Friday, June 8, 2012

E3 2012: Microsoft and Sony Strangled

More important than things that actually matter.

So, I wrote earlier this week about how increasingly apparent it had become that Sony and Microsoft have no business being in the video game industry in the first place. They both went on to hold their respective E3 press conferences and ultimately only reinforced my statements, entirely as I expected. Even their intended 'big surprises' were the result of exceedingly poor planning and an utter lack of understanding of this industry, their place in it, or even their own small and rather rigid market demographics that their focusing on catering to all generation has only served to isolate themselves from the larger market.

Let's take a look at their trainwreck of a situation further.

Let's start with...


You might say that gaming was a second thought at best at Microsoft's press conference, but that might be giving it too much credit. This year, they really wanted you to know that you can totally do other things on Microsoft systems than play games. Like, maybe you should be doing those things instead. And perhaps investing in Microsoft's brand so they can chop off the gangrenous gaming limb and refocus on the set-top boxes the Xbox line was conceived to Trojan Horse into people's living rooms. (It's a verb now.) Also, dubstep. Lots of dubstep. You're already watching a Microsoft press conference. In case you haven't learned yet, it's time to punish your ears. You're only doing this to yourself, you know.

Hey, how about that XBox SmartGlass? You were totally looking for an awkward answer to the Wii U's GamePad screen and multifunctionality that won't actually be seriously used by anybody.  Also, everything's better with Kinect, guys. Haven't you been watching the ads? Let's pretend you're still hyped for dance games even though the genre still runs circles around Kinect on the Wii. We'r all psyched to get fit with Nike, too - I mean, there's gotta be sweatshop levels, right? Everyone with an XBox and Kinect can't get enough of fitness games, they couldn't possibly be getting consistently outsold by Wii exercise titles on a platform where motion controls weren't just an attempt at a cynical cash-in. And why we're at it, why not an Usher concert? If it's one thing people love, it's impromptu Usher concerts.

Of course, Microsoft didn't completely forget the audience that got them where they were now. I mean, you can't have a Microsoft gaming event without guns. Lots of guns. And explosions. This isn't redundant at all. Speaking of which, Gears of War 4! Halo 4! Multiplatform releases of a new Splinter Cell game, Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, that really uncomfortable Tomb Raider reboot - we hope you like hearing the constant sound of a woman in pain! - and Resident Evil 6, now with less survival horror! A game lineup perfect to sit down with with a case of Mountain Dew Gamer Fuel and get up from with diabetes! If only mashing buttons and pushing analog sticks burned more calories. You should've gotten fit with Nike.

Microsoft owes much this generation to the fact that they essentially began the generation by launching the XBox 360 first in 2005. Today, we see a confidence that they can wait as long as they please on the next generation and that they have a loyal market they can treat however they wish and they will always be there. We've all seen what that sort of hubris has done to Sony.

This confidence has led to a narrative where making a more powerful successor to Kinect a standard feature in the next XBox will somehow turn the platform into a powerful response to the Wii U - ignoring that it seems to appear that the Wii U may possibly possess the same kind of body-tracking motion controls within the Wii U GamePad's camera, allowing it to pull off the same style of gameplay, just as it carries over the ability to use all sorts of Wii-style motion controls with the Wii Remote, nunchuk, MotionPlus (And Wii Remote Plus, of course), and balance board. And the Wii U GamePad even has its own gyroscopic sensor and accelerometer like the 3DS, so the system appears to have essentially every sort of motion control option to date available on a single platform.

There's also the problem that Microsoft has largely ignored and avoided acknowledging the Kinect's own struggles - just as Sony has avoided acknowledging or addressing its own problems in general, both in stark contrast to Nintendo, where the company has openly displayed humility going to the very top and both acknowledged and addressed problems faced, changing in order to learn from their mistakes - and there's a very visible disconnect between Microsoft, whom they think they're appealing to and selling their consoles to today, and what their base actually wants. This disconnect was on full display at their E3 conference this year, with video gaming largely taking a backseat to pushing technology their market isn't buying, services that don't meaningfully enhance the video game experience, and celebrity appearances including the aforementioned Usher concert. Even South Park's Trey Parker and Matt Stone seemed to be aware of how embarrassing the event was. And the press conference's closing speech drove the disconnect home further by ending with footage of the new Call of Duty that is by no means an exclusive for an audience very capable of moving to other platforms.

