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Why Sony continues to win E3, year after year

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After two days of press conferences — in which video game publishers and developers appear before their fans, heads bent with hands raised presenting their fragile wares — it is customary to choose a winner of E3. Anyone may participate, but a definitive victor will be selected in no time by the winnowing of public opinion.

Since 2013, with the reveal of the current generation of console hardware, Sony has tended to lay claim to the crown at E3. Its leadership capitalized shrewdly on Microsoft’s decision, early in the Xbox One’s lifecycle, to focus on hardware, media partnerships, and celebrity cameos. From the very start, Sony emphasized games.

People who love games, unsurprisingly, felt catered to by Sony, and in return declared the console maker their champion. And so, like a prizefighter with a proven routine, Sony has focused on games every year since. Remasters like last year’s Final Fantasy VII. Surprise games like this year’s Spider-Man. Beautifully rendered indie games, VR games, sequels and new properties. Whatever would please its base, Sony provided like a humble caveman lugging home mammoth after mammoth.

Spider-Man

This year was no different. Sony focused on games today; Microsoft didn’t.

Microsoft delivered a grand vision of the future, both opening and closing its conference with announcements of new consoles: the former is a slimmer version of the current Xbox One, the latter is a more powerful evolution. But a slim new Xbox One is a strange thing to promote when the current Xbox One is being outsold by Sony’s PlayStation 4 by a margin of almost two to one.

Microsoft's event focused on hardware at the beginning and end

Once again, Microsoft offered a compelling event for those of us who enjoy the boardroom intrigue of the games industry as much as the games themselves. Though as someone who has seen our in-depth reports on game developers be dwarfed in readership by a 15-second teaser for Pokemon, I can assure Microsoft that its business plans are of little interest to average E3 viewers.

The company’s decision to emphasize hardware — or anything else that isn’t pure gameplay — is strange, considering that last year the company finally released its grip on the electric wire. That event focused on a dense, albeit familiar slate of holiday game releases, and a smattering of imaginative indie titles. While that format still reverberated through this year’s presser, it was regularly interrupted by fascinating but ultimately technical announcements.

Xbox Design Lab

Customizable controllers. PC connectivity. Online features. All of these features sound compelling to us at The Vergeand we analyzed them at length. But no amount of supplemental hardware options will compete, for the game lover, with new games.

The reason why is simple: the console is a means to an end, and that end is playing games. I’m excited to play games on a more powerful Xbox, but if I could just play games and not think about the hardware I would choose that option 11 times out of 10. Sony understands that, and it was especially apparent tonight, when the company opened with a reveal of a reboot for a beloved franchise, and ended with a protracted preview of a new franchise from one of the company’s oldest developers. And between that: games.

A console is a means to an end

Sony took one brief moment to announce a release date for its PSVR, and even that felt like a volley for the spike of PSVR announcements that followed it. Before the show Sony actually confirmed its own plan for a new, updated console, but explained that the hardware wouldn’t make an appearance at E3. And there’s a reason why. Because to succeed at E3 isn't to explain the earthly stuff — buying hardware, saving money — but to sell dreams. Who knows if half Sony’s announced games will be good? Who knows if all of them will be released. I would bet against it!

If there’s one similarity between E3 and the real world, it’s that people are more passionate about someone who gives them what they want, than a business-minded pragmatist that explains a strategy for the future. The difference here is Sony quite often delivers.

Sony for president? At E3, it could happen. Then again, Microsoft shouldn't be counted out. Unlike an election, where one day decides history, Microsoft has 364 more opportunities to shift its pitch. It certainly has the experience. And if that doesn't work? There's always next year. We know what Sony will do.


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