E3 2008 – The Top 5 Things I Learned from the Sony Press Conference

Wrapping up my three part series recounting my reactions to the E3 2008 Press Conference offered up by the Big Three (Microsoft, Nintendo, Sony), I present the final installment.

For those who have followed along, on Tuesday I posted my thoughts and opinions on Microsoft’s shin dig. Thursday saw my Nintendo reaction. Leaving, of course, Sony. While all three companies devoted time to elements outside of their core consoles (in particular Nintendo covered their DS handheld and Sony the PSP) – I’ve catered my comments towards the consoles. (Uh oh – here comes my 10th Grade English Teacher – aka the Alliteration Police).

Remember, next week I’ll launch a three part series featuring The Top Five Games That I’ve Just Got to Play (per console).

Without further adieu, I present The Top Five Things I Learned From Sony’s Press Conference.

5.   The New SKU Review

Is it just me or does Microsoft and Sony launch and retire a new SKU of the same system about once per month? Once upon a time, farmers looked to the rising and setting sun to adjust their harvest cycles. Nowadays, they can dispense with the rooster reminder and simply tether their time table to Sony’s shipping manifest. It’s just as reliable. Yes, Sony announced a new SKU for the PS3. It’s times like these that we pay homage and genuflect at the feet of Cheapassgamer.com for letting us keep track of the assorted price drops and SKU shuffling that seems to spiral once a month in this wild and crazy world of console commerce.

Anyway, the news here is that effective this September, Sony will release an 80gb version of the PS3. The unit will feature the same functionality that is currently on board the 40gb model and retail for the same price – $399.00. By same functionality, that means the backwards compatibility which was a big feature of the premiere 60gb model and is partially represented in the current 80gb model (the MGS4 bundle) will not be present in this new SKU. It is also expected that all other SKUs will be retired – making the MGS4 bundle a limited edition.

From a price point, a $400 PS3 is not bad (probably what it should have launched at two years ago) and with their expanding line-up, Sony should give Microsoft a run for its money during the holiday season. Plus, as we all know, this is a Trojan Horse for the Blu-Ray player – which gives it another decided advantage over the Xbox 360.

My hope is that they’ve finally settled on a functionality set that will stay in stone for some time. The loss of backwards compatibility isn’t too great – especially if you consider those downloadable PS2 game rumors that continue to catch fire. While it wasn’t announced at E3, that’s not to infer they are not coming. With an 80gb hard drive, the storage space is ample. We’ll see.

Sony also offered up another iteration of the immortal PS2 (seriously, this has to be the greatest system ever created when taking library size and longevity into account). This Autumn, Sony will release a new PS2 bundle pack which includes the system, the new Lego Batman game and the recently released Justice League animated flick on DVD. The entire package retails for $149.99. When you factor in the pack-ins, the PS2 is effectively retailing for $99.99 or less. This system will NEVER die.

4.   PC = R.I.P.

Oh, yes. The eternal debate. Console vs. PC. Both sides have their fervent fans who declare the other side a bunch of sadsack, no-nothing soulless n00bs. Yet, with each passing year, the consoles make enormous strides at closing the gap between the PC and Console gaming experience. Yes, the PC elite will always dangle their mice in your face and claim that control can never be as pixel perfect as that of the QWERTY crowd, but you console campers can always bend their wrists backs (once you peel off their carpal tunnel braces) and show them just how far consoles have come. I know I’ll probably receive a barrage of hate mail from the PC police, but I’m a console guy through and through. I work in front of a PC 8 – 10 hours a day and the very last place I want to be when I get home is six inches away from the LCD.

Anyway, I digress. The point is, Sony made a strong argument with a couple of their products that may prove the console arena is the way of the future for those seeking out the thrills formerly confined to monster rigs.

DC Universe Online received a massive response from the crowd. In partnership with Sony Online, the developers (including key artistic staff from the DC creative stable) have crafted a console-centric MMORPG set in the DC Universe. The game looks to feature almost every DC comic character you can name while offering up a robust avatar creation system that allows players to craft the superhero/villain of their dreams and then go to work aiding/assaulting a virtual Metropolis.

Games like these are bad for other games because if this is your thing (think the World of Warcraft effect), you won’t want to play anything else for a very long time. As a huge Batman fan (geez – will The Dark Knight ever dawn?), this title may just force me to break down and finally purchase a PS3. The big question – which SKU?

Sony also closed out their show with another title that must have piqued interest among the PC community. Zipper Interactive announced MAG – a title that also stands for Massive Action Game. Essentially, this looks like a pretty SOCOM clone, the type of frag fest in full abundance on most game servers. The catch here is the game features mammoth 256 player battles – with players able to join forces in squads, take on roles and really go to battle. There weren’t a lot of details provided outside of talk of a character advancement system and a tease for vehicular combat but this looks to be the plateau that similar games like the Battlefield series have been climbing towards for years.

This could be revolutionary.

3.   Greatest Hits

Providing a big sign that gamers are finally beginning to adopt the PS3 in their multi-console homes, Sony announced the start of a Greatest Hits series, similar in design to the very successful lines that augmented the PS1 and PS2 libraries.

Within the next couple of weeks, Sony will roll out this Greatest Hits line to retailers everywhere. Games will retail for $29.99. The initial line-up is pretty robust and diverse with the following titles represented: ResistanceFall of Man, MotorStorm, Warhawk, Call of Duty 3, Fight Night, Need For Speed – Carbon, Rainbow Six Vegas, Ninja Gaiden Sigma, Assassin’s Creed, and Elder Scrolls – Oblivion.

