E3 Reaction: Microsoft vs. Sony: The Console War Is Over, For Now

Both companies have new goals and the contrasts yesterday illustrated them.

That's Microsoft and Sony out of the way, then, and in immediate hindsight it's tempting to say that they opted for the same approach overall. Both conferences were relatively conservative affairs compared to the pageantry and showboating of previous years (apparently you don't know what you've got with a space poncho until it's gone), as both companies presumably played the strongest hand they could muster while keeping a lot in reserve for the inevitable unveiling of next-generation consoles in 2013. However, upon closer inspection there were a number of stark contrasts.

One of the most interesting was the way both companies bookended their conferences. Sony chose two of its biggest and most bankable studio assets, first-party Naughty Dog and second-party Quantic Dream, but both developers presented brand new IP. Beyond: Two Souls and The Last of Us may share a lot of DNA with Heavy Rain and the Uncharted series respectively, but only in the same way that there are common threads between films made by the same director, like the aesthetic sensibilities of David Lynch movies or the unashamed marriage of spectacle and accessibility in James Cameron's output.

The Last of Us owes a lot to Naughty Dog's work on Uncharted, but should distinguish itself strongly in storytelling.

Microsoft, meanwhile, began with 343 Industries, a studio it has assembled at huge expense by hiring some of the most talented developers around the world... in order to make a sequel. And not even a long-awaited sequel or a story with a lot of headroom, but the sixth game in a series that we've previously been told had completed its narrative arc. To end its conference, it chose a third-party title bound to its platform by commercial fealty - the enormously successful but artistically moribund Call of Duty.

There was new IP at Microsoft's conference, but only Gore Verbinski's bizarre science-fiction Marble Madness lookalike Matter tickled the senses much, while lesser lights were either consigned to Xbox Live Arcade or, in the case of Ascend: New Gods, about as superficially creative as a photocopy dipped in glitter. You could level a similar accusation at Sony's PlayStation All Stars, of course, but it still feels like creativity is a stronger pillar of Sony's commercial strategy with PlayStation than it is with Microsoft and Xbox.

Speaking of which, there were marked differences in corporate body language, too. Chastened by the fallout from last year's PlayStation Network debacle and perhaps nervous about its perilous commercial outlook, Sony paid tribute to the audience at every turn. Where last year he was contrite, this year Jack Tretton - who may never escape comparisons to a likable used-car salesman, although he should take a lot of comfort from the 'likable' part - was able to speak warmly about the passion of gamers and how much Sony owed them. It's always good to know which side your bread is buttered.

Meanwhile, having courted the core gamer at enormous expense for so long, Microsoft now treats us like a trophy wife, there to be shown off during earnings calls or whenever it's corporately expedient. Occasionally it buys us a new trinket to keep us amused, like exclusive downloadable content for Tomb Raider or Call of Duty, but for the most part if we are entertained by what Microsoft chooses to do for its own gain then that is simply a happy coincidence. Halo 4 and Forza Horizon may be core games to us, but they are mainstream propositions to Microsoft, and our interest in them is probably considered quaint.

That's because, at least to some extent, Microsoft has stopped caring about Sony and has reset its sights on its bigger rivals, Google and Apple. Slickly packaged enterprises like SmartGlass, Kinect and Xbox Music - along with Bing, Windows Phone 7 and Windows 8 - are all components of the new grand unifying theory of entertainment that it hopes will allow it to erode market share from the search and electronics giants.

A few years ago, Microsoft would have bought Tomb Raider's exclusivity without thinking twice about it. These days, DLC is enough.

If there's one big positive to take away from Microsoft and Sony's conferences, perhaps it's that, because Microsoft showing less interest in Sony will be much healthier for the traditional games industry overall. If Microsoft was still gunning for core gamer market share, we'd be sitting here talking about Xbox 720, and we wouldn't be seeing token DLC deals but whole games - even empires like Tomb Raider - completely locked out from other platforms. That's just what Microsoft does when it wants to beat you. That kind of aggression might force Sony - potentially short on cash to mount a like-for-like acquisitive defence - to be more conservative. As it is, Sony execs are free to keep backing creative endeavours while its largest competitor levels strategic broadsides at other targets.

As a result, PlayStation 3 has a strong pipeline of interesting content, much of which should be commercially and critically successful, and the tie-up with JK Rowling's Pottermore for Wonderbook could very well be the company's next EyeToy or SingStar moment with the right nurturing. PlayStation Vita still resembles a financial black hole, and much now hangs on the success of games like Call of Duty and FIFA later this year - exactly the same situation the PlayStation Portable found itself in when it launched, suggesting lessons have not been learned - but it's not so much of a crisis that Kaz Hirai can't stand up at the start of his first E3 conference as Sony president and smile and enjoy himself.

There are still some elephants in the room that threaten the games industry's equilibrium - mostly in online and social games, which are under-represented at E3 but are attracting the lion's share of external investment in 2012, a situation that's likely to keep on the way it's going - but overall, after two slightly muted but deeply different conferences from Microsoft and Sony, my feeling is that we've reached a state of convenient d้tente for the time being. It won't last, with serious moves to be made by both firms in 2013, but for now we should focus on the benefits and hope things continue in this vein.

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