Sage’s Gaming Corner: Reflecting On Sony’s E3s, Part 1

by Sage Ashford

In the past two months, the gaming world has become subsumed in the discussion of the next generation. What will it look like, what developers will be at the front lines on launch day, and most importantly–when will it happen? These are all important questions, but I also feel like the gaming fandom, more than any other, has a terrible habit of being obsessed with looking ever forward instead of sometimes taking the opportunity to reflect.  Even The Game Awards, an event which in theory should be about celebrating the year that’s past, gets most of its attention because new announcements or whatever.  That’s understandable, and can even be fun to be part of…but it also can’t hurt to talk about times gone by as well.

With that in mind, let’s talk about E3. There’s less than forty days until every gamer’s favorite season starts, and already things are starting to ramp up, with game developers becoming more willing to talk about projects they’re getting ready to announce or show off. And while plans are in place to eventually talk about predictions for what’s most likely to make an appearance at this year’s E3, there’s plenty of time for that later. For now, let’s go back to that whole thing about reflecting, and what it means for the next few weeks of Sage’s Gaming Corner.

With the benefit of hindsight on our side, we’ll be looking at all the E3s of the past five years–starting with 2013, the one featuring the debut of PlayStation 4, and stopping with last year’s. We’ll discuss the games announced, what their reception was like when they finally released, how the conferences themselves have changed over the years, and how core gamers’ expectations for the generation were set and reset over time. It’ll be in a bit of a livestream format, though with the thoughts more cleaned up and structured as opposed to the stream of consciousness style livestreams lend themselves to, so if you would like to follow along, I’ve included the actual video footage below.

We’ll only be covering Sony for these–primarily because most of my time spent gaming since Gen 5 has been in their ecosystem…but also because 2013 to 2015 was rough for Nintendo and I don’t want those guys coming after me with pitchforks. Let’s begin.

The first thing it’s impossible not to notice here is the runtime. Clocking in at nearly two hours, this already feels nothing like the Sony of the present day–where both 2016 and 2017’s conferences ran 77 and 76 minutes, respectively. Over time the company has learned how to really tighten things up. Specifically, they’ve learned how to separate “smaller” titles into a separate, hour long pre-show so the main show can focus on just the biggest games or the ones they believe in the most.

– There’s so much talking. In later years Sony finally understood gamers actually don’t need the narration. Though there have been some push back against the change, ultimately for two shows in a row they’ve kept a brisk pace, packing game after game and letting them all speak for themselves.

– Holy crap, they’re talking about Vita! It’s just over a year old at this point, and Jack Tretton really was trying to save Vita back then–he talked about the massive number of games developed for the system, and how the attach rate was through the roof. (That’s another thing: so much of this is inside baseball. Sales numbers and attach rates haven’t been mentioned like this in years, as the conference switched from being something for investors and journalists to being aimed at the average consumer.)

Despite what had to have been lackluster sales back then, they’re still supporting the system strongly here. They announce ports for Final Fantasy X & X-2, God of War I and II Remastered, Batman: Arkham Origins, and a Sony first-party Killzone title! It’s obvious they still care, even though the sales aren’t nearly as strong as the PSP, and would never grow to reach them. Two years from now, the Vita will turn into a meme Sony Senior Third Party Production Director and cuddly teddy bear Gio Corsi trots out as a reason to mention Japanese games most people have never heard of, all in a desperate attempt to please the people who dropped $300 on a system that was DOA.

– They’re talking about Playstation 3. The best, but craziest thing about Sony is they really support their consoles until the very end, even to the detriment of their new system’s early titles. At this point the PS4 is roughly five months away, and here’s Jack Tretton showing off The Last of Us, which wasn’t even out yet, and could’ve easily been a PS4 launch title.

Right afterwards we get Puppeteer and Rain, which are the kind of games people actually expect in the final year of a console’s lifespan. Innovative, smaller games PS3 faithfuls would still be excited to play. Beyond: Two Souls isn’t too bad a final year game either. A narrative title courtesy of Quantic Dream–it’s a major AAA title literally no one talks about anymore despite QD’s pedigree.

