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E3 In-Depth: Sony's Press Conference Charts A Steady Path

Sony's E3 2011 press conference didn't have any significant surprises, but hit all the right notes -- putting the company in position for a successful, if not paradigm-shifting year ahead.
Sony's Gamasutra attended press conference at E3 2011 in Los Angeles didn't have any significant surprises, but hit all the right notes -- putting the company in position for a successful, if not paradigm-shifting year ahead. Sony Computer Entertainment America president and CEO Jack Tretton took the stage, opening up with an apology for the recent PlayStation Network downtime. "Not the first time I've come to E3 with an elephant in the room," Tretton remarked, before apologizing to Sony's third party partners and to its gamer audience -- setting the right tone by neither dwelling too long on the problem nor glossing over it. "Network activity is currently at over 90 percent of the levels prior to the outage," he remarked, implying that troubles are behind the company. In typical blowout press conference fashion, demos of major titles followed -- with the intended show stoppers being Uncharted 3 and Resistance 3. While the demos, as always, were carefully chosen for their polish, they do show the level of craft and attention these developers -- one owned by Sony and the other a longtime partner -- can bring to bear in the third iteration of their respective series. They will sell well, and show us where we are in the PlayStation 3's lifespan -- smack dab in the middle, when developers come to full grips with the hardware, and IP that seemed fresh just a few years ago is simply expected. Both were, of course, presented in 3D -- as last year, Sony's conference was often a glasses-on experience. However, the company presented no data on 3D use among the PS3 install base, which leads us to continue to wonder how relevant it is to the system's success or failure. Tretton, however, said that the company's "commitment to 3D is unwavering," a mandate no doubt-related to its parent company's desire to sell TV sets, and in fact introduced a PlayStation-branded 3D television package that the company is partnering with the electronics division of Sony to deliver. For $499, gamers will get a 24" unit packed with glasses and Resistance 3. "That will lower the price barrier and drive 3D adoption," said Tretton. Another "is this really helping?" moment came in further discussion of the PlayStation Move. Tretton said that the unit has sold 8.8 million units worldwide since its introduction last fall, and talked up how much consumers like it. Sony even got Irrational Games' Ken Levine on stage to announce Move support for BioShock Infinite, with a narrative designed to illustrate the veteran developer's understanding of what Move could do to bring the story-driven game to a wider audience. It would be very nice for Sony and developers if rich, creatively-driven but traditional games like this could be sold to broader audiences via Move support, but it's hard to feel confident that this is going to have an effect. Some of the interesting announcements at the conference were pretty low-key. While an original Vita BioShock universe title is a great get for Sony, details were nonexistent. And while CCP's EVE Online tie-in shooter Dust 514 becoming a PlayStation 3 exclusive is absolutely cool -- the game is potentially quietly revolutionary for the way it meaningfully hooks in to the PC MMO. But whether or not it matters to the PS3 audience meaningfully as an exclusive is another thing entirely. Another thing about the conference was just how samey almost everything looked. From Resistance 3 to the Move-based fantasy action game Medieval Moves, most games were action-based games with, in one way or another, shooting. BioShock Infinite was the outlier... And let's face it; it's not that different from a shooter unless you're hardcore enough to understand the nuance. The only primarily focused Japanese-developed game in the entire presentation was Capcom's Vita port of Street Fighter x Tekken, showing the continued drop in relevance of games from the region to the Sony audience. No games from the platform holder's Japan Studio were anything but briefly discussed. Of course, the real star of the press conference was the PlayStation Vita -- with its name, 2011 release date, and its Nintendo-embarrassing $249 price-point revealed. While the lineup didn't feature any surprising titles, ModNation Racers, a Sony Bend-developed Uncharted, and LittleBigPlanet show that the company has its Worldwide Studios organization ducks in a row when it comes to the platform (Bend has been developing Uncharted for two years, according to the developers.) Meanwhile, Idol Minds' Ruin, a Torchlight-like action RPG, shows the company is committed to delivering the same game on PS3 and Vita, complete cloud saves, allowing gamers to swap between the two versions -- it'll be interesting to see how the symbiosis between the two systems progresses. Of course, Sony Computer Entertaiment president and group CEO Kaz Hirai's words for the Vita were almost comically fulsome -- it "breaks traditional boundaries of entertainment" and offers "new ways to control the device, interact with your world and your friends" -- the device's dual cameras allow for augmented reality functions which will let you "play with every aspect of your real life... a critical component to the development and DNA of this product." But it is pretty nice. You can't argue with the robustness of the device. While it doesn't do any single innovative thing meaningfully, robust network connectivity, two touch panels, a host of buttons, a fantastic screen, and meaningful processor power, and a very nice price poise the machine well. 2011 use patterns in the West may not line up well with the system -- it's just not clear whether Sony can bounce back on the handheld front just yet -- but at the very least it seems likely to be the dominant platform for core gamers in Japan, where the PSP currently outsells all other systems routinely. "We're confident that PS Vita will be the first product that truly blurs the lines between entertainment and your real life," said Hirai. Maybe, maybe not -- but it will be a system that delivers really nice core gamer titles, enhanced well with contemporary features, and that may be enough for a solid success level. In general, Sony's press conference was a pure example of "staying the course" -- nothing was revolutionary or surprising, but the company is (assuming its network doesn't take another dive) executing its strategies extremely competently. Drawing in a sizable new audience or overtaking the Xbox 360 seems a remote possibility at the moment, but the company is very much in the fight, slugging away.

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