With momentum on its side, Sony wins the day at Gamescom, but the real stars of this show are players
Sony and Microsoft take the console battle to Gamescom
Cologne’s Gamescom, like E3 before it, ensured that 2014 will be remembered as the year when Microsoft and Sony united in war on the word ‘exclusive’, sparing no expense in their bid to strip it of its usual meaning. On PS4, it now means getting access to a mission, a map and some gear before Xbox players in Destiny. On Xbox One, it means a beta for multiplayer shooter Evolve a month before release. And on both, it means getting indie games on one console before the other, but often many months after they have launched on Steam. There are still exclusives as we know them, but they are drowning in a sea of oddly defensive posturing from platform-holder execs who are trying to create a competitive advantage where none exists.
Thankfully, this latest measuring contest did produce one jaw-dropping announcement, though it was remarkable because it was questionable, rather than for being a killer blow to the competition. Microsoft’s securing of Rise Of The Tomb Raider, announced as a multiplatform game at E3 two months earlier, as an Xbox exclusive would have been a showstopper in 1997, but times have changed. Microsoft has presumably paid handsomely for the rights to the sequel to a game that failed to meet sales targets, that only broke even after heavy discounting, and whose remastered release sold more than twice as many copies on PS4 as it did on Xbox One.
In any case, what the Tomb Raider announcement most invited was not anger or excitement, but suspicion, which within 24 hours turned out to be entirely justified. “Exclusive to Xbox, holiday 2015.” What about 2016? Microsoft PR insisted it was a permanent exclusive; developer Crystal Dynamics said the same. Nobody believed them. Phil Spencer later admitted the deal “has a duration” but spoke of Tomb Raider the franchise, rather than Rise Of The Tomb Raider specifically, perhaps to leave room for interpretation (and Internet arguments).
However long it may last, the Tomb Raider deal shows that Spencer has begun to exert his new-found influence. At GDC six months ago, weeks before his move into Marc Whitten’s old corner office, he insisted that exclusives were still key to a console’s success. While six months isn’t enough time to get any of them made, it’s certainly enough to buy some up, and the change in attitude has been immediate. This was, once again, all about the games, and in particular all about exclusives.
There was a renewed confidence, too. PR best practice says you should never mention the competition, yet within minutes Spencer was talking about PS3, even if it was in the context of transferring Grand Theft Auto Online progress to GTAV on Xbox One. A new Forza Horizon 2 trailer proclaimed it the most social racing game ever made, a barely concealed jab at delayed PS4 racer DriveClub. Spencer said twice that Microsoft was committed to making Xbox One “the best place to play”, a phrase used in prerelease PS4 advertising and within these pages by Andrew House and Fergal Gara. If you can’t steal their market, you might as well lift their marketing.
Spencer said twice that Microsoft was committed to making Xbox One “the best place to play”
Yet Microsoft’s show also emphasised a reliance on old-fashioned thinking. It showcased the seventh main Assassin’s
Creed game in as many years; the latest in the 21-year-old FIFA series; and the 11th Call Of Duty game since 2003. Sledgehammer studio head Glen
Schofield said his team was building “a truly next-gen Call Of Duty”, but the claim didn’t stand up to close scrutiny when the demo began, kicking off with a vehicle chase that felt more like a next-gen Chase
HQ and climaxing with a tightly scripted corridor gunfight on the Golden Gate Bridge. For all the claims of innovation, Microsoft’s was still a show front-loaded with an extended look at FIFA and culminating in almost 20 minutes of Halo. That evening, Sony began its stage show with a trio of games so markedly different from Microsoft’s opening salvo that you had to wonder if it had tweaked its running order in response. Q-Games’ socialist crafting game The Tomorrow
Children, The Astronauts’ detective mystery The Vanishing Of Ethan Carter and Mike Bithell’s Unity-built stealth game
Volume sent the message that Sony is looking beyond the decades-old blockbusters. Microsoft hadn’t overlooked indies, but by condensing two-dozen games into a two-minute sizzle reel and a few minute-long teasers, only giving significant stage time to Ori And The
Blind Forest, it made its priorities obvious. Sony, meanwhile, seems to have finally realised that there is only so much worth saying about a new annual iteration that is all but guaranteed to sell by the bucketload anyway.
