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It's rare for a videogames show - be it E3, TGS or any other event - to have clear winners and losers from among the top publishers and platform holders. In general, there are positives and negatives on all sides. Take this year's E3 for example, where despite the strong media backlash against Sony's arrogant attitude in their press conference (not to mention their price point), the firm did succeed in showing off a surprisingly polished array of software both in playable and trailer form.
This year's Games Convention in Leipzig is an exception to this rule. There is a very clear winner, and a very clear loser, in the Leipziger Messe this week, as 150,000 consumers are currently finding out - and hundreds of press types have already discovered. The winner is Microsoft. The loser, by means of shameful default, is Sony - whose utter complacency has now reached the level where it couldn't even be bothered putting on a press conference or making any meaningful next-gen related announcement at Europe and the world's biggest videogames event.
Microsoft sealed its victory with a stunning PR coup in the closing moments of its press conference on Wednesday. The firm has become very adept at making all the right noises in front of the world's press ever since the somewhat embarrassing "three amigos" conference at E3 2005, and this week's event was no exception. Slick and consistently on-message, the conference took a demonstrative approach to new software and devices rather than making wild promises - and crucially, it focused on the products rather than the ego or public profile of the speakers themselves.
The one moment of pure, unashamed PR spin came at the end. "Xbox 360 owns football," Chris Lewis told the audience, having just revealed that Pro Evolution Soccer and FIFA are both going to be "next-gen exclusive" to the Xbox 360 for 12 months. The US media seems to have largely missed the significance of this announcement; for the benefit of our American readers, imagine if Microsoft had announced casually that every American Football game on the market is locked into Xbox 360 for 12 months. Except with soccer - a game that other countries actually care about, and one which has a particularly massive mindshare in Europe, Asia and South America.
The reality of the situation is, of course, not quite so dramatic. Sports gamers by and large tend towards the casual end of the spectrum, and there is probably minimal cross-over between the demographic which wants a new FIFA game and the demographic which is prepared to pay over 400 pounds, brave whatever labyrinthine pre-order scheme Sony devises, and probably queue up in the rain at midnight on the launch day in mid-November. By next Christmas, the PS3 will have both top football franchises running happily on its console, which is what really matters - and for this year, most sports fans will probably be happy to simply pick up the latest FIFA and PES iterations on their PS2 or PSP.
Despite this, the PR victory scored by Microsoft here cannot be underestimated. The power of the company's spin machine continues to leave the rest of the games industry in awe even after an entire console generation of experience - and the "Xbox 360: Home of Football" line will be promoted so heavily in the coming months that not a single gamer won't be aware of Microsoft's sporting coup. It won't stop the PS3 from selling out this Christmas - nothing short of divine intervention could do that - but it will certainly win headlines, and may well give pause for thought to many consumers considering holding off an Xbox 360 purchase in favour of a PS3 in the new year.
So, faced with this major shot over its bows, how did the Sony behemoth respond?
It didn't, is the short answer. There was no Sony conference in Leipzig this week, and the only announcement to emerge was a desultory ten pound price cut to the PlayStation 2, a console which was already being unofficially discounted by many retailers anyway. Certainly, there's an argument that Sony should save itself for the inevitable PS3 blitz at the Tokyo Game Show in a few weeks' time, but quite frankly, given the intense negativity surrounding both the company and its forthcoming console in the specialist media - much of which is leaking over into the mainstream press as well - it should be using every opportunity available to it to present PS3 in a positive light.
Consider this: Leipzig was an opportunity for Sony to show off software a full three months closer to completion than its E3 demos, a chance to let people get their hands on the new motion-sensitive controller for PS3 and experience it for themselves, and a chance to talk about its launch software line-up and assuage fears of a PS2-style software drought in the early months of the system's lifespan. It would have given the company the ability to bring European consumers - typically not a race of early adopters - on board with the PS3 before serious retail pre-orders kick off.
Instead, it did none of these things. There is no playable PS3 code in Leipzig, not even the recycled E3 demos which many other companies have wheeled out to the public here. Instead, there is a pretentious booth where bored consumers can lounge around and peer at rolling demos which they already saw on the Internet several months ago. Sony's presence here feels very much like that of a company which is only here because it feels like it has to be (which is true - it really does have to be), and once again its approach to PS3 feels like it's only releasing a next-gen console because it absolutely has to. That attitude was acceptable a year ago when the firm could legitimately gripe that Microsoft was forcing its hand.
Three months from the launch of the PS3, Sony needs to start bringing people on board, or risk the Xbox 360 realising stellar sales while the PS3 is still being held back from mainstream consumers by launch demand and limited numbers. At Leipzig this week, the firm made no new friends - and regardless of the strength of its brand or the installed base of PS2, both of which are indisputably key factors in the next-gen battle, Sony still needs friends far more than either of its rivals do at the moment.
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