Cologne wars

With mo­men­tum on its side, Sony wins the day at Gamescom, but the real stars of this show are play­ers

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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

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