Microsoft and Sony both had Gamescom press briefings yesterday, giving the two console makers another chance to build momentum for their hardware heading into the holiday season.
Microsoft went first, putting a clear focus on its line-up of high-profile exclusive offerings. The crown jewel of the company's conference was the revelation that Square Enix's Rise of the Tomb Raider would be exclusive to Xbox One, but Microsoft devoted plenty of time to exclusives like Sunset Overdrive, Forza Horizon 2, Quantum Break, Fable Legends, Ori and the Blind Forest, the newly announced ScreamRide, and the Halo franchise. Indies also got a bit of love with ID@Xbox efforts like Space Engineers, Smite, and Below receiving featured placement in the show. Finally, Microsoft pushed its hardware hard, confirming three new console bundles for gamers this holiday season.
Sony fired back, kicking off its show with the news that the PlayStation 4 had sold through 10 million systems to date. And while it didn't have an exclusive bombshell of the Tomb Raider variety, Sony packed its show with new game announcements, from Q-Games' The Tomorrow Children to Ruffian Games' Hollowpoint to Ninja Theory's Hellblade. There was also a Tearaway adaptation for PS4, Housemarque's Alienation, and Wild, the first title from Michel Ancel's new side project, Wild Sheep Studio. And while it's not new or exclusive, a special nod has to be given to Hideo Kojima for devoting the lengthy Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain segment to specifically detailing the myriad ways players can use a cardboard box in the game.
So what really mattered here? How effective will Tomb Raider be in wooing gamers over to Xbox One? Is Sony losing its indie dev advantage? Given these announcements, who are the winners and losers of Gamescom?
As a gamer, I loved Sony's show. It paid lip service to the blockbusters like Destiny and Far Cry 4, but the focus was on the new, the ambitious, and the unusual. It was about Wild, Rime, Hellblade, The Tomorrow Children, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, Until Dawn, and Alienation. It was about giving the criminally underappreciated Tearaway a new audience, about giving unproven ideas a platform through which they might succeed. But as an industry watcher, I recognize that's not necessarily something consumers look for, much less value.
"Given what we know about all these games, Microsoft had a stronger exclusive lineup on display. The thing is, Microsoft had that same advantage last November when the PS4 and Xbox One launched."
Microsoft's briefing seemed much more in tune with what consumers have wanted for years. It was FIFA and Call of Duty and Halo. It was AAA exclusives like Sunset Overdrive, Quantum Break, and Rise of the Tomb Raider. And you can't say they ignored the indie scene, either, featuring interesting new titles like Below and Ori and the Blind Forest.
Given what we know about all these games, Microsoft had a stronger exclusive lineup on display. The thing is, Microsoft had that same advantage last November when the PS4 and Xbox One launched. Even today, Dead Rising 3, Ryse: Son of Rome, and Forza 5 sound a whole lot better than Killzone: Shadowfall and Knack.
But early adopters went with Sony's system by a wide margin. Part of that was because it was cheaper. Part of that was because of Microsoft's botched marketing heading into the launch. But the gamer in me hopes that another part of it was emblematic of a shift in what the gaming community values, and what content it's willing to support. Now that Microsoft has its messaging straight and eliminated the PS4's price advantage, we'll start to see just how big a shift has actually taken place.
At the risk of echoing Brendan, I'd have to say that Sony can put yet another feather in its cap this generation. Sony's presentation at Gamescom had a breadth of content for all sorts of gamers that Microsoft just can't match. Wild from Michel Ancel and the Celda-looking Rime both have me personally very excited, and I've yet to see creative pursuits on that level for Xbox One.
"The biggest takeaway for me is that while Microsoft's approach appears to be commercially driven, Sony's feels creatively driven."
The biggest takeaway for me is that while Microsoft's approach appears to be commercially driven, Sony's feels creatively driven. That may be a superficial difference, because at the end of the day these are both massive businesses and the bottom line certainly matters, but Sony's developer-first focus is enabling it to win the hearts and minds of both indies and gamers, and that's actually helping the bottom line (creativity and money don't always have to clash).