With the muddled mess Microsoft has gotten themselves into, they've largely squandered the big gains the XBox 360 made over the original XBox in terms of hardware sole and marketshare - despite these gains, they've failed to do anything but lose billions of dollars again this generation, and have yet to foster an environment in a single generation in which they have a healthy platform on which most third parties can reliably make money and actually build a business. Likewise, they have a longstanding history of isolating themselves with their targeted demographics of choice and don't seem to understand that cheerily and cynically flailing at the 'dumb casual' demographic they consider to be Nintendo's market as of the Wii and DS onward will not - and is not - helping them make new inroads into broader audiences. You can't draw an audience you don't respect, let alone respect enough to make a primary focus. Nor can you draw an audience you don't understand, and the entire 'dumb casual' argument used to marginalize Nintendo and their market for the entire Wii and DS generation has been built on a foundation of entirely that - a mixture of misunderstanding and a tacit refusal to attempt to understand a more complex, discerning, and varied audience of mass market customers that they chose to disrespect from the very beginning. The moment you start thinking of any segments of the market as suckers, you deserve the financial backlash you'll ultimately receive. Sony and Microsoft are both extremely guilty of this.

In the end, at E3 this year, Microsoft came off as though they wanted to throw a party and for everyone to know they're invited, but to do so specifically to trap you in an advertising meeting and rope you into spending lots of money on movies and music streaming services. Games? Eh, here's some guns and explosions - what can possibly go wrong with resting on their laurels while in decline? While you're at it, why not XBox Live even though you can play online for free elsewhere, and hey, that Nike stuff? Let's just go ahead and get all the big monolithic corporate brands together we can and throw a big party celebrating success on the backs of human suffering and customer disrespect! We can be cool like the guy from those Sony commercials who tried to make the 1% out to be your cool pal who makes it totally clear you're an awesome dude for buying his company's products. Y'know, from before Sony couldn't afford to hire that guy anymore.

Let's keep moving.


Let's not ignore the elephant in the room. As noted in my previous post, Sony is well on its way to going out of business, and it's entirely the company's own fault. While they focused more on games than Microsoft did, they did just as good a job of revealing nothing that will shake them free of their current death spiral, and like Microsoft, no games that will dig them out of this ongoing global video game sales depression.

Of course, Sony began their conference with your usual reminder with David Cage that games are art. And pouring as much money as possible down the bottomless sewer drain called movie games has become a fond pastime of Sony's this generation. Who didn't love the clumsy, pretentious, semi-interactive student film that was Heavy Rain? There was a killer, and some plot twists, and people were sad - there was even a naked lady and you got to press X to Jason! Video games are the highest art form, you guys. After burning a huge stack of cash on a budget they could never make back - much like Capcom's own recent Dragon's Dogma - Sony opened its show with Quantic Dream's next 'game' you watch, Beyond: Two Souls. Complete with the expected lack of interactivity, and oh, hey, every other vaguely Sony platform related game needs to have 'Soul' or 'Souls' in its title lately, doesn't it? Ellen Page is in this one. Surely this is a career decision she won't later feel uncomfortable looking back on. There's no medium of storytelling more effective for conveying a compelling character drama quite like expensive CGI on a video game system, with heart-wrenching tales scripted by video game writers. I totally bet there'll be some crying, and maybe a rape controversy - like in that recent Hitman sequel trailer - I mean, the lead character is a girl, after all, and what better theme could there quietly be in video games this year than abused ladies? The men doing the vast majority of writing in video games these days totally know what lady troubles are all about. Then there was Super Smash Playstation All Stars Battle whoops. Because shamelessly attempting to copy Nintendo's own beloved franchises has worked out so well for Sony in the past - all those nobody who bought ModNation Racers couldn't help but prefer it to Mario Kart. And we all know what a smash hit Playstation Move Heroes was. Everybody loves those memorable Sony mascot characters, like that one guy named Nathan, that guy named Cole, and that other guy whose name features both Nathan and Cole as parts of it. These games totally aren't focus-grouped by design as soulless corporate piles without a shred of personality or vision. It's Sony, you guys! We all remember the Walkman.