The truly baffling choice here was Gran Turismo. Typically, racing games do amazing at the start of a generation, as they’re one of the few genres which can be counted on to provide a quality experience showing off the graphical capabilities of a system while also providing countless hours of entertainment. From my understanding, this GT under-performed, and I can’t help thinking it’s because everyone would’ve preferred it to be on the new console.

Still, all of this is insane. When Nintendo and Microsoft are ready to launch a new console, the year prior is absolutely barren, to say nothing of the year of release. Here, we’ve gotten The Last of Us, Puppeteer, Rain, Beyond: Two Souls, and Gran Turismo and they all launch in the same five month time span on the wait up to PS4. It’s intentional too, as Jack Tretton brags on their World Wide Studios’ releases for a system that’s “in its seventh year”.

– After that, they segue into third party partnerships.  There aren’t many at this point, because most developers are trying to see if anyone actually cares about “next gen” or if they’re too busy playing Angry Birds on their phone. No one’s trying to spend millions of dollars developing future flops.  But we still get Batman: Arkham Origins.  Arkham Origins was meant to be a stopgap between the award winning Batman: Arkham City, and next-gen title Batman: Arkham Knight, which Rocksteady thought would come out only a year later, but it would actually be two years from this E3 before we saw the game in stores.

As for Origins, gamers were generally unimpressed with the title for not bringing the same level of evolution we got from Asylum to City.  I think that’s overblown.  For one, Origins easily boasts the best story of them all, complete with a great showdown versus Bane, some neat new gadgets, and the first real appearance of the Batcave.  Plus it’s arguable Arkham Knight isn’t much of an improvement over City either.

Also, it’s only now I’m realizing Grand Theft Auto 5 launched the same year the PS4 came out.  It’s baffling that they didn’t make it next-gen from jump, or build it from the ground up to be a next-gen title when it wound up launching just two months from the PS4 anyway, but it doesn’t matter.  Everyone knew it would be big, but Grand Theft Auto online would eventually lead to the title becoming the “most profitable piece of media ever released”, with GTA 5 moving 15 million copies last year alone, and 90 million and counting all total.  That’s more than EA’s Star Wars: Battlefront II and Activision’s Call of Duty: World War II.  And as impressive a launch line up of GTA 5, Gran Turismo 6, and The Last of Us would’ve been for PS4…only one of those titles really suffered not being cross-gen, and two for three isn’t bad odds at all.

*whew*

That’s twenty solid minutes of PS3 gameplay.  Even in the present I’m still thinking what 2013 Sage was when Andrew House finally takes the stage: show us the freaking PS4.  I was never a big PS3 fan, and despite all its flaws the PS4 to me has been a good system.

– I wanna crack jokes about how much they put into showing off the PS4 but it makes sense that they put so much pomp and circumstance to it.  The system has been with us now for nearly five years, and by my estimation we’ll be dealing with it for at least two more.

– For all the talk that Sony only talked about games at their conference, somehow we wound up with a Sony Pictures exec on stage bringing things to a complete halt.  A lot of time is spent hyping exclusive content for the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation Network, even though ultimately we just all installed YouTube, Hulu, Spotify, and Netflix and didn’t really care about anything from Sony’s specific ecosystem.

– Thirty three minutes in, we finally get to the PS4’s games with the appearance of Sony World Wide Studios President Shuhei Yoshida.  Despite putting out some of their best games this year, he talks about how thirty first-party titles were in development for PS4, with 20 of those hitting in the first year.  I’m admittedly too lazy to count, but I’d imagine of those ten remaining titles: one is Horizon: Zero Dawn, one is Uncharted 4, and one is the Sony Santa Monica project that was cancelled in favor of God of War.  Anyway, we’re finally up to the show!

The first major game is ReadyAtDawn’s The Order: 1886.  It’s surprising at first, but when you think about it a game this pretty, taking full advantage of the power of the PS4 makes perfect sense as a showcase title.  The hype around this game leading up to launch was incredible, even if several previews told us it was actually going to be rubbish.  But the graphics were breathtaking and the idea was genius: a secret society of knights, battling monsters in an Industrial Era London.   The game was meant to come out sometime in 2014 but experienced multiple delays, something that would eventually become the hallmark of the first half of this generation.