This is a very good move, matching the Platinum Hits series that has done well for the Xbox 360. I know that as games have grown more and more expensive, my personal purchases have whittled down to those top-tier highly rated games that I’ve just got to play on Day 1 and need for my collection. Anything else, no matter how compelling the content may be, will usually sit on the back burner awaiting the inevitable price drop.

I think these Greatest Hits series give gamers the option to sample titles from genres that they might normally avoid. Tease a Sports Chick’s pallet with a taste of an FPS (say Resistance: Fall of Man) and suddenly you have a newfound Frag Doll.

2.   The Indie 500

In my 360 Conference write-up, I heaped praise at Microsoft’s XBLA service and the continued support for the indie game development scene.

I know this is the new world we live in, where indie game developers have new avenues in which to direct their titles through, thereby reaching a wide breadth of gaming enthusiasts. Some of these so-called “smaller games” have revealed a well-spring of creativity making me think that some of tomorrow’s blockbuster hits and more importantly – the Next Big Thing – may benefit from the shear fact that these true talents had a canvas upon which to paint and a gallery to show it in and thus the ability to get noticed.

Of course, Sony has matched XBLA with their PSN marketplace and over the last couple of years has showcased some really innovative titles including Echochrome and fLow. During this year’s conference they placed the spotlight on some really compelling titles, including PixelJunk Eden, Crash Commando, RagDoll KungFu, and Fat Princess. Sometimes the title is EVERYTHING.

So, the announcement of new PSN titles is not necessarily groundbreaking news. What is worth noticing is the fact that both Microsoft and Sony carved space in their crowded keynotes to spotlight some of these “niche” titles that are on the way. That’s very encouraging. It shows that these garage game developers have welcoming homes awaiting their offspring. Of course they do – there’s money to be made off them – but so what. I’m all for the consumer culture and All Mighty Dollar calling the shots if it means I get to tease my peepers and needle my neural synapses with whatever fresh, new interactive experience they want to send my way.

1.   You Can Actually Play Games on This Thing?

For the longest time, as Sony languished in third place following their disastrous 2006 launch, execs at the company seemed to divert attention away from the PS3’s prime directive and sought to curry favor with the techie crowd who were looking to add a Hi-Definition media player to their home theater showrooms. The company seemed determined to shift resources to the Hi-Definition Theater of War, focusing their assault on Toshiba and HD-DVD, in a bid to insure Blu-Ray conquered the world.

With HD-DVD relegated to this generation’s Betamax, and unit sales of the PS3 on the rise thanks to some compelling software choices (including the absolutely “Must Play” – Metal Gear Solid 4), Sony has amassed their forces and come gunning for Microsoft once again. Yes, there’s the nagging notion (and fact) that the Wii is the actual market leader, but the Big Two refuse to consider it a competitor in the public sector, meaning they’re settling in for a Rock-Em/Sock-Em battle for the hardcore customer (while co-opting Wii innovations for themselves in hopes of scoring a bonus prize of casual customers).

What this means is that Sony has an arsenal of big guns poised to take down the warriors that Microsoft is bringing to the holiday fray. Sequels abound. Countering Fable 2 and Gears of War 2 is Resistance 2 and Killzone 2. In addition, Sony showed off the next SOCOM and a sequel to their hit racing title, MotorStorm: Pacific Rift.

It’s not all strapping machismo either, as Sony has scored some major press with their support of the innovative title, littlebigplanet. This title, which allows players to craft lifelike platforming worlds limited only by their imagination, has stolen the show each time it’s popped its weird little head out over the last year. Their motto for this game is “play, create, share” which goes along with the big push by all three console makers to foster deep social networking environments for the MySpace generation (of course, with Nintendo’s you have to interact with critter town or animal planet or some damn thing, but the intent is the same).

littlebigplant is due in October 2008. Seeing Sony really push this strange new product while pedaling a surefire blockbuster like Resistance is comforting as it shows the company’s willingness to diversify its offerings, which again, is good for all gamers.

Finally, Sony dropped a huge announcement of their own. While not as surprising as Microsoft’s Final Fantasy XIII reveal, the news that God of War III is coming (and soon – March 2009) earned its applause. The God of War series is important for Sony – an in-house developed first party property that matches its brawny action platforming with serious production values. This is a true system seller.

While the news wasn’t much of a surprise (the game was recently teased in the PSP GoW instruction manual), official confirmation of the title and a release date were good tidbits to chew on. Of course, March ’09 is also the same month that Resident Evil 5 drops. It’s doubtful either title will shift (RE5 is multi-platform and GoW 1 and 2 were both released in March), so March ’09 may be a good time to slot some of that vacation time.

All right, that finishes my commentaries. Without going into too much detail (I’ll let the posts speak for themselves), I’d like to call it a draw between Microsoft and Sony for King of the Conference. Both featured solid line-ups, played up some innovative titles and left me with a solid direction for their product lines. Essentially, they offered ample evidence for why you really need to own their machines.

Nintendo, on the other hand, stumbled. I know why they chose the direction they did (they weren’t speaking to you or I but direct to the public and more specifically – ABC, CBS, NBC and whoever else will have them on their morning news/entertainment programs) but that doesn’t warm my heart nor, more importantly, leave me with unbridled anticipation of what’s to come. The true 1-to-1 ratio promised by WiiMotion Plus looks compelling but I need games to go along with it. Here’s hoping they slip some of that news out now that the national press has turned its eye back to regularly scheduled programming.