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E3: Action Station

Comment: Sony declares war on cross-platform development

After years of telling us precisely nothing with a great deal of hyperbole, Sony seems to have decided to repent for its PR sins by telling us everything all at once, albeit with just as much hyperbole as ever. The volume of information about PS3 revealed at the firm's pre-E3 conference earlier this week is so great that it's actually difficult to pick through it and see what's really important or surprising.

Is it the price and launch date that leaps out? Not really; the price is in line with expectations (a bit expensive for a console, quite cheap for a Blu-Ray player with digital distribution functionality and so on; vocal gamers don't like it, of course, but ultimately we all know that the system is going to sell out every single unit that's shipped at launch anyway), the launch dates are exactly what we thought they would be, and really the only surprising thing is that they chose to announce these parts of the plan now, rather than in Leipzig or at TGS, as we'd all expected.

How about the software line-up? Again, there were few surprises here, although some people will be taken aback by how far progressed much of the software we saw was - some may even be surprised by the presence of any playable software on the show floor at all. The message on the software front was simple - namely, that everything is going according to plan - but there was an important subtext here, too. Sony's confidence in its E3 software line-up will be tested by the hordes at the show over the rest of the week, but for now there's little doubt that the PS3's development schedule is more advanced than the Xbox 360's was this time last year, when games were still running on PowerMac-based development kits with only 25 per cent of the power of the final hardware.

Of course, that doesn't matter so much to what will happen this November; PS3 games will be compared with second and third wave Xbox 360 games, not with launch titles, and quite rightly so. However, one thing you can take away from this showing is that the PlayStation 3's launch titles will certainly have benefited from the extra year of next-generation experience developers have garnered since the launch of Xbox 360. Whether that will justify the extra cost of the system and its tardy arrival is another question entirely.

No, if we were to pick one aspect of Sony's presentation which was surprising, it was the controller - on one hand, a return to the classic and successful lines of the Dual Shock, but on the other hand, a genuine departure for the firm's vision of how people will control console games. The motion sensor in the controller has been compared directly to Nintendo's Wii controller - often in outraged tones by fans on web forums - but that comparison is hardly fair, at least not to Nintendo. Sony's system is far more simple and traditional; it is an evolution of what the company has done before, and simply bolts a new feature on to a very familiar pad; Nintendo is attempting a genuine revolution in user interface.

However, even if Sony's surprising new controller isn't half the departure that Nintendo's Wii is, it's still a great new feature for the PS3 - and perhaps more importantly, it's a very interesting strategic move from the company, one whose repercussions are still being considered and analysed across the industry. In one fell swoop, Sony has won itself something which many critics had accused it of lacking in the next generation - a differentiator.

That's no idle criticism, either. While features such as Blu-Ray are very nice in some respects, they don't actually do very much for games - at least, not in a way that's seriously visible to the user - and as such are practically irrelevant to people who want a games console, not a home media device. That's a key consideration; after all, not only is the success of Blu-Ray in the battle with HD-DVD far from guaranteed, so too is the success of either format in the face of the explosion in digital distribution and potential consumer apathy to high-definition content.

Building motion sensing hardware into the pad, however, gives Sony something on the gaming front that Microsoft quite distinctly does not have. That's a vitally important factor, when you take it in light of the conventional industry wisdom which says that nearly every game developed by a third-party publisher in the coming years will be cross-platform on both Xbox 360 and PS3, with little to choose between the two in terms of features and functionality. Suddenly, developers will be dreaming up titles with control mechanisms which either won't work on the Xbox 360, or will be stripped down to run on the 360 without the motion sensing technology; it's not the end of cross-platform development, of course, but it's certainly a positive in Sony's column when consumers come to choosing which version of a game to buy, or more importantly, which consoles they'd like to play their cross-platform titles on.

For Sony, that's a truly vital step - even if it wasn't necessarily the thinking behind the motion sensor in the first place. After all, looking back over the past four years of the current generation machines, it's clear that the one big loser from cross-platform development has been Sony. Very few titles have ever been converted from another console to the PS2 - Resident Evil 4 being an obvious but rare counter-example - but a great many were developed on PS2 originally and then ported to Xbox and GameCube, with every port losing Sony both licensing money and market share. Xbox ports were especially damaging given the superior hardware in Microsoft's box, which generally meant that the Xbox version would be the best of any given cross-platform title.

Sony, frankly, could do with reversing, or at least slowing down, that trend - and between Blu-Ray and the motion sensing functionality, it may now have the tools at its disposal to do exactly that. What remains to be seen, of course, is to what extent developers actually take advantage of those features. Few of the PS3 launch titles are likely to use motion sensing in any meaningful way, simply because most developers only became aware of the functionality this week, and have not planned it into titles whose development schedules are probably already looking daunting. Others will undoubtedly treat it as a gimmick whose loss will not be felt strongly by Xbox 360 gamers - but Sony will remain hopeful that some third parties will exploit the new pad to the fullest. If they do, the firm's secret weapon may prove to be a very powerful one indeed.

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Rob Fahey avatar
Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.