When it finally did come out in February of 2015, the game was…a massive disappointment.   Boasting heavy steampunk and horror elements in all its previews and trailers, the real game would see a drastic reduction in both elements.  The cool steampunk guns were kept to a minimum, and the   Though the game reviewed poorly and the IP is rumored to be dead, RAD did manage to bounce back with two new games since then, and are working on three new IP currently.  I wish them the best of luck.

Up next, a look at Killzone: Shadowfall.  A gorgeous game that was just not interesting enough to most of the people who played it.  The start of this gen wasn’t necessarily bad, but it’s incredible to see how far all these developers came along.  Shadowfall was seen as a disappointment, but Horizon: Zero Dawn was thought of as one of the greatest titles of 2017, a year with some of the best games of this generation released in it.  Hats off to Guerilla Games for figuring out how to bounce back, and adapting to the needs of a changing market.

Afterwards, we get Drive Club…this one’s sorta weird. The driving game that was supposed to be present at launch but wound up getting delayed by a full next year.  The only thing I really remember about DriveClub is the huge kerfluffle around it supposedly being a PS+ game at launch…only to have the PS+ Edition delayed by about eight or nine months until no one even cared it was there to begin with.   This game’s mediocre reception low-key wiped out Evolution Studios.

inFamous: Second Son is a game that doesn’t get nearly enough credit.  It could have been so much more if it had been given another year in the oven to cook, adding more enemy types, different powers and bosses, but for a launch window title this game was fantastic.  Sucker Punch knocked it out of the park with this game–drop dead gorgeous graphics, unique powersets unlike anything you’ve ever played, and a relatable story of two brothers liberating their city from a power hungry private army.   This started the trend of Sony owning the first part of the year–continuing with Bloodborne in 2015, Uncharted 4 in 2016, Horizon in 2017, and now God of War in 2018.   The company has been one of the last major developers to consistently deliver quality, single player AAA gaming, and that’s probably why they have such an energized fanbase.  ,

Then Sony pulls out Knack.  A kid friendly platformer, the first Knack was pretty much terrible if you look at the Metacritic rating.  Despite that, the game meme’d its way to a second title that came out last year…which is only slightly less terrible than the original.

– Quantic Dream makes an appearance here with its tech demo “The Dark Sorcerer”.   It’s a pretty funny tech demo, and I’m glad it fell apart at the end instead of pretending to be a proper game, otherwise people would still be asking for it instead of being excited for the soon to release Detroit: Beyond Human.  I started to complain about QD’s lack of presence here, but they already popped up for Beyond: Two Souls.  Following that, they go radio silent until Paris Games Week 2015, where they gave the “Kara” trailer.

– This is where PlayStation first started making a big deal out of independent gaming.  Games like Transistor, Don’t Starve, Crusader Kings, Octodad, Secret Ponchos, Ray’s Dead, Outlast, Oddworld: New ‘n Tasty, Galak-Z all make an appearance here.  Eager to bolster the PS4 line up in the face of such a small list of AAA titles, they didn’t just relegate these titles to an indie reel, but actually had a Sony exec call them up on stage and individually introduce both the studio and give a short summary of the games they were bringing.  Though many of us complained about the lack of AAA content back then, there’s no question now how indie gaming has re-shaped the landscape of current-gen gaming, creating some of the most noteworthy experiences of the generation.

– This conference started the trend of Sony making gamers’ brains melt with their Square Enix segments.  Every two years this gen, S-E pops up with some dream announcement.  In 2013?  It’s Final Fantasy Versus XIII, reborn as Final Fantasy XV, and Kingdom Hearts 3, a title I’m positive a ton of people bought a PS3 for.  Of course, as excited as people were watching these…every Square Enix announcement carries with it a wait time of at least three years.  Following this, Final Fantasy XV wouldn’t release for another three and a half years (and is somehow still getting downloadable content), while Kingdom Hearts 3 has a release date of…this year, apparently.

Hey, it’s Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag!  Black Flag always felt a little over the top, with your main character being a Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot, as a pirate who’s trained to become an assassin.  Say what you want about Ubisoft, but they’ve really shaped up as a company this generation–creating a string of new IPs while maintaining many of their older ones.  Plus as a launch title Black Flag was very well received…even if this demo is pretty terrible.  It freezes so many times while someone’s trying to play it they eventually just play him off the stage and move on to the next title.  This is so unheard of in the last three years or so that seeing it happen here is charming, in a “wow they really rushed to get this to the fans” kind of way.  Numerous occurrences like this one eventually lead to everyone choosing to bring pre-cut trailers to their shows instead of doing on-stage demos.

