It’s June 14th, and another E3 has come and gone. Unlike last year, which was a disappointing, monochromatic blur of violence and machismo, 2013 yielded a diverse array of colorful, interesting games, though they were overshadowed by Microsoft’s and Sony’s rival consoles’ first trade show appearance.
The Playstation 4 and Xbox One were undoubtedly the stars of the show–whether they were worthy of the title or not. Their respective predecessors enjoyed a kind of longevity not seen in previous console generations, and for the first time, they don’t have dueling disc formats. By contrast, everyone knows the physical disc (now universally Blu-ray) is on its way out in both systems’ primary markets. The real question going into E3, then, became less how Sony and Microsoft would package their games, and more how they would continue to support a dying format. Put another way, in an industry that plays lip service to innovation, what we really wanted to know was how Sony and Microsoft would uphold the status quo.
Microsoft already outlined and defended its aggressive, controversial model for sharing/reselling games prior to E3, and Sony’s lack of response to the news was taken as a tacit agreement. Instead, CEO Jack Tretton announced during Sony’s presser earlier this week that “Playstation 4 supports used games,” complete with a cheeky youtube demonstration and what can only be described as a shit-eating grin. As the thunderous applause (and wildfire-like spread of the video) confirmed, the announcement came down to Sony throwing in its support for a right consumers already have: the right to claim ownership over the physical media they’ve purchased.
The fine print, of course, indicates that Sony is letting some other, less consumer friendly norms slide in with its new console. Online passes for multiplayer can still be sold by individual publishers (though it should be noted that industry giant EA has since discontinued the practice), and Playstation Plus will be adopting Xbox Live’s model for requiring a premium subscription to play games online (connecting accounts with third-party streaming services like Netflix and Hulu will still be free). But these are practices that already exist and have been normalized–for better or worse. Sony is not challenging the norm; and for that, it is literally applauded. It will be interesting to see if Sony’s decision to uphold these less popular standards will come back to bite it after the afterglow of its presser fades.
Perhaps more importantly in the long-term, DRM and other consumer freedoms aren’t the only deciding factors when choosing a gaming platform. For many people, gaming is a social activity, and their friends will determine which console they buy as much as anything else. As Sony learned the hard way this generation, free online play on the PS3 means nothing if all of your friends have an Xbox. Likewise, there will be consumers that upgrade to the Xbox One despite its DRM and privacy concerns simply because an Xbox is all that they and their friends have ever had (and it will get some interesting exclusives). And, to be fair, Microsoft preserved some of its loyal users’ habits, too. During its presser, it staged a rape joke at the expense of the first and–at the time–only woman it brought on stage. At least it knows its target audience.