It was during the final 20 minutes of Sony’s E3 2013 press conference on Monday—the last in a series of flashy showcases from gaming's biggest publishers—that the future of the video game industry was decided.
Sony delivered a strong vision for its next-generation PlayStation 4 console—a low price point of $399, support for independent developers via self-publishing capabilities, and some good-looking new intellectual properties. But more importantly, it put the focus back on the consumer. It was a particularly deft piece of subversion on Sony’s part: Jack Tretton, the president of Sony Computer Entertainment America, smiled (or was it a smirk?) as he delivered the news that the PlayStation 4 will not require a constant Internet connection or any kind of online check-in; that consumers will be able to freely trade, swap, and sell their games without any restrictions or fees; and that PlayStation Plus membership will carry over to the PlayStation 4. The former two are of particular interest since Microsoft's announcement that the PlayStation 4's rival, the Xbox One, will require both, restricting users' ownership of games by leaving it up to publishers to decide if they want to charge fees for swaps and sales and enforcing a periodic online check-in every 24 hours. (Sony twisted the knife a little regarding game ownership with a video mocking Microsoft.) And, while the console’s voice and gesture recognition system is certainly impressive, as Farhad Manjoo discussed on Slate, privacy concerns surrounding the Xbox One’s Kinect camera have since emerged. Of course, Tretton didn’t mention the Xbox One by name, because he didn’t have to: Never before has the public sentiment in the console wars so decidedly favored one publisher over another. Sony, it seems, has won gamers over.
It’s always hard to believe a company when it says it “listens” to its customers. But Sony appears to be telling the truth, because the PlayStation 4's biggest asset is consumer-friendliness. Rumors about an always-on Internet connection for both Sony’s and Microsoft’s new consoles have been circulating since last year, so even if Sony had plans for such restrictions, it had time to rethink acting upon them in light of the consumer response—a response that Microsoft ignored. Secondly, and most important for the future of the industry, the PlayStation 4 seems to have been built with some recognizable artistic vision in mind, as evidenced by Sony’s decision to allow developers to self-publish on the platform instead of seeking out a third-party publisher with whom to partner.
Permitting self-publishing means anybody with a good idea will have a chance at letting that idea speak for itself, instead of wasting money and time trying to convince roomfuls of executives that this is indeed what people want to play. Sony also highlighted a series of new partnerships with independent developers, including one with Bastion creator Supergiant Games, to demonstrate that it’s serious about supporting a more interesting industry, one that rewards innovation and risk-taking.
A lot of the innovation in the gaming industry comes from the independent space, where ideas, rather than budgets, are in the driving seat. It’s independent games and game makers who are pushing the boundaries of the medium and giving audiences more diverse experiences. (Thatgamecompany’s 2012 online adventure game Journey, for example, took out a spate of industry awards earlier this year, beating blockbuster franchises like Mass Effect, Far Cry, and FIFA. The game pairs up users anonymously via the PlayStation Network and tasks them to work together towards a common goal, communicating via sound in place of speech or text. ) If a hardware maker cares about the future of the games industry, they care about the future of independent game development. Microsoft, as we’ve seen, does not.
And then there’s the price. In a final, triumphant moment, Sony announced the PS4 would launch later this year for $399, undercutting the Xbox One by $100. It’s not surprising Tretton left the E3 2013 stage amid the cheers and applause a crowd that had finally been given something to look forward to: Sony’s vision for the future of games is a sign of good things to come.
Correction, June 12, 2013: Due to a production error, this blog post originally appeared under the wrong author's name. It is by Laura Parker.