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Why Super Mario was PlayStation's real E3 nemesis

With so many mainstream and casual gamers to attract, Sony will be more worried about Switch than Xbox One X

Ever since the decline of the Wii, the headlines coming out of E3 have been dominated by a single recurring storyline: PlayStation vs Xbox.

Both companies were targeting similar audiences with similar games, and following E3 2013 (when Sony completed its comeback), each show has been PlayStation's to lose.

However, this year the stage was set for the Xbox fightback. It had pulled together the most powerful games console yet in Xbox One X. The narrative had been pre-written: this was Microsoft's best chance in years.

Sony couldn't really combat this directly, so instead delivered a roll call of the triple-A games it is working on (many of which are due out over the next 18 months). The message was that, although Xbox may have the power, if you want the biggest games then you'd best stick with PlayStation.

The contest between PS4 Pro and Xbox One X for the attention of the core gamer is real... it's just not the most important. Both machines are squabbling over an audience that already owns an existing console or gaming PC. These 4K devices are a good way to future-proof the generation and keep fans engaged, but they're not about to radically change the fortunes of either company.

"The contest between PS4 Pro and Xbox One X for the attention of the core gamer is real... it's just not the most important"

Indeed, the real battle is something we didn't see on stage at either press event. It's the one for the attention of the more casual and mainstream consumer; kids, families, mums, dads and everyone in between.

This is particularly true of PlayStation, which, with over 60 million consoles sold, has been looking to that broader market for some time now. This is the point in the lifecycle, with console pricing at a more affordable level, when you start to see products like Kinect or EyeToy or Wonderbook - the sort of concepts designed to attract people who don't know the difference between God of War and Gears of War.

Sony actually announced one of those mainstream projects this week, although you wouldn't have known it by watching its press conference. PlayLink, which is a social gaming concept for PS4 where players use smartphones to control a series of asymmetric multiplayer games, was announced via a press release once the PlayStation conference had ended. The concept is simple, the games have a budget price-point, the control interface is intuitive and, as an added bonus, it uses an accessory that most people already own. It's as mass market as they come.

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PlayLink will be supported by a series of budget-priced games that emphasise fun and competitive play

PlayLink is an evolution of Nintendo's ill-fated Wii U - only this time everyone gets a second screen. There's a number of games due out this year, and based on what we played it's actually a lot of fun. It's not going to be an easy sell, but if Sony's marketing teams can target the social gamers within its audience (those who enjoy regular games of Cards Against Humanity), then there's every chance the concept could spread virally.

Unfortunately for Sony, just as it's looking to do this, Nintendo has decided to stage its own comeback.

Nintendo prides itself on broad appeal, and the versatility of Switch will be attractive to a more mainstream market - even at its relatively high price point. What's more, this was a strong E3 for the company, headlined by the promising Super Mario Odyssey and featuring several local multiplayer games that target the same audience as PlayLink (including Rocket League, Splatoon and Arms).

Sony's sales and marketing boss Jim Ryan spoke with us yesterday (more from him later). He only had nice things to say about Switch. He told us that if Nintendo can win back casual consumers to the console space, then that's a good thing for PlayStation and Xbox.

There's some truth to that. Even so, as Sony continues its march towards 100 million sales, it may find Nintendo Switch (and the buzz around Super Mario) will prove to be its most challenging obstacle to overcome.

More so than any flashy 4K Xbox.

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