The benefit of Experience
Sony’s second PlayStation Experience shows more love for fans, and more reliance than ever on indies
On the ground in San Francisco for Sony’s PSX extravaganza
The Moscone Center is not normally quite so hyperactive. We know this venue best as the home of the Game Developers Conference. For a few days every March this San Francisco convention centre is filled with the great and good of the dev scene, a relaxed, cool, restrained game of Business Card Swapsies and Count The Fedora, attendees saving the raucousness for the next night of parties. Yet the 2,000 PlayStation fans who got to the Moscone early enough to see Sony’s keynote session are making one hell of a racket. It begins well before the show has even started when Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail gets up from his seat to head outside and is spotted by fans and cheered loudly. That Rami Ismail is lauded for simply being Rami Ismail says a lot about PlayStation Experience; we feel a little like outsiders here. Some may say that PS4’s marketing tagline can ring hollow, but this is an event made purely for the players.
Well, almost. When some of the most committed members of your fanbase are sat in the room with you, is it really the best time to mass-release a host of indie games onto the PlayStation Store? While it may have ticked the box for the nowmandatory surprise mid-conference release, everyone else – not least the developers of Nuclear Throne, Fat Princess Adventures, Guns Up, Bit Trip Collection and the Vita port of Bastion – might’ve been better served by the games being spread out across what was a quiet Q4 for PlayStation lovers.
Still, you can see why Sony did it. Nothing gets the crowd going like a surprise, and this throng was only too happy to oblige. One of the weirdest cheers came right at the start, in response to one of the strangest parts of the whole presentation. We suspected Sony would kick things off with Uncharted 4 – it’s out in March, after all, and it was at last year’s inaugural PSX that Naughty Dog showed the game running for the first time. What we hadn’t expected was that the sum total of footage for a game that will be on shelves in less than four months would be a single cutscene. Yes, it was our first look at the dynamic between Nathan Drake and his estranged brother, Sam. But it revealed nothing new about the game apart from a single mid-cutscene dialogue choice, which prompted another, faintly confused, shout from the crowd. While presumably a conscious decision to avoid a repeat of Uncharted 3’ s pre-release marketing, which left few set-pieces unspoiled, it was a curiously disappointing way to kick things off.
The theme continued, by and large, for the rest of the show. While the now-realtime Final Fantasy VII Remake is either the best or the worst thing ever depending on your viewpoint, it was one of few true highlights. Once that was out of the way it was over to Shelby Cox, SCEA director of publisher and developer relations, who must’ve drawn the short straw during an early planning meeting. Hers was the Contractual Obligations spot, pimping DLC for Battlefront and Black Ops III, the latter of which will appear first on PlayStation. Cox did her best to couch this as being a decision made for the players, rather than for the message it sends. “All for you guys,” she said, with a whoop. “All because it makes Microsoft look bad” might have been more honest.
In the continuing absence of the sort of firstparty exclusive lineup befitting of the biggest-selling console in the world, Sony continues to instead secure exclusive extras from third-parties, if only so it has something to actually talk about during shows like these. Gearbox’s please-don’t-call-it-a-MOBA Battleborn, for instance, will launch in May with 25 playable characters. On PS4, you can make that 26, provided you play the open beta on PS4 – where it will, of course, launch first. Gearbox hasn’t actually got round to designing this bonus yet, but company president Randy Pitchford seemed confident enough about it. This, though, is a man who remains proud of Aliens Colonial Marines and took to the stage in a quite mesmerisingly awful shirt. As if by way of distraction he unveiled a new Battleborn character: a screechy penguin in a mech suit called Toby. It just about worked.
Elsewhere, Sony seemed to have gone over 2014’s PSX show plan and decided to simply do the same stuff again. The Vita port of Bastion that launched during this show was announced at 2014’s. Thirdparty relations exec Gio Corsi followed up 2014’s surprise news of a Yakuza 5 localisation with a long-overdue release date for it, then announced a localisation of Yakuza 0. He was joined for some awkward banter by Tim Schafer, who announced a remake of Day Of The Tentacle at 2014’s PSX. This time he gave it a release date, then revealed Full Throttle Remastered. No doubt he’ll be back in 2016 with a release date for that and the announcement of something else.