Next is Jonathan Morin of Ubisoft Montreal, with Watch Dogs.  In 2012, Watch Dogs was by far the most interesting title at the most boring E3.  But from the look of things, Ubisoft seemed unsure of exactly what they wanted from it, as the tone of the game changed in the interrim. 2013’s Aiden is a bit more stoic than 2012’s, and the hacker society that seemed so prevalent in the first trailer has already been stripped back heavily, and that’s without ever getting to the graphical downgrade the game suffered once forced to run on proper PS4 hardware.

Worse, Ubisoft was also forced to delay this game, pushing it from being a launch game into a Q2 game in May of 2014.  Unfortunately, one of the biggest challenges developers (and by necessity, gamers) have been forced to face this gen is the increasing complexity of creating better AI and art assets that can hold up at 1080p.

– After this, there’s a bit of sports talk where LeBron James literally talks to himself in a promo for Take 2’s NBA 2K14, followed by some brief glimpses of gameplay.  This feels like a thing that would be relegated to the pre-show these days, as I can’t remember the last time I had to deal with sports in a Sony conference.

– This show is weirdly unfocused, flitting about from game to game, even when they’ve got no relationship between one another. Somehow, Sony’s managed to go from AAA sports title to an MMORPG in Elder Scrolls Online.  At the time, ESO felt like it would be a cute stopgap until Bethesda Game Studios got things together on their next installment of Elder Scrolls.  But five years later and there’s no sign of a follow-up to the absurdly popular Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, and worse, there’s no hope of one this generation.  According to Bethesda, “the technology doesn’t exist” for what they want to do yet, so they’re working on two other major games instead.  Presumably, one of those will make it’s first appearance this year at E3, and if BGS plans to stick to their short reveal/release cycles, we’ll get the game this fall.

Kind of a bummer for fans of this world, though.  Elder Scrolls Online’s combat is dreadfully dull.  But on the bright side, the developers have supported this game with tons of content–most recently they’ve decided to add the Summerset Isles to the game.  They talk about how the beta is coming exclusively to PS4, and I’m suddenly forced to remember that for roughly six months Sony had three cool things: indies, inFamous: Second Son, and betas of MMOs.  I burned through an entire month playing Final Fantasy XIV just because I had nothing else to play in February of 2014.

– Adam Boyes tries to hype up Mad Max, but…I’ll be honest, there’s not much there to it.  It came out to little fanfare in 2015, aped the combat system of Batman, and we never got a sequel to it.  It’s my understanding the studio in charge of the title, Avalanche Studios, is rumored to be working on a Harry Potter title now.  Can’t knock them for being boring and having no variety.

– Oh my.  This is such an awkward moment to look back on.  Going into E3 five years ago, the core gaming community was legit terrified because of some talk coming out of Microsoft regarding their new system.   The Xbox One was meant to forced online check ins every twenty four hours, and only support used games through “digital lending”, where you’d give someone a copy of your digital game and it simply wouldn’t play on your system until they relinquished the license back.  As for proper used physical games, it was initially thought they wouldn’t work if you traded them in at retail or gave it away, not without playing a small fee to “unlock” it.

This was part of Microsoft’s idea of a digital future, as well as the solution they needed to kill the sale of used games in places like GameStop.  Gamers hated it, so when Sony announced it wouldn’t be doing that it instantly felt like the PS4 system was superior, even if it was only doing what every system ever had done to that point.  Looking back, it’s sad to see how hard gamers have to cross their fingers publishers haven’t figured out another way to screw us out of more money we didn’t want to spend.  The crowd bathes Jack Tretton in applause for saying the PlayStation 4 did these incredibly simple things which never should have been up for debate in the first place.