Remember that super cool, ultra-powerful Playstation Vita portable that launched back in December in Japan, and February in the west? The one with all those sneering ads with the guy who resents having to go to work because all he wants to do is play video games, and who walked around in public staring down at his system instead of watching out for traffic when crossing the street? Apparently, Sony doesn't. But don't worry, all those franchises that didn't sell the PSP and all that nonexistent third party support in Japan will surely take Sony back to the top. I mean, graphics! Those are supposed to blow us away and win every generation. By the way, buying your own expensive proprietary memory card? Totally a feature, not a flaw. And hey, you guys love crossplay, right? It's high time you started buying multiple copies of the same game for different systems. (Vita will never be Wii U controller answer.)

Oh hey, Assassin's Creed 3! And Far Cry 3! We can all get excited about multiplatform sequels to franchises nobody's buying new game consoles for now. Stabbing people to death? SHOOTERS!? 5-6 years into this generation with hardware and software sales horribly depressed globally, we're seeing fresh, exciting new ideas at every turn. So much creativity is visible across this 'art form.'

Which brings us to a new peripheral that nobody wanted, the Wonderbook, an augmented reality edutainment device designed to work with the Move and Playstation Eye, two more peripherals the PS3 audience has ignored. Slap all of these together with the J.K. Rowling Book of Spells collaboration, and you have a holiday 2012 deal that would inevitably cost you upward of $400 including the cost of a PS3 itself, hardware not typically purchased with children in mind in the first place. Surely this won't be a lowpoint in Rowling's career. (In her defense, speaking as a writer myself, can we really expect most writers, let alone someone as successful as Rowling, to waste their life actually being informed enough about the video game industry to realize what a bad decision this is?) And the combined feature set you'd get with this hardware? Nothing you couldn't get out of the Wii U, and nothing you're not likely to see used more creatively on the Wii U, as we're going to see about as many games make use of Wonderbook as we will Microsoft's XBox SmartGlass.

A good friend of mine summed things up well when he said that Wonderbook is one of those things that reminds us why Sony lost $6 billion last year. You're not 'reinventing the storybook' with a video game peripheral that requires the ownership of an already incredibly failed peripheral. And as a writer, I can honestly say that Sony is the last company I would ever count on to 'reinvent' anything book-related. Children's book authors are probably a little more concerned with getting kids to use their imaginations than getting their parents to buy them video game systems.

Then there were the big star titles of Sony's conference, which many want to use to excuse the rest of this trainwreck, God of War: Ascension, and Naughty Dog's dead serious The Last of Us, neither of which will be seeing release until well into 2013 - funnily enough, most of the PS3 and 360 game lineup planned for this fall and holiday season has ended up shoved into the release schedule for early 2013, leaving both platforms with weaker lineups for the later part of the year than usual. And this hefty clustering during a slower game sales period in later winter and early spring will inevitably kill most of these games at retail - especially at a time when the only console hardware that will likely being seeing any kind of sales high is the Wii U.

But, ah, The Last of Us. I remember when Naughty Dog used to make fun games that brought out the kid in me. Then Jak & Daxter's sequel was forcibly pushed into awkward 'dark' territory that threw out a lot of what made the original game so fun. And then the PS3 came along and it was more important for games to 'elevate the medium' by getting worse at actually being games. Every time I read anything about what Naughty Dog does these days, I can't escape the sneaking feeling that fun is about the last thing on their minds. Much like Quantic Dream's David Cage, who seems to make you want to quit the hobby with games like Heavy Rain. Could you really blame anyone who did?