With the Kinect now properly unbundled, Microsoft is trying to lure consumers in with new software bundles, but again, this is commercial thinking. Microsoft has the money to invest in exclusive deals like Tomb Raider, but instead of throwing cash at development deals, it should be investing far more heavily in building up its own studio structure, which feels ridiculously overmatched by the folks at Sony Worldwide Studios at the moment. No offense to Lara Croft and the great work on the franchise recently by Crystal Dynamics, but that alone isn't going to give Xbox One any leg up or allow Microsoft to suddenly close the sales gap with PS4.
To be fair, Microsoft's been steadily taking steps to improve its messaging and its software portfolio on Xbox One, and as EA's Peter Moore likes to often point out, it's early days. We're not even a full year into either system's life, millions upon millions of gamers have yet to purchase either console, and a lot can happen in this industry in a very short time. Do you remember how people were burying the PS3 after its launch? Xbox One has a lot of potential and isn't remotely in a situation like that.
Surprisingly, at these Gamescom presentations, Microsoft had the energy and excitement and audience enthusiasm, while Sony's staging was rather flat and the audience was mostly silent. Despite that, both companies showed an impressive array of games coming up, and both featured indies prominently. Microsoft seemed to generate more immediate excitement with the upcoming Halo Master Chief Collection, while most of Sony's more impressive exclusives are something to look forward to for 2015.
"I expect to see a picture of Kinect on the next milk carton I buy, because it certainly went missing from Microsoft's presentation."
As is almost always the case at company presentations, what wasn't said was also very interesting. I expect to see a picture of Kinect on the next milk carton I buy, because it certainly went missing from Microsoft's presentation. It's become persona non grata at Microsoft, not even given a nod or a wink - much less a mention of Harmonix's fascinating Disney Fantasia: Music Evolved or other titles that use Kinect. Sony did almost the same thing with the PS Vita, though the Vita did get an offhand mention once or twice - more than Kinect garnered. Sony mentioned Project Morpheus, PlayStation Now, and PS TV as evidence of continuing innovation, though the only new detail forthcoming was that PS TV will be launching across Europe at €99. Otherwise, these all remain interesting ideas that you can't buy yet.
Microsoft may be well behind Sony in the number of consoles sold, but it seems to be on an even footing now with pricing and many exclusives coming up. Microsoft's got several bundles on the way, but Sony will probably get into that action this fall. Sony will probably maintain its sales edge over Microsoft for some time to come--and maybe for years. But buyers of either console won't lack for interesting games to play. Both companies will probably spend a lot on marketing this fall, so expect to be bombarded with messages about where the best place to play games is located.
One thing to remember: All the games looked great in the trailers and demos, but as Ryse showed us all too well, pretty pictures don't necessarily mean a great game. Don't be surprised if some of these games that looked great in the trailers turn out to be much less exciting when you play them. In the end, that's going to be the biggest challenge facing both Sony and Microsoft - keeping players from the disappointment of spending $60 on a game that isn't very good.
I hate to say, once again it feels like Microsoft has misjudged its audience and irritated potential future customers. For all its Gamescom pomp and bluster, the one piece of news people took away from the show was that Rise of the Tomb Raider would be an Xbox One exclusive. And there were only two real reactions to that news: anger, or the giving of precisely zero [redacted].
"PC gamers, PlayStation owners, they're all rolling their eyes, placing bets on when the 'exclusive' will run out. What they're not doing is ordering an Xbox One."
People aren't going to buy an Xbox One for Tomb Raider, the audience that already has that consoles has shown that they're not hugely enthusiastic about the franchise, so all you've really achieved is seeming evil to people who love games and who haven't bought your console... yet. PC gamers, PlayStation owners, they're all rolling their eyes, placing bets on when the "exclusive" will run out. What they're not doing is ordering an Xbox One. (And there's not enough space here to explore what Square Enix was thinking, other than, "for the love of god let's take the money.")
Sony, meanwhile, decided to just flood the room with games and flashy montages and LOUD NOISES. Not one person watching could list all the titles that got a mention, but I guarantee you there was something in there that made them tweet a smiley face. Destiny for the AAA whoopers, Michel Ancel for the indie kids and Drive Club for people who really like weather.
Ultimately this is an industry where people want to pay you to make them feel happy. It seems like Microsoft hasn't quite figured that out yet.