In business, it's only natural to look across the board at the competition. Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo all keep a close eye on one another to see how respective strategies and product lines are evolving. According to ex-Lionhead leader Peter Molyneux, the Microsoft camp actually looks at Sony "obsessively."
In a wide-ranging interview with Molyneux last week at E3, GamesIndustry International prefaced a general question about Sony with our own comment that Molyneux and people in even higher offices at Microsoft must be constantly looking at Sony. Molyneux quickly noted, "Yes, very much so. Obsessively so."
Overall, Molyneux believes Sony's own first-party studio system could be its savior, but he's not sure the company's corporate troubles will enable them to flourish.
"If Sony can double down on those first party developers, give them the headroom to be inventive and be creative, especially when it comes it any next gen platform, then they could pull lots of rabbits out of the hat"
"Sony has always had a very strong first person line-up, which I think is incredibly smart. They've got good developers. They've got some very talented developers. The way I always feel with Sony is that if they double down on those first party developers, give them the headroom to be inventive and be creative, especially when it comes it any next generation platform, then they could pull lots of rabbits out of the hat," he remarked.
"What I worry about, with their corporate pressure and the pressure on costs, I worry about the ability to do that. More and more - and this is a personal thing - I just don't know where they're going in hardware terms. They had the Move, but it wasn't as early as the Wii and it wasn't as innovational as Kinect. They seem to be third in line in that race. I have expected, every single press conference for the last year, Sony to bring out this magic rabbit out from a huge hat and say, 'Aha, world. You really don't realize what's going on.' And I do worry about them."
Sizing up Microsoft's E3 showing, Molyneux commented, "I thought it was a very smart move on their behalf to focus on demos. And actually, I thought EA's line, 'You're going to see ten great demos from ten great developers,' you could have said the same for Microsoft. I felt there wasn't nearly as much Kinect stuff as previous years, which was a little bit of a surprise and a shock to me."
He continued, "I like the SmartGlass thing that they were talking about but I didn't completely understand it. I'd like to have seen more examples of it. It sounded like it was a big thing, because here's Microsoft supporting Apple. It really didn't get a lot of play for that. I like the Nike Fitness product. I thought [the conference] was good. It was, as usual, super hyper-professional. They finished on the second. But what did it tell us about them structurally in the next two, three years? I don't think it said anything about it. I think - in fact, it almost painted a stone wall in my mind. It was like they were holding their breath and waiting for something else"
Molyneux sees all the console makers as struggling to deal with the reality that they're no longer the only game in town in 2012.
"It's always shocked me about how little Microsoft cared about the Windows platform. There was hardly a single talk about Windows 8 at all. You would've thought, with a billion installed machines, there would be at least some play"
"It's going to be an interesting problem for all the console manufacturers I think. It's because so much computer entertainment, is spreading and diversifying over so many different platforms. They no longer have the luxury of keeping us all funneled into these consoles. A whole lot of manufacturers in the industry have been in a luxurious position for so long, where they could restrict the entertainment content to the masses. They did a very good job of squeezing the PC out and making this just about three formats and now it feels like it's sand dripping through their fingers. It's escaping from them," he observed.
Speaking of the PC, Molyneux was also surprised by Microsoft's continued lack of attention to the PC format for gamers.
"I would hope the next generation would bring about a new wave of innovation. If we don't do that in consoles, then you will find that those people that want innovation will start retreating to other formats. Look at the PC. It's incredible to me how there's been a resurgence in PC gaming. There's a lot more innovation now... I think that's the other thing about the Microsoft press conference. It's always shocked me about how little Microsoft cared about the Windows platform. There was hardly a single talk about Windows 8 at all. You would've thought, with a billion installed machines, there would be at least some play. And the whole metro interface is much more gamified, but there was no talk about it at all," Molyneux said.
Ultimately, with so many platforms available to developers aside from consoles, it can be confusing for game developers, but the new landscape also creates many opportunities.
"[PR] did two things. They stopped me from saying the wrong corporate thing, but they also stopped me from making a fool of myself. It's very easy to do that now. Very, very easy"
"This is exactly why I left Microsoft," Molyneux, who recently formed 22 Cans, remarked. "I think as a creative person, as someone who loves creativity and loves embracing ideas, this seemed like the perfect time to set up another company and find enough people that believed in one focused idea, crazy though that idea might be, that embraces all this new technology rather than try to ignore it. And the only way I found that I was able to do that was in a start up because there are so many political things that have to go on in existing games development, whether they're supporting retail or supporting some format that's out there. I think only a little start-up can totally embrace that newness and the excitement that's going on."
And as a bonus it's certainly liberating for someone as outspoken as Peter Molyneux. He related to us how it's been a breath of fresh air to be able to talk without restrictions.
"It is very, very difficult when you're a developer owned by a publisher because when you're talking it's not just your voice. It's the voice of your team, which is 200 persons strong; it's the voice of the whole of Microsoft," he said, reflecting on Lionhead. "And that has to be measured, and so at one point, at Microsoft, totally understandably, there would be one journalist in the room and three or four PR people just writing everything down. Now there's nobody. That took me a bit of while to get used to. You almost expect someone to pop up and look in the room and say, 'Well, you can't say that.'"
It does have its downside though: "Freedom is a dangerous drug to take. It is very dangerous because [PR] did two things. They stopped me from saying the wrong corporate thing, but they also stopped me from making a fool of myself. It's very easy to do that now. Very, very easy."