Could this be the last year 'For the Players' is enough for PlayStation?
Sony's message has held it in good stead, but it needs to evolve for the future.
Sony goes into this year's E3 on the crest of the same wave it's been riding ever since Jack Tretton's killer blows a couple of years back, when the company didn't so much grasp victory as sneakily pocket it while the Xbox One floundered in the turbulent twilight of Don Mattrick's reign. Microsoft has since made up for its early missteps and then some, cutting the Xbox One's price and unleashing wave after wave of big-hitting exclusive games as the console has been dynamically realigned, but the momentum has remained firmly with Sony all the same. The 22 million consoles shifted in the first 18 months of the PlayStation 4's life has already laid down a significant marker.
Sony has confidence, then, and it's perfectly entitled to it. Confidence enough that its biggest hitter, Uncharted 4, has been pushed back to early next year, allowing Nathan Drake's foremother Lara Croft the limelight to herself in the Xbox One's (timed) exclusive. Confidence enough that it doesn't even feel the need to smash out big triple-A games of its own in time for them to be wrapped and placed under the Christmas tree. Microsoft goes into Q4 2015 with Halo 5, Forza 6 and, through its deal struck up with Square Enix, Tomb Raider. Heading into E3, Sony has naught to show for itself but a repackaged, remastered and slightly dusty Uncharted trilogy. Looking at the tale of the tape, when it comes to those big exclusives that used to be oh so important in console dust-ups, Microsoft must be wondering what it's doing wrong, and how it's still getting a bloody nose.
This wouldn't be the first time Sony's gone into the tail-end of the year with slim pickings from its first-party studios, and perhaps it's learnt that the game's changed. At this point in time, maybe it just doesn't need them. A large part of PlayStation 4's appeal - and the simple key to its success - is that it's the best place to play the biggest games, and that's looking no less true this year. When you've got what looks like a partnership with Star Wars: Battlefront, this year's biggest ticket - and a shooter that looks on course to put Call of Duty firmly in the shade - why not just sit back and let the players roll in? When you've got the boosted presence of Destiny's first major expansion, The Taken King - perhaps one of the few games that'll be able to hold a candle to Battlefront's inevitable success - why bother going up against it?
Having the combined might of Activision and EA working in your favour, it's understandable why Sony might be averse to sending any of its own out to compete on what's already looking like a bruising battlefield. Factor in Metal Gear Solid 5 and, quite possibly, Fallout 4 and the triple-A market's already pretty much sewn up this year. Sitting on the sidelines while the heavyweights slug it out in your name doesn't seem like a bad idea after all.
What'll be fascinating, then, is what glimpses we get of where Sony positions the PlayStation 4 for 2016 and beyond, and how it's going to build upon the console's considerable success. The 'For the Players' message has helped push it past the 20 million point, yet the real challenge comes after that - with the early adopters and the hardcore already onboard, the philosophy is going to have to evolve if the PlayStation 4 is going to keep its momentum, and Sony's going to have to come up with a new spin on the mantra which has already served it so well.
Will that be in the exciting frontier of virtual reality, embodied in Sony's instance with Morpheus? Placing the PlayStation 4 in the first wave of VR is a smart move - with a 2016 release date, it'll come hot on the heels of Oculus and Vive - yet it's not likely to attract a significant new audience. In its early years VR's likely to occupy a nerdish niche, playing to the hardcore early adopters who are already onboard with the PlayStation 4.
Perhaps it's in No Man's Sky, the timed exclusive whose procedural worlds look like they could well define a generation - or, at the very least, could bottle up some of magic of the YouTube-baiting phenomenons that occupy the Steam bestseller lists for a console-friendly take on the formula. You get the sense that the weight of expectation is beginning to bear down a little uneasily on the shoulders of Hello Games, but at this point it doesn't need a show-stopping trailer or hair-raising fly-through - just a release date would be enough to keep the fans at fever pitch.
Or maybe it's in some of Worldwide Studios' more distant prospects. The Witcher's proven to be a breakout success this year, so what better time to show our first glimpse at Guerrilla's rumoured all-new IP, an open world RPG that could marry the Dutch studio's impeccable production values with that most vogueish of genres. This is a developer responsible for games that are almost tailor-made for an E3 stage show, and in moving away from the shooter they could well find acclaim off of it too. Maybe it's time, too, for Polyphony Digital to finally show its hand - where, if logic dictates, a slimmed down Gran Turismo 7 could debut to appease the fans while Kazunori Yamauchi tinkers away with the finished piece. And while we're in the realm of wishful thinking, why not end it all with a glimpse at the revived, rebooted Last Guardian for PS4? Questions remain about where exactly Sony will take PlayStation 4 after its sterling start, and what better way to silence them than answering the question that's hung over every conference for six long years.
Sony has the luxury, though, of being able to play it straight, at a time when its competitors are still in a state of flux: Microsoft as it straddles both consoles and PC with its cross-platform play and Nintendo as it buys time before its full NX reveal. This could well be the last year in which Sony wins out by keeping the message focussed firmly on the games, even if it's only got a handful of its own to show for the year's end.