Instead we got Tequila Works’ gorgeous Rime, Supermassive’s teen horror Until Dawn, Housemarque’s
Alienation and Ruffian’s Hollowpoint. We got Wild, an incredibly ambitious openworld game from Rayman creator Michel Ancel. We got Tearaway Unfolded, rumoured ahead of the show to be a straight port of the Vita version, but which has been smartly retooled around DualShock 4. While Microsoft’s show was led by Phils Spencer and Harrison, Sony did its best to keep the suits out of the way. Mike Bithell was animated, self-effacing and thoroughly personable. Dean Hall, here to announce a PS4 version of DayZ, marvelled at how he had gone from unknown modder to Sony’s stage in the space of three years.
When SCEE boss Jim Ryan did take the stage, it was to drop a bomb, announcing that PS4 had passed ten million units sold – and clarifying that meant sold through, not shipped. He would return to reintroduce Share Play, sketched out by David Perry when PS4 was unveiled in 2013 and set to launch alongside system software 2.0 in the autumn. It lets you invite an online friend into a game for co-op or competitive multiplayer, or to take over control of your singleplayer game, for 60 minutes without them needing to own the title. It is an application of Gaikai that stands to benefit everyone involved, and no doubt its warm reception had Microsoft looking once more at its own cloud strategy.
There were bum notes, of course. Activision’s Eric Hirshberg is uncommonly charismatic for a gaming exec, but he still sucked the atmosphere out of the room with an overlong segment on Destiny. While there must have been high fives at Sony when Hideo Kojima agreed to a stage appearance, we would’ve loved to have seen the reaction when he said he would be talking about cardboard boxes. And while expected, it was disappointing to have it confirmed that Europe won’t see streaming service PlayStation Now until next year.
You sense both camps will have come away satisfied, but Sony will be the happier. It still has the more powerful console and has got it into vastly more homes than the competition, remains competitive on price, and displayed the greater creativity here in both software and services. Microsoft is back on course, but it’s a company treading water, waiting for the games that will properly resonate with Spencer’s vision and the audience he courts.
What both showed was that Gamescom has become a vital part of the industry calendar. It’s still no E3, but there is diminishingly little room at the LA show for anything but the biggest of hitters, and Koelnmesse provides a valuable opportunity to turn attention to riskier, less glamorous, fresher games.
While E3 masquerades as a trade show, Gamescom opens its doors to the public on the second day and allows access to anyone for the price of a ticket. Its attendees fund their visits from their own pockets, not a company credit card. Within minutes of the doors opening, a queue was formed for Bloodborne that was best measured in time rather than length, those in line accepting an eighthour wait as a small price to pay to play a game still months from shelves.
It’s the sheer enthusiasm real players bring to Gamescom that makes it special, people coming from across Europe for a weekend in the city exuding the kind of joy only so many fans converging for one purpose can bring. Developers can present their game demonstrations as pure fan service, and it makes for a spectacular show. Within an hour, the halls are rammed, more are opened to handle the overflow, and queues outside are frozen as players filter into the giant complex. Koelnmesse dwarfs the LA Convention Center, but Gamescom has now outgrown its venue. Crowds shuffle, barely moving. Cologne’s hotels are fully booked a month in advance, and those eight-hour queues were formed by players sprinting as soon as the doors opened.
E3 remains the brightest possible spotlight for the year’s games, but Gamescom might just be the industry’s greatest celebration of them. Every player brings to the show a sincere love for the medium, and every night you hear from developers struck with appreciation that anyone would get on a plane, book a hotel room, and spend hours in an odoriferous sauna to play five minutes of their work. Sony and Microsoft might have taken all the headlines, but Gamescom’s real winner was, once again, the player.
Michel Ancel (above) may have set up his own studio in Wild Sheep, but he’ll still be working at Ubisoft at the same time as building Wild for PS4. SCEE chief Jim Ryan (right) talks PS4 Share Play