Apparently, as we've seen all generation, 'mature,' 'serious, 'forward-thinking' games aren't supposed to be concerned with fun. But pretentious student film level writing and thematic cognitive dissonance? Super cool. Also, call games art, but never, ever question what that's supposed to mean or attempt to elevate the conversation. That has a tendency to shatter simplistic preconceived false narratives. 

The Uncharted crowd will undoubtedly go wild for The Last of Us, but like the rest of Sony's major franchises and ongoing fixation on making games more like movies - telling themselves that they're telling serious stories, the mass market won't care, and the game won't move sorely needed hardware or affect the ongoing hardware slowdown. All it will do is appease the same incredibly insulated audience that isn't keeping Sony afloat or overly relevant in gaming. I've noticed that the more seriously a game takes itself, and the more important the developer and publisher behind it thinks it should be, the less the game actually makes a meaningful impact in the market. These aren't games we'll be talking about in ten, twenty years. But the earliest arcade movie games, like Don Bluth's Dragon's Lair and Space Ace? We're still playing those. It's funny.

Sony also announced that they're giving their customers a free year of PS Plus, because they would really, really like to move toward a fully paid subscription service like XBox Live, what with the whole going out of business thing. What better way to push that than by trying to sucker their customers in with the promise of 'free' games that you have to keep paying them a monthly fee to retain access to! This is after the PS3 was talked up as 'superior' to the XBox 360 because its online play was free. Meanwhile, Nintendo appears poised to outdo both XBox Live and PSN with the forthcoming Nintendo Network and Miiverse, all while keeping their services free. Unlike Sony and Microsoft, they don't slather their menus with advertisements - Sony also recently filed a software patent for a code system designed to interrupt your gameplay and show you ads. Man, Nathan Drake sure would like you to chug some BEST BRAND SODA. Better go do that. And everyone was waiting with bated breath for Playstation Mobile. Who wasn't dying to buy a Vita for games already on smartphones?

Speaking of the Playstation Vita, they had close to nothing new to announce for it, spent barely any time acknowledging its existence, and had nothing to announce that even moved PSPs. They're still forecasting massive sales for the platform this year when, realistically, it'll be clearanced and simply removed from shelves by year's end. The future of the portable market is entirely clearly Nintendo's 3DS, smartphones, and tablets. Sony didn't even try with this thing, simply shrinking down their catastrophic latest console and learning literally nothing from the mistakes that wrecked the PSP globally and made the PS3 the suicide machine it was. They've also assured us that there's no price cut coming to the Vita either, so hey, don't worry, guys - this troubled machine that nobody seems to want isn't going to get any more attractive anytime soon.

On the note of not learning a thing from their mistakes, not only are they not commenting on a new console for 2013, like Microsoft - not that Sony can afford one at this point - but they've gone on to imply that they will be launching their next console last, with the most powerful hardware yet and highest price yet again. So, should Sony actually survive to launch the fabled PS4, that's pretty much the last thing they'll get to do. It's apparent that you don't actually have to be good at business to be put in charge of a massive megacorporation, as much as many in this world love to equate wealth and power with ingenuity.

It's becoming clearer by the day that Sony is run by unqualified people who're probably surrounded by yes-men. Howard Stringer wasn't a great leader for Sony and he made a poor choice in grooming Kaz Hirai, who rode the Playstation brand into the ground, as his successor. Following the financial catastrophe of the PS3 with the failures of Move and Vita, even considering a new home Playstation console is approaching the event horizon of the kind of ridiculousness the company can endure before it collapses completely. We're already seeing its stocks hitting its lowest lows since the early '80s, and it's lost over 40% of its value since Hirai took over earlier this year, and its plummet is only continuing.

The Bottm Line

Where E3 hasn't helped Sony's stock, Microsoft's has continued its fall as well. It's readily apparent from outside of the Microsoft bubble that what they're pursuing isn't anything with a viable future in the video game industry.

