E3 2017: Play time or story time?

Academic studies of video games have long pondered the relative merits of gameplay vs story, or ludology vs narratology as it’s often called. While we leave such critical musings to the experts, the debate has rarely been played out in such stark terms across the two primary platform holders’ showcases.

The Xbox event mainlined on multiplayer, persistent, co-operative, open-ended, live, emergent, games-as-a-service, shoot stuff online with your mates and get the loot-type titles.

Meanwhile, Sony’s showcase centred largely on single-player, narrative, beginning-to-end, immersive, scripted, character-driven experiences. 

It’s potentially unfair to line-up Microsoft’s top titles against Sony’s, as Xbox had more strength-in-depth. But while Microsoft showed Sea of Thieves, Forza Motorsport 7, State of Decay 2 and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Sony had Spider-Man, God Of War, and franchise expansions Uncharted: Lost Legacy and Horizon Zero Dawn: The Frozen Wilds. 

So given the hardware strategies – putting VR to one side for a moment – are so similar and the target audiences are largely identical, in terms of broad demographics at least, then how has Microsoft and Sony ended up with such different content showings?

E3 2017 was the year that Microsoft moved even closer to its PC side. Alongside its high-powered hardware, the most telling exclusive signing was PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds – a PC title that has sold hugely, and more importantly engaged Twitch viewers, with more concurrent viewers than any other game – bar the usual MOBA pairing. 

It’s the perfect match for a strategy that is encouraging online group-play above all else, taking what has been learned from mobile and trying to leverage long-tail profits from the Xbox Live player base, which is arguably more established than Sony’s equivalent, due to the success of Live back on the Xbox 360. 

This is a play to the hardcore, the ones that put in the big hours and love a single title for months at a time. It also ties in perfectly with Microsoft’s relaunch of its video streaming service, Mixer.

Sony, meanwhile, with its larger install base, has seen great returns on huge tentpole titles, such as Uncharted, supported with a set number of big DLC content drops. Arguably, it’s such titles that have built that huge install base to begin with.

It’s a more traditional, upfront, model for selling hardware and software, but no less effective for it. And there’s even innovation here, too, with Lost Legacy coming on disc as an ‘expand-alone’ piece of content – effectively a mini Uncharted in its own right.

We’re pleased that both companies have found some differentiation. It’s healthy for the industry, and for both platforms, that they find their own spaces to exploit.

Read more E3 analysis below:

Stand and deliver – how and why publishers make us wait after E3

Rabbid fanbase – how Nintendo and Ubisoft’s Mario partnership gives Switch a tactical edge

Indie GoneGone – where are all the indies at E3 2017?

The X Factor is back – how Xbox One X will re-establish the brand’s technical superiority

E3 2017: Ubisoft’s return to life with Starlink: Battle for Atlas

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