Day of the Tentacle). It was the first of two remakes to be announced – later, Sony would announce the original Ratchet and Clank as well. Despite a couple of apparent teases, there was no HD update announced for the endearingly bizarre PS1 music game Vib Ribbon.

The independent games were the highlight of the conference, for me. There was underwater Journey-alike ABZU, for which I will have to overcome my fear of the ocean and its creatures if I have any hope of playing it. There was Devolver Digital’s cheerful slate of indie shooters and adventures. And man, No Man’s Sky… it has procedurally generated dinosaur fights. Sign me up right now. I have no idea how in the hell they’ve managed to make a game that’s supposedly infinite with a handful of people, but I’m desperate to play it.

I won’t, though, not before 2015. That there is the most disappointing thing about this presser: almost everything shown was 2015. Even the damn Ratchet and Clank movie was 2015. What is there to play on my PlayStation 4 now, apart from Entwined? Microsoft was smart to focus the majority of its morning conference on what people will be able to play before the year is out, dispelling that feeling of inertia that has dampened the excitement around the new consoles for the first half of this year. Sony’s big releases for the second half of 2014 are The Last of Us and – praise be! - GTA V, two games that most of us will have played before, superb though they are.

Where Microsoft clearly took a bunch of pointers from Sony’s press conference last year, Sony could do with taking a little direction from Microsoft this time. There was a high waffle-to-games ratio and a good 30-minute section where Shawn Layden lost me completely with PSN update chat and a TV adaptation of a comic book that could quite happily have been summed up in 90 seconds. Sony has come a long way since the infamous, two-hour-long, graph-and-jargon-stuffed press conferences of the mid ‘00s, but there’s still a lot of talk.

It wasn’t as snappy, but on the other hand it was more human. Rather than quick, impactful trailers played one after the other, there were actual human beings playing video games on the stage (and messing up from time to time, which is always endearing). Making video games feel human has been Sony’s strength since the days of the PS1; PlayStation is a large part of the reason why video games are now seen and marketed as entertainment rather than software.

Through displaying those cheesy letters from fans, getting independent developers up on stage and always bringing everything back to the fans, Sony was trying to forge a human connection with those watching rather than blow them away with slick production. It succeeded there, I think. There is still that earnest sense that Sony genuinely cares about video games and the people who make them; it’s a carefully crafted image, I’m sure, but it feels genuine. The message, like last year, was “if you really care about games, you’ll buy a PS4”.

Last year it was easy to agree with that, but things have changed. Xbox has refocused on games, too, and it’s working to regain the goodwill that was lost at last year’s E3. The Xbox One could possibly catch up to the PS4 in the release lull between now and 2015, and the PS4’s early advantage will have been squandered.

Sony’s vision for the PS4 hasn’t changed, but then it didn’t need to. It’s still talent-focused and gamer-focused, with plenty of crowd-pleasing extras. Watching the conference I felt like I was being talked to by people who care about what they’re doing rather than sold to by professional salespeople. It’s that personable touch that has won Sony so much goodwill in the past two years. It’s a stunning shift from the Sony of ten years ago, and long may it continue.