PlayStation surprised us this year.
If you had asked us what we would have expected ahead of their pre-E3 press conference, we would have suggested a hardware-centric show, featuring PlayStation VR and the firm's new ‘Neo' console.
We would have put our money on the traditional sizzle reel of inventive indie games, bookended by corporate executives and producers talking about how ‘super excited' they are to ‘surprise and delight consumers'.
VR aside, that didn't happen.
Featuring a live orchestra and just a handful of management appearances, this was a fast moving event filled with triple-A games. Kicking off with God of War, and including a Spider-Man title, a terrifying new zombie IP (Days Gone), Hideo Kojima's bizarre teaser trailer and the return of Crash Bandicoot – this was PlayStation on slick, assertive form (even if many of these titles were sans release dates).
There was a level of confidence displayed during the presentation last week, in the fact that there was very little talking and we just let the games speak for themselves,” says Jim Ryan, PlayStation's global head of sales and marketing.
That was underpinned by our belief in the line-up we had, which I think was more heavily skewed towards first-party than it has been for quite some time.”
You'll often find after a press conference that everyone is talking about what was missing. PlayStation deliberately decided not to detail its upcoming ‘Neo' console, despite confirming its existence the week before. It felt like a missed opportunity, especially as Xbox had announced its new ‘Scorpio' machine earlier that day.
We just had such a strong and, I'd say, almost pure story about games,” says Ryan when discussing why the firm didn't show the machine.
You've commented to us before - and it's a fair comment - about how we're only just getting going on the games side of things on PS4. By focusing exclusively on the games last night, hopefully we have laid that bogey to rest.
We have disclosed some of the high level principles about the thing codenamed Neo. We really want to be able to demonstrate it properly. So we will do that when we are ready.”
The absence of Neo surprised some commentators because of the perception that the new machine is pretty much a requirement to run PlayStation VR. It isn't, of course. MCV has played several PSVR games, and they work just fine on the normal PS4. This is something Ryan is keen to underline.
Just go to our room [at E3] and check out the VR games and make up your own mind,” he says. We are completely confident that the line-up of 50 games - plus some of what was announced at E3, which was serious in terms of heavyweight IP – are going to provide a first class VR experience. What we can say is that we have a fertile ground of 40m PS4s, all of which will run PlayStation VR. And every demo we have done so far has been done on standard PS4.”
This brings us nicely onto VR. PS4 has a couple of major ‘traditional' titles scheduled for Christmas, but it is the headset that is commanding the most column inches.
At E3, Sony has finally attracted some major third-party studios to PlayStation VR - the most notable of which was Capcom with Resident Evil VII.
There were ‘experiences' from other big companies, too. EA has created a VR Star Wars Battlefront level, Warner Bros has a Batman experience, while Square Enix is introducing VR functionality into a part of Final Fantasy XV.
These brands would normally have system-shifting potential, but it's to be seen if these smaller ‘experiences' will have the same impact.
The truth is we don't really know, because VR is such a different proposition,” Ryan admits. We are very intrigued about VR, but there is so much we won't know until we get out there and see what people enjoy.”
He sounds uncertain, but Ryan deflects that not knowing what will work isn't necessarily a bad thing: Uncertainty is liberating in many ways. There is no trodden path that developers or publishers feel obligated to follow. Everybody is doing things a bit differently, and that's great.”
PSVR arrives on October 13th and it's certainly gaining a lot of attention. But any predictions would be little more than guesswork. We suggested that VR could benefit PS4 in the same way DVD boosted PS2, by winning over mainstream audiences. Ryan says it's a possibility but, once again, he doesn't know.
"With VR, there is no trodden path that developers feel obligated to follow. Everybody is doing things a bit differently."
Jim Ryan, PlayStation
It could definitely enhance and prolong the lifecycle that we are in the middle of,” he believes. Whether it has the potential to take PS4 to the heights of mass-market acceptance that we saw with PS2, I am not sure about yet. It is easy to forget that PS2 was retailing for 99. With PS4 you are going to have to spend 300 on a PS4 and a further 350 on the VR set. We are quite proud of the price point we have been able to achieve relative to other offerings, but there is a gating factor of price and to what extent that allows us to get into the mass market remains to be seen.”
One thing that PlayStation's VR competitors are talking about is virtual reality's potential outside of games. MCV even tested VR's potential in helping the disabled last month.
It is something we are very interested in exploring,” adds Ryan.
At the end of the day, it is a PlayStation, it is positioned primarily as a gaming device. But just as PS4 now is entirely valid as a broad entertainment platform, I would see VR following the same sort of pattern. We will make it credible and desirable as a gaming device. And that will organically lead to various other interesting applications.”
There was a lot to take in from Sony's E3 conference. Many of the new reveals lacked release dates, but with some 50 VR games, The Last Guardian and Gran Turismo Sport due out before Christmas (plus third-party games like Call of Duty), there's plenty for the company to talk about in the meantime.
It's no wonder Neo will just have to wait for another day.