Microsoft entered gaming in hopes of becoming a powerful set-top box producer getting Microsoft hardware and software hooked up to every home's television possible - a Trojan Horse for their brand. It's not about gaming, and it never was about gaming - that was nothing more than a conduit. And it's a conduit that hasn't worked - they're not heading into the territory they were hoping for so they could largely drop their focus on gaming and change strategies. But the set-top box focus in today's modern consoles has given rise to the popular alternative use of platforms like the Wii as places to watch streaming videos from services like Netflix and Hulu Plus. HBO Go now appears to be on the way, and Google seems to be creating dedicated YouTube applications for every platform they can too. And with video streaming shown possible on the Wii U's browser, I suspect it'll be possible to watch regular Hulu streams directly on one's television through that as though on a computer when the system launches as well.

While there are already very successful and affordable dedicated streaming set-top boxes out there like the Roku, we've only seen one gaming console brand build itself more meaningfully through such set-top box features in Nintendo's Wii, and all of this is continuing on with the 3DS and Wii U. And certainly, there's been no lack of use for Netflix streaming on the PS3 and 360 as well, but the majority of their additional set-top features have been regarded as more extraneous than vital or meaningfully expansionary for these platforms. To put it bluntly, they're not selling points. Nintendo's focus, on the other hand, is still on primarily selling their platforms as gaming systems, but all the additional set-top box features have their known avid audiences and they're a very nice extra that certainly add value, but they aren't hyped and pushed as the reason to buy their systems, as opposed to with Microsoft. Gaming has backfired on them, and now they're facing steeper set-top box competition. In retrospect, they probably shouldn't have tried to force their way into an industry in which they had no serious ambition in the first place. They should have just gone for what their end goal always was. Back when set-top boxes weren't yet commonplace.

And visibly, we saw much time spent at Sony and Microsoft's conferences shamelessly copying the competition. While the Wii U is essentially its own unique thing and if anything, comparable to being a sort of ultimate evolution of the Dreamcast controller, Nintendo Network and Miiverse are not shaping up to be the carbon copies of XBox Live and PSN that people were hoping for from Nintendo, but rather turning out to be a leap beyond. This is in defiance of low expectations after Nintendo's hesitation to set up a modern online network after having dabbled in online features and content longer than their competitors, going all the way back to the days of Satellaview on the SNES in Japan. Sony and Microsoft are shamelessly ripping off each other and Nintendo to no great success for it, while Nintendo's working on blazing its own trails as per usual, though it's only a matter of time, no doubt, before we start seeing Sony and Microsoft copping their newly unveiled Miiverse social features and trying to add similar additions to to Live and PSN. Sony was able to succeed in gaining a foothold in gaming in the first place by copying Nintendo and exploiting a massive market gap created by errors on the parts of both Nintendo and Sega at the time in the later mid-'90s. That era is long past, and copying the competition has proven to be a surefire way to failure in gaming today, where the features Sony and Microsoft pull from Nintendo platforms aren't even unified or standardized, as opposed Nintendo's ongoing efforts in the past decade to bring essentially every method of gameplay input imaginable together, rather than conservatively clinging to one basic controller design for an increasingly limited range of gameplay experiences. The one big thing aside from haphazardly expensive graphics that Sony and Microsoft had over Nintendo this past generation was online play - now they won't even have that, and the industry can't afford another gigantic graphical leap forward.

In the end, Nintendo's half-hour Nintendo Direct on the Wii U alone was more exciting than the entire contents of Sony and Microsoft's conferences. They have three conferences this year, and any one of them alone would be enough to 'win' this year's E3. Once again at E3 2012, we've seen another clash between the new and exciting and more of the same and stagnation, with only a scattering of major titles and the middle market having mostly vanished on Sony and Microsoft's platforms due to the destructively high development costs. Ultimately, the two megacorporations only served to remind us again that the industry and market need Nintendo. And while Nintendo didn't exactly pull out all the stops and announce new installments in every major traditional series like people had hoped, they did deliver the strong conferences needed to assert not only their continued position of industry and market leadership, but to expand that further. I'll be getting that to my next post, my final fully E3-focal one.


Eric said...
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