E3 death match: Microsoft and Sony battle for gaming supremacy

The sparring video-game giants face off in dueling press conferences, with Sony talking multimedia and hardware and Microsoft sticking to games.

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Josh Miller/CNET

The traditional E3 dueling press conferences between Sony and Microsoft (and sometimes Nintendo) represent each major game console company's best attempt at selling the industry, and the public, on its future game and platform plans.

These are carefully choreographed events, designed to create buzz and excitement, and just as carefully, to sidestep problem topics. In other words, it's a 90-minute-plus elevator pitch on why one console and console ecosystem is better than another.

Having attended nearly every E3 since 1999, I've seen these press events evolve over the years. Corporate execs giving presentations peppered with sales or market-share numbers are out of fashion now, as are celebrity cameos by actors, musicians, or athletes. In their place are demos narrated by game creators and producers, lots of legalistic language about release windows and exclusivity, and plenty of eardrum-splitting loud music.

That's largely because over the years, as these events have grown larger and louder, they've shifted toward a much greater emphasis on streaming directly to consumers live over the Internet, or simulcasting via cable TV, rather than actually playing to the in-person industry audience.

Hardware and multimedia missing from the Xbox One press conference

Arguably placing style over substance, Microsoft remains masterful at tight stagecraft. The Xbox presentation, held the morning of June 9, had no system crashes, awkward pauses, or missed cues, aside from a few teleprompter stumbles. It was orderly and precise, just as one might expect from a leading software and services company.

Making the 90-minute presentation all about game announcements and gameplay demos gave the show a very fast-paced feel, but also imparted very little useful information beyond game names and release dates.

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Josh Miller/CNET
More notable is what Microsoft didn't talk about during its press conference -- namely anything that wasn't a game demo or preview. There was no talk about Xbox One hardware sales, market share, or even larger positioning plans, which is surprising for a console launched only half a year ago.

The Xbox One hardware itself was hardly glimpsed beyond a few closeup beauty shots projected on the giant screen behind the stage. Nothing was said about the recent price cut, which removed the Kinect camera from a less-expensive system bundle, nor was Kinect highlighted in any of the game demos, beyond a tiny clip from an indie game in a larger montage. That's especially surprising, considering that Xbox One was largely pitched at launch as being built around Kinect motion and voice control.

Also left out was any mention of the Xbox One's multimedia features, which is one of the console's real standout strengths. Unlike the PlayStation 4, the Xbox One can use an HDMI input to route your cable or satellite TV box through the console itself and control your TV viewing via Kinect. It's one of the few real points of differentiation between the two systems.

While some formerly premium features, such as access to Netflix and Amazon Prime, have recently moved from beyond the Xbox Live Gold paywall to access for all players, there was no mention of new streaming-media partners or apps, or anything about a promised set of Xbox-exclusive original video programs, beyond a brief mention of a Halo series bundled in with the Halo: Master Chief Collection game.

Xbox Live was barely mentioned, but some of the gameplay demos did highlight multiplayer gaming, including an impressive-looking four-player co-op level in The Division, and some team deathmatch competition in a re-rendered classic Halo level.

By making its press conference all about game demos and previews, Microsoft is moving away, at least in this venue, from its positioning of the Xbox platform as a mainstream living room multimedia entertainment device. What we were left with was a fast-paced, action-packed session that leaned heavily on fan favorites, from Call of Duty to Halo to Crackdown, but also acknowledging in a small way the growing influence of small, independent games, thanks to a brief but interesting section on Microsoft's indie ID@XBOX program.

Sony goes big, broad, and occasionally boring at its press conference

Sony's E3 press conferences have always been long, ambitious affairs, if occasionally meandering and scattershot. At their largest, they have included live music performances (notably from Jane's Addiction a few years ago) and massive demo areas to play upcoming games. Recent iterations have toned down the excess a bit, but the large number of games, features, hardware demos, and corporate executives are enough to fill a full two hours.

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Josh Miller/CNET
This year's version, presented the evening of June 9, felt like the opposite of Microsoft's press conference in some ways. Games were highlighted, yes, but so was the PlayStation 4 console itself, as well as Sony's other gaming hardware platform, the portable PlayStation Vita.

The Project Morpheus virtual reality headset got a brief mention but no demo, and even the optional PlayStation camera received a prominent plug. PlayStation TV, a small set-top box that feels a bit like Amazon's Fire TV, was another hardware entry (it's a revamped version of the Vita TV, a non-US product), making this a very hardware-heavy presentation.

Sony also pushed the multimedia features of the PS4, such as streaming video content and social sharing. The updates here were minor, such as adding YouTube access and new content for the clever augmented reality Playroom app, but with its early lead in the current generation of consoles, you can see Sony pushing past its initial gamer-centric pitch for the PS4.

Unlike the strict timing and military precision of the Microsoft press conference, the Sony version was a bit looser and rougher around the edges -- fitting for a sprawling multinational media company with many disparate divisions selling everything from televisions and cameras to music and movies. A Little Big Planet 3 demo dragged on too long, as did a lengthy talk about a still-in-casting video series. Transitions between segments were haphazard at times, audio cues misfired, and speakers were often not announced to the audience.

But there was more of a sense of fun, too, rather than just pushing product. A recurring bit about reading childlike fan letters (are kids really sending sending hand-written snail-mail letters to Sony?) was the most charming press conference schtick I can recall seeing in many years, especially as it led to a surprise announcement that classic '90s adventure game Grim Fandango is being rereleased, at long last.

Both press conferences did their job, which is to get the game-buying public talking about what they did or didn't see. Microsoft's presentation probably played better to audiences watching at home, with a tight, TV-friendly pace and lots of game demos. Sony presented a fuller picture, with new features, new hardware, and more about how consumers actually use game consoles for things other than just playing games, but by its end, the two-hour-plus presentation also left the audience squirming in their seats.

 

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