At a packed press conference earlier this week in Cologne, where the monstrous Gamescom event is being held, the company laid out its final pre-release vision for the machine. And it's all about games. Sure, there's a roster of video services (with LoveFilm and BBC iPlayer heading up the UK offering), but whether we're talking discs or digital distribution, triple-A publishers or one-person teams, it is and always has been about games.
On the opening day of Gamescom, I'm sitting with Andrew House, the president of Sony Computer Entertainment. At the conference the night before, in front of a global online audience, he had berated Microsoft for the mixed, confused positioning of its Xbox One console launch. At first it was going to be a digital-focused machine, with discs relegated to a secondary position; there would be no traditional pre-owned game sales, there would be a requirement for near-constant internet connection. But in a historic mea culpa the then-president of interactive entertainment, Don Mattrick, backtracked on the harshest of the DRM measures. Sony wasn't going to let this go.
'While others have shifted their message and changed their story,' said House during the press event, 'we were consistent in maintaining a message that is fair and in tune with consumer desires.'
I'm going to get this over with early, I tell him. 'Oh no,' he says, in mock horror, 'when a journalist says that to you, you know it's bad.' I bring up the Xbox One dig.
'Yeah, I did reference it last night, I did open the door to the question,' he admits. And it all goes back to that initial Xbox One proposition, unveiled at the Microsoft campus back in May – that the console would be a digital-media machine, that everything was shifting, that game discs were all but obsolete. The whole thing has been warped and misrepresented since, but the message coming from Redmond was that gamers would have to get used to a new way of purchasing and playing games. We tend to stay away from over analysing what the competition is up to,' continues House. 'But I'll characterise it this way: I was surprised … we constructed our E3 presentation because there was somehow a suspicion that the policies and approaches taken by our competition would create an industry trend in that direction. The reason we made such a strong statement at E3, and continue to do so, is because we were surprised by that.
'We thought perhaps slightly naively that the current model worked quite well and was consumer friendly – and our goal was to be consistent on that. But given the speculation that was happening there, it apparently became necessary for us to make a statement and say what our intent was.'
So, as it was euphorically proclaimed at Sony's E3 press show, PlayStation 4 supports pre-owned game sales and doesn't require online authentication.
There are limits to this system, and there was intriguing potential in the Xbox One proposition, but for House the key thing is consistency: 'As I said in my presentation last night, we have some very clear and defined goals about what we want this next generation of gaming to be, and what a new platform should deliver; we feel right now that we're on track to deliver that.
'We also wanted people to tangibly asses how much pent up demand there seems to be for a new generation of games. It's even taken us a little bit by surprise, but I've been hearing it consistently from retailers and publishers.
'Maybe it's just that the current lifecycle has been rather more prolonged than it has been previously, but there does seem to be this demand. The fact that we've got in excess of a million pre-orders at this stage is a very strong testament to the fact that people are really interested in games, they're interested in new and more powerful consoles and what those can deliver. But also there's an interest in different experiences, which is why we feel embracing the independent developer community is so important to this generation.'
That has, of course, come across with resounding effect. At both E3 and Gamescom, Sony has given a considerable amount of its conference time to indie titles. This week, amid the Triple A announcements, the company has revealed Everybody's Gone to the Rapture, a spooky apocalyptic adventure from experimental UK studio The Chinese Room. It has revealed a new PS4 title from cult shoot-em-up developer Housemarque – the visually gorgeous Resogun. It shouted about the new Vambleer title, Wasteland Kings; about how indie faves The Binding of Isaac, Guns of Icarus and Rogue Legacy are coming to PS4 in various revamps.
Microsoft is now touting its very promising ID@XBox programme, which aims to support smaller studios, but the word at Gamescom has been 'It's too late, guys. Sony has land-grabbed the indie scene.'
But, really, isn't this all about vanity and messaging? Isn't it a seductive wink at those hardcore early adopters? Can indie really make a difference?
'I draw an analogy with movies,' says House. 'There are parallels in the sense that the film business has remained vibrant over the decades because it is characterised both by expensive high-end content from Hollywood, and also by quirky arthouse films with new emerging talent.
'Two things have changed since the last hardware generation. One is the shift to digital distribution, which has just completely reduced some of those inherent barriers to entry. The second is mobile platforms, which have provided an onramp for developers, a very easy platform on which to engage with small teams.
'Our goal is to be the platform that embraces both ends of the spectrum; our role should be to offer a creative palette that's equally as engaging to a team of seven people who are just emerging with their first console game as it is to a team of many hundreds backed by a large publisher, working on the latest instalment of a high-end blockbuster. The consumer wants both.
'The parallel you see is also in TV content: there were theories that the emergence of YouTube would ring the death knell for quality content – but now we have House of Cards and Game of Thrones. Consumers still want these engaging, long-form experiences. The same is true of games.'
Microsoft has yet to reveal the Xbox One launch date, but it will be in November, at least for North America. It's the closest console face-off for many years, perhaps since the concept of console wars began. For House, this is a good thing – or at least that's what he says.
'At the risk of sounding over-optimistic, I think there is a huge benefit for the industry overall in having two platforms launch very close together,' he says. 'It creates a large focus on our form of entertainment that wouldn't exist unless there were these two powerful organisations, both playing in the same space.
'I think it's already happening in that there's so much strong interest, so much excitement and demand – I mean, over a million pre-orders for PS4 at this stage before launch I think says something very powerful. Competition is a good thing for this industry, offering choice is a good thing. These are all positives.'
Coming next: Phil Spencer, corporate vice president of Microsoft Studios, gives his take on the console wars – and what Xbox One has in store … This article was written by Keith Stuart, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 21st August 2013 23.39 Europe/London
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