There was a tremendous amount of filler, too, particularly for those whose
That Rami Ismail is lauded for simply being Rami Ismail says a lot about PlayStation Experience
interest in games extends beyond the PlayStation brand. There was a trailer for Don’t Starve Together, a free expansion to Klei’s survival game that PC players were playing six months ago. There was another for Zodiac: Orcanon Odyssey, already a month old on iOS. Bungie announced a three-week-long racing event in Destiny that would launch three days later. There was a twin-stick shooter whose name we’ve already forgotten, and we only just looked it up again.
It wasn’t all bad. Insomniac Games’ affable head honcho Ted Price put a release date on the charming-looking Ratchet & Clank. There was the surprise announcement of Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom, though the apparent absence of the first game’s brilliantly Welsh sidekick Drippy was keenly felt. And Tetsuya Mizuguchi’s Daft-Punk-suited demo of PSVR’s Rez Infinite (see p38) sent attendees of a certain age into raptures.
Ah, yes, the elephant in the room. The imminent arrival of VR is going to challenge almost every corner of the game industry: how to best make, film, market, cover or illustrate it will be some of the big questions of 2016. And, as this showed, how to demonstrate it, too. Dr Richard Marks from Sony’s Magic Lab certainly talked a good game about the innovative way in which his team was going to use the three onstage screens to showcase a twoplayer VR battle – the left and right displays for each warrior’s view, and thirdperson in the middle. Sadly his setup wigged out, his avatar flailing around a bit before slumping over, immobile. The audience winced, bit its fist, and waited for it all to be over. Soon enough it was, Epic Games closing out the show by properly revealing its new project, Paragon. Surprise, surprise – it’s a MOBA.
The presentation dragged because, at the end of a long year of announcements, there simply isn’t that much new to show off. Sony cannot unveil a Shenmue III every three months, after all. But the point of PSX is not to wow the world with an E3-rivalling suite of announcements, it’s to give Joe Public a peek behind the curtain, a taste of industry life. While we raise an eyebrow at an outburst of whooping during an E3 press conference, here the cheers were honest, born of excitement not necessarily at the news itself, but of simply being in the room for its announcement. While we eye tradeshow cosplayers and swag-bag carriers with suspicion, at PSX we know they’re here out of passion, and on merit.
Similarly, while people can look at the distance from Nintendo to Warner Bros on an E3 floorplan and ask if it’s really worth the bother, here attendees covered the whole floor. This wasn’t just a matter of enthusiasm, however, but also some savvy gamification of the format by Sony. Staff were stationed about the place handing out one of a 35-strong deck of PlayStation-themed collectible cards. Attendees signed up for the event using their PSN handle, which was then implanted in a QR code on their show passes. At scanning points, queues quickly formed so fans could check in, unlocking rewards –- avatars, themes and discounts – on the PlayStation Store, all tracked in a mobile app. There were even Trophies to be had.
The result was that every part of the Moscone felt busy all weekend, and ensured that showgoers saw more than just the big-hitters. Just as well, perhaps, since so much floor space was given to games that were already out – including Star Wars Battlefront, NBA 2K16 and Destiny – or already playable ( Uncharted 4’ s vast booth housed a multiplayer demo the day after the launch of its multiplayer beta, for example).
The greatest thrills were to be found off the beaten track. Sony might’ve clustered indie games together in tight corridors around the periphery of the Moscone Center’s three floors, but doing so betrays how reliant on them the biggest-selling console in the world has become. Perhaps next year it should throw them a party, too.
Sadly his setup wigged out, his avatar flailing around a bit before slumping over, immobile
CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT Fans gather for the opening of PlayStation Experience’s doors; PlayStation VR hardware ready for testing; SCEA president and CEO Shawn Layden models a T-shirt that could be politely described as “borrowed from a friend”