It felt like such a gutpunch at the time though, and a large part of the reason why the first few months were a landslide in Sony’s favor.  But even that should have been tempered because it was here that Sony confirmed going forward they would require players to have PS Plus to play online, meaning our freedom came at the cost of an additional fifty dollars a year if we wanted online play.  At the time, most wrote it off because Plus offered great sales and had free AAA titles that were barely months old.  But it’s no coincidence as soon as gamers were forced to pay suddenly the free titles dropped to indies and very old AAA titles.   No one could have known then, but it probably wasn’t a good sign DriveClub was placed as the star player and first free PS+ game…and was immediately forgotten for months before being quietly added, then taken away.

To a lot of gamers, the biggest deal for any E3 conferences is the concept of One More Thing.  Like the closing joke that brings a comedian’s act full circle, One More Thing is meant to be the biggest surprise–the ace up the sleeve, ending the conference on a high note.  Nowhere is the disconnect between gamers and publishers more clear than here, as more often than not the “One More Thing” is either not present, or not nearly as interesting as something shown earlier in the show.   Still, every year we hold on with the expectation of seeing more.  In this year’s case, the One More Thing kinda made sense: Bungie’s Destiny.

For twelve minutes, Activision and Bungie pulled us into a gorgeous looking sci-fi world.  A post-post apocalyptic world, where a group of talented warriors known as Guardians fought to obtain resources and protect the remnants of humanity against evil alien races.  It started two separate trends: the Disappointing Space Game, and Co-Op games with persistent online worlds and expanding stories.  Some gamers refer to that genre as “games as a service”, but that’s a term with much broader application so we won’t use it here.

The story behind Destiny is incredibly long, sad, and frustrating, but Kotaku journalist (and incredibly talented Press Sneak Fuck) Jason Schreier covered it here.  The gist of it is making games that demand constant content is hard, even harder when forced to do so using AAA assets.  They wound up cutting a lot of content just to have expansion packs for later, and cutting most of the story when a higher up at Bungie hated it, meaning much of the story hinted at in the E3 2013 trailer was nowhere to be found when you actually played the game.

I don’t often fall for empty PR, but Destiny really looked like something special when they premiered it.  To many people, it was special–tons of people loved vanilla Destiny, and claimed the problems with it were all fixed when they introduced “The Taken King” the following year.  But for me, despite the game’s satisfying gunplay, I was unimpressed with the non-existent story and game’s need to make you grind for loot after only 14-15 hours of play.  I promptly returned it and got Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor two weeks later.

Nonetheless, regardless of my feelings on the game, Destiny’s success is undeniable.  It’s caused the existence of clones like The Division, and it’s not going anywhere, even if Destiny 2 wasn’t as well received by fans in the long run.  This was the first sign of what one of the next gen’s dominant genre would look like.

To wrap up this far too long show, Andrew House comes out one last time to offer up a few final pieces of information.  He talks about Sony’s purchase of Gaikai, a company specializing in cloud-based technology. This would eventually result in the existence of PlayStation Now, a way for gamers to stream a library of PS1, PS2, and PS3 titles in the same way most people watch Netflix.  This service made it’s first appearance back in 2014, but Sony has yet to figure out a way to properly incorporate it in a way that makes it feel irreplaceable. As such, Xbox GamePass has already usurped PS Now in terms of the general conversation around streaming games, purely because it allows players to download rather than just stream online titles.

Lastly, he talks about the price of the Playstation 4: $399 in the US, 349 pounds, and 399 euros.  Now one thing about Sony is it’s always had the last show of the day.  Aside from Nintendo, which swims in the Blue Ocean known as “Tuesday mornings”, the E3 press conferences end with Sony.   We’d already see Microsoft’s Xbox One, and we knew their system would retail for an extra $100.   Knowing the PS4 was coming in not just under their own launch PS3, but the Xbox One as well felt like the Shoryuken to end E3 in Sony’s favor once and for all that year.  I saw more “Sony won” posts on Facebook afterwards than anytime since.  Though “winning E3” is ultimately meaningless, Sony is nearly 80 million consoles sold after five years so…I guess they made the right moves?

Well, over four thousand words later, and we’ve finally made it through Sony’s 2013 E3!  We’ll see you back next week with the second installment to this article.

Sage Ashford

A writer with way too many hobbies, Sage can often be found catching up on the latest anime, or reading a stack of comics between Wednesdays and Thursdays.

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