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Opinion: Sony Shows Its Online Stripes

Despite significant skepticism that its online infrastructure was unfinished, incomplete, or otherwise deficient, the PS3 Gamer's Day in San Francisco showed an essentially robust PlayStation Online service - but will it be enough to compete with Microsof
Despite significant skepticism that its online infrastructure was unfinished, incomplete, or otherwise deficient, the PS3 Gamer's Day in San Francisco showed an essentially robust PlayStation Online service - but will it be enough to compete with Microsoft? The first thing to note about Sony's initial presentation is simple - it was informative, straightforward, streamlined, and massively improved from the haphazard-seeming E3 PlayStation 3 press conference. For whatever reason, the E3 coming-out of PS3 suffered from overlong product demonstrations (often with the demonstrator talking at the same time), shaky staging, and an overall bad vibe. The Power Of Specifics Not so this time - bar Kaz Hirai's microphone not being turned on at the start of the presentation, and some slightly inane banter between Phil Harrison and SOE's John Smedley about the size of Harrison's credit card limit for PlayStation Online, the press conference delivered. We got 'launch window' (close enough, right?) games named, we got peripherals specified, we got the PS3's XMB GUI outlined, and most of all, we got the PS3 Online service demonstrated in real-time, complete with downloadable games. All of this expressed in a confident manner which intimated (and was even directly expressed by Hirai in his conclusion) that PS3 "was ready" for the big-time. Of course, one might argue that Sony having to come out front and state: "Yes, we're ready!" is a bit of a defensive position for the firm to arrive at. But the company, which had just that morning announced a projected profit decline, brazened it out with some style in terms of hardware, GUI, and online services. Sure, the consoles are still $499 and $599, and any amount of free Ricky Bobby Blu-ray discs aren't going to change that fact. But the photo, audio, and movie capabilities of the system do indeed make it feel like 'more than a game system'. Potential Stumbling Blocks? So, with 22 PS3 games in the 'launch window' (an unclear amount available on launch day), and with multiple downloadable games also coming down the pipeline (including free game demos, as the Xbox 360 has been doing so successfully), where are the gaps in Sony's armor? What's between it and a perfect launch, at this point - besides supply, of course? Well, there's the semi-surprise showing of a built-in PS3 friends list option, for one, and what it implies for the completely separate use of Xfire for certain launch games. Usable as a feature within the XMB, Phil Harrison clearly demonstrated the concept - you can have friends, message them, see their icons, and even ban people from playing against you. But how does this friends list tie in with Xfire's completely separate, networked in-game friends list? Will some people be forced to use different names on the different services? This sounds potentially very messy. Separately from that, a number of the third-party games are clearly lacking networked features, due to the apparent lack of an SDK until very late in the game. For example, the very pleasant Neversoft employee demonstrating us Tony Hawk's Project 8 mentioned the location-specific trick leaderboards which will be available in the Xbox 360 version - but not, apparently, the PlayStation 3 one. Some games do have oodles of multiplayer: Resistance: Fall Of Man in particular, which apparently boasts 40 players in the same map. Insomniac's Ted Price was quick to reference the large amount of complex online features, including clans, in-game experience points, and tournament match-ups in his presentation. Unified Online 4 Ever? Here's the rub - Insomniac can clearly afford to do a lot of this from scratch. But networked high scores and matching work so well on the Xbox 360 because it's a free service with reasonably complex infrastructure already in place - and it's a lot of fun, too - since all games have it, it's universally accepted and appreciated. By giving developers 'freedom', Sony has also (at least for now) limited the ease with which complex online interaction on PS3 can take off. And how about the PS3 equivalent of achievements? Harrison and others have mentioned this before in passing (generally in the course of the 'everything X360 can do, we can do better' spiel), but there was nary a mention of it in the presentations today. There was this, and the PS3 'friends' functionality (which is good on a basic level, but really feels like it's not built in a rock-solid way into the PS3's OS), and the fact that it sounds like PlayStation 3 emulation of PS1 games won't be up and running on launch day (you'll be able to grab them straight to PSP). All of these things point to a machine which is, indubitably, up and running and together, but feels slightly, just slightly, designed by committee. But hey, with PS3 OS updates downloadable over the network, the good news for Sony is that they have a good few years to smooth over any cracks. It All Comes Together So, to conclusions. PS3's hardware, OS, and online functionality is all present and correct, and though it feels a little conjured together at the last minute, it's in the box on November 17th. What of the rest of the launch? There will be a modicum of great games available at launch (Resistance: Fall Of Man in particular - a number of the other launch titles look competent and solid, if a bit jaggy in places, rather than overwhelmingly exciting). And there will be some pretty good downloadable games available somewhere around launch (Blast Factor is a competent Geometry Wars/Mutant Storm style title, with a Sixaxis controller-flinging twist, and fl0w is still endearingly abstract). But one of the most eye-opening moments of the conference was David Jaffe being ushered onstage to demonstrate Criminal Crackdown, his in-progress PlayStation 3 downloadable title. It's a testament to the revolutionary power of Xbox Live Arcade that the creator of God Of War was completely happy to show off a small, addictive-looking multiplayer game that was created by just a few Sony employees (and which owed more to a super-deformed version of Twisted Metal than perhaps he realized). As for the approach of handing Jaffe the equivalent of an Xbox Live Arcade title to make - it's oddly illogical, but it worked. Indeed, that could be said of Sony's entire approach to the creation of the PlayStation 3, which has led to a more potent product than many detractors could have imagined. It's not there, but - you know what? It's close enough. [Gamasutra covered full Sony's PlayStation 3 announcements live as they happened in San Francisco, including a full report on the press conference and the confirmed launch window games for PS3 - consult these for more detail.]

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