It wasn't hard to make sense of most of what happened at E3 this year; with Sony and Microsoft, along with many of the publishers, approaching the conference rather conservatively, there were few truly surprising announcements. Even those that were unexpected were fairly in line with what we've come to expect from the companies involved; it feels like most firms have fallen into a fairly well defined role this generation.
One thing that didn't make any sense to me, though, was Sony's treatment of PlayLink - the firm's new initiative to allow smartphones to be used as PS4 controllers for a range of casual party games. Denied a spot in Sony's conference itself, it was relegated to being promoted largely through demos at the show and a set of YouTube videos.
"While other games may be more exciting, PlayLink may be the single most important thing Sony brought to E3"
It's now rumoured that PlayLink was actually meant to be in the conference, but didn't make it because of last minute wifi problems. That makes quite a bit of sense; the smartphones used to control games all need to be on the same wifi network as the PS4, and as anyone who's tried to do live updates from one of these events can tell you, the wifi tends to be utterly unreliable. It makes far more sense that this kind of technical issue would have pushed PlayLink off the schedule than Sony not seeing the value in giving it a broad stage, because while other games may be more exciting, PlayLink may be the single most important thing Sony brought to E3.
For those who haven't seen the system at work, a brief summary; PlayLink isn't a game, it's a platform consisting of a free app for iOS or Android, which hooks up to any PlayLink-enabled game on the PS4. Thus far the company has shown off a handful of games ranging from a quiz title that's reminiscent of the Buzz franchise, some minigame titles and an interesting game from Supermassive called Hidden Agenda that allows a group of people to vote on narrative choices in an interactive detective story. Each of these will be released separately on the PlayStation Store, with the pricing yet to be announced.
"For all its success in so many other ways, PS4 isn't a good platform for 'friends on a sofa' multiplayer experiences"
Though I think this is an important step for Sony, it should be noted from the outset that it's not entirely a new idea. Using the smartphone as a second screen is something Microsoft previously attempted with SmartGlass (though that's died a death in recent years), and Sony also tried something similar with the PS Vita. In fact, one of the announced PlayLink titles is a Singstar game, which isn't really new at all; the ability to use a smartphone as a Singstar microphone has been around for a few years.
What's different about PlayLink is that this implementation is doing the idea right; it's not requiring players to own custom hardware (seriously, even if someone had created a great party game using PS Vita as the controller, how many people could get together that many Vita-owning friends?) and it's focusing on the casual end of the market, unlike SmartGlass which positioned itself as a second screen to enhance core titles. This latter part is important, because this is an area where PS4 has done a fairly poor job thus far - and PlayLink may be Sony's most promising effort yet to fill in that gap.
For all its success in so many other ways, PS4 isn't a good platform for 'friends on a sofa' multiplayer experiences. Nintendo remains king of this area, and it's notable that you only need one extra Switch controller to be able to play four-player party games; the company is keenly aware that titles like Smash Bros and Mario Kart are the bread and butter of its consoles for many consumers, precisely because they're so good for playing socially with friends.
"PlayLink does not live or die on its first few titles; the software is there, and the barrier to entry is negligible"
Yet it's not long ago that Sony also had significant offerings in this area. Singstar has lost focus in recent years but, along with Buzz and a handful of other party titles, it was an absolute staple of the latter years of the PS2. The effect it had in terms of driving PS2 beyond the core gamer demographic and boosting the console to its record-breaking final sales tally shouldn't be underestimated.
That's exactly the same challenge which now faces the PS4 - finding ways to go beyond the core demographic and unlocking access to the tens of millions of casual consumers it takes to push a console past 100 million sales. Core gamers are being very well catered to on PS4 (and of course, one aspect of this challenge is that it's important not to lose focus on your existing customers while you try to engage with new ones), and launches like PS4 Pro and PSVR are very much designed to maintain Sony's edge in that area. PlayLink is the first thing the company has done in a few years that seems to be really focused on the other end of the market; the more casual player for whom a console under the TV isn't about long hours spent on deep single-player or online multiplayer experiences, but about something fun and interesting to do with friends.
What makes PlayLink a good fit for that challenge is the fact that it's not an investment. Buzz and Singstar both suffered from the curse of the custom peripheral to some degree, and this undoubtedly caused a diminishing returns effect. Combined with Sony's reputation for getting bored of its peripherals after a fairly short space of time (a reputation which it is thankfully not living down to with PSVR), and the fact that PS4 is already quite firmly established in consumers' minds as a "solo" rather than "social" console, a casual / party game effort that relied on custom hardware would be very hard to get off the ground at this stage - and a weak launch would kill the idea forever.
PlayLink, however, does not live or die on its first few titles; the software is there, and the barrier to entry is negligible, so the door will remain open for developers to create new PlayLink enabled titles without having to worry about the installed base of a supported peripheral or anything of the sort.
This is not to say, of course, that Sony doesn't need to work hard on this; capturing a casual audience for a console which doesn't really have one yet is a job that requires significant investment and support. Moreover, it's likely that PlayLink will appeal to quite a few mobile developers, who will also need a fair bit of Sony backing as they dip their toes into the console waters. It's an important project, and hopefully Sony recognises that importance and is willing to give it the long-term backing and support required to make it a real success.