Sony's E3 Has Increasingly Become About Games You Won't Play For Years
The company's press conference is always full of surprises, so long as you're okay being years older when they're done.
Image courtesy of Hello Games
Sony's in an enviable position headed into E3. Just look at this lineup of games from the start of 2017: Nier: Automata, Yakuza 0, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Gravity Rush 2, What Remains of Edith Finch, Let It Die, Persona 5, Rain World, Resident Evil 7 in VR. Granted, some of those were simultaneously released on PC, but, importantly, they didn't hit Xbox One. This killer three-part combo—independent developers partnering with Sony over Microsoft, a resurgence in Japanese console development, and the occasional big-budget first party game—has been a huge part of the reason Microsoft needs to E3 to, among other things, redeem Xbox.
The last few years, Sony's E3 press conferences have been lavish but focused affairs, ditching lengthy preambles from executives desperate for a chance in the spotlight and slideshows about how much money everyone's making, in favor of looks at what's really important: games. Yes, they're a corporation who wants your money, but Sony's successfully presented itself as a company full of people who genuinely love what they do. Microsoft had that position last cycle. (Nintendo always comes across that way, too, but they exist outside the orbit of his clash.)
There's an interesting pattern that emerges when you look back at the last few years, though. While Sony's showmanship is second to none—even I got chills when the Final Fantasy VII remake was announced; that game meant the world to me as a kid—it's often announcing games you won't play anytime soon. We're not talking games that might ship a few months later, but years after their appearance. While games slip for all manner of reasons, my years of reporting has taught me that developers know if their game is a few months or years away.
In 2014, a time when everyone's imaginations were on fire about the potential for No Man's Sky, Sony touted the game as a big-time console exclusive. It wouldn't ship for another two years. Uncharted 4's impressive trailer promised the game would come out in 2015. Instead, it would tumble through a series of delays and be released in May 2016.
In 2015, easily one of the most "holy shit" conferences ever, there was yet another trailer for No Man's Sky. Again, it wouldn't ship for another year and change. Horizon: Zero Dawn showed up for the first time, supposedly set for 2016. It moved to 2017. We then had a first look at Media Molecule's Dreams, a strange creation tool without a release date, but the promise of a beta in 2016. 2016 came and went without a beta, and it's unclear when the game will be released.
This was also the event where Yu Suzuki announced he was making Shenmue III, a game that's supposed to ship in December but won't even be at E3. Most egregious, though, was news of Final Fantasy VII's long-rumored remake, which Square Enix only recently clarified as being a game that will ship "in the next three years or so." It was announced two years ago! And given that it's shipping episodically, lord knows when the final credits will actually roll.
In 2016, a supremely impressive trailer for a pseudo-reboot for God of War gave no promises on when the game was actually going to be finished. It's been nearly a year without a single update. (From what I hear, you should start getting patient.)
The latest adventure game from David Cage, Detroit: Become Human, pulled a similar stunt—a slick trailer with no indication when anyone will actually play it. Don't forget about Insomniac's Spider-Man, which also looked cool but, shockingly, has since disappeared. That year's Final Fantasy VII was Hideo Kojima showing up with a trailer for his independent company's first title, Death Stranding. It might shock you to learn the game didn't have a release date then, nor does it have one now. (It won't be up this year's E3, as they're "fully focused on development.")
This is not to say Microsoft (or Nintendo, who delays all the time) aren't also guilty of showing games long before they should have. Scalebound, anyone? Crackdown 3? Cuphead? Below? Microsoft certainly made a big deal in 2015 of partnering with the designer behind Day Z, Dean Hall, for a space-based MMO, Ion, but that fizzled out. The game never materialized.
But especially in recent years, Sony's managed to paint a picture—and a narrative—about the slate of games scheduled for PlayStation 4, without them (or, in several cases, third party creators) delivering in a timely manner. It's not entirely smoke and mirrors, as I suspect the vast majority will eventually ship in some form or another, but it's a very specific approach to E3, in which many really exciting announcements are for things you won't play for some time.
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For some, that's the point of E3, and why you hear some decry press reports about games set to be announced as "spoilers," rather than informed reporting about what's happening in the games industry. They ride the hype train—the speculation, the baseless rumor mongering, the Photoshops. But, as someone that wants to play games, I don't need five years of hype. When Bethesda Softworks announced Fallout 4, it showed up at E3 and shipped the same year.
It also serves to paper over the fact that Sony's internal studios deliver games slowly and infrequently. They're announced early, presumably as a means to remind people that Stuff Is Coming, but it's a long wait. (I'm still shocked Sony continues to give Gran Turismo such a long leash. Gran Turismo Sport, which is basically Gran Turismo 7, was originally 2014 or 2015. It doesn't have a date.) At the same time, Sony seems to recognize—or deal with—this limitation by engaging in strategic partnerships (Bloodborne, Nioh) and benefiting from a windfall of Japanese games that have shown little interest in embracing Xbox One.
So far, this strategy has worked really well. That will continue, until it doesn't.
My one prediction for E3: Until Dawn 2. (Things become true if you wish it, right??)
But realistically, there's one thing I'd really love for Sony to start talking about, even if it means discussing games that won't ship for a while: VR. There are plenty of reports saying Sony's happy with sales of their device, but it's still unclear what Sony's longterm plans are for development. It's on Sony to prove this won't be another PlayStation accessory with limited support, like PS Move.
Their first major release since VR launched, the sci-fi shooter Farpoint, was a huge disappointment. I'm hoping we'll see games on the level of Resident Evil 7 at the show; the big reason Sony's move into VR got me excited was the hope they'd put serious resources behind making real games, not stuff like Until Dawn: Rush of Blood. I lovelovelove what independent developers are doing with VR, but I'm ready for games with major resources, budgets, and endless ambitions.
Though Sony remains in this generation's driver's seat, I'm curious how—or if—it chooses to acknowledge what's happening with Project Scorpio. Sony is always the last presenter before E3 closes, and has been known to make last-minute changes, based on how people respond to what comes before.
Always the magician, you can, for better or worse, count on surprises.