This year’s E3 felt like a watershed moment for indie gaming and a large part of that is due to Sony. It’s amazing as a consumer to see them embrace smaller studios crafting unique games, given their early days as a console creator. During the PS1 era, they were seemingly against 2D gaming and wanted devs to create as much 3D content as possible. During the nearly three-hour long press conference, they showed a remake of Abe’s Oddysee and hyped the original as being “in an era when no small studio dared ask for creative control”. What was left out was it being Sony’s era to allow that practice to happen on a regular basis. Still, Sony did release that game, its sequel and deserves credit for doing so.
The showcase of the Abe remake was just a small part of the indie section of the press conference, though. The rest was devoted to showing indie devs on-stage, getting much-deserved adulation from attendees and showcasing the PS4 as a system that won’t only feature the latest and greatest high production value games, but also simpler games that use the hardware to ensure their retro-styled vision is showcased as well as can be on a console. Sony appears to be taking the spot that Microsoft had about five years ago as the indie game darling. It’s a title that Microsoft earned by giving devs a platform to release their games on in the Xbox Live Arcade marketplace and promoting them as some of the best games on the platform in the process. The previous generation has been a great one for indie devs and gamers thanks to digital distribution, since it allowed the release of games that may not have sold well as $60 boxed titles, but flourish in the sub-$20 download space.
Both XBLA and PSN have done wonders for indie games, and the use of services like cross-buy enable more value to be added and give potential players more incentive to purchase a game. The recent Knytt Underground release as a PS+ freebie allows people to try the full game out on not just one, but two platforms at no cost. Moreover, this practice can easily be a gateway for people interested in trying out indie games, but iffy about spending money to do so — even if their money gets them two versions for the price of one.
The Sony of 2013 feels like a natural evolution of a company that didn’t just allow the release of transcendent games like Flower and Journey, but pushed them as key titles that everyone should own. They also gave new players incentives to try them out with a boxed release containing not only the games, but also a ton of extras to flesh out each game’s overall experience and entice existing owners to re-purchase the games and not feel ripped off. Through PSN videos, they’ve also embraced developer diaries and given the players who care to do so a chance to hear more about why a game was crafted and its vision in a way that purely text interviews can’t properly convey. It also feels like a company willing to admit its mistakes as their own “GIANT ENEMY CRAB” joke showed, and while that is a small thing, it does wonders for them seeming more human and less like an autonomous corporation that only sees consumers as dollar signs.
As Microsoft says more and more about the Xbox One, they come off about as out of touch as Sony did seven years ago with their “599 US dollars” announcement as some kind of a value. That kind of blinding arrogance took Sony years to recover from, and now MS finds themselves in the same situation of digging themselves into a hole and all Sony has to do is occasionally chuck a little kiddie spade’s worth of dirt into it to add to the problem. Sony seems largely content to focus on their own merits and not spend too much time and energy on their competition — at least publicly.
Sony’s approach to hardware is refreshing as they’re offering up a fairly outstanding value for your money. Unlike Nintendo, they’re not making you buy a bulky tablet controller, or running up your power bill trying to keep the damn thing charged long enough to actually playing a game. Unlike Microsoft, they’re not making a camera mandatory with a system purchase — adding to the price, they’re also not requiring DRM for games and will allow you to freely sell your games or give them to friends if you so desire. You’ve spent $60 hard-earned dollars on them, and if you buy a clunker, it’s nice to know that you won’t be forced to accept whatever Gamestop (or other “participating retailers”) offer you for an Xbox One game — or whatever the return policy actually winds up being for Xbox One titles.
With the U.S. economy still in a recession, such things really aren’t going to get casual gamers to flock to their system, and the anti-consumer practices have so far only driven the hardcores that would otherwise buy it away. While the Xbox One does have an outstanding lineup of exclusive games in theory, it is now possible to imagine the system having a Wii U-level rough start. Given the controversies behind the system’s hardware, and having the highest price point when the PS4 offers up more raw power, it may even wind up having a tougher time gaining traction. If that happens, Sony will get an early start in this console war — one that is currently bearing at least a passing resemblance to the 16-bit wars even at this early stage with little things like the PS4 game sharing video and Sony’s own image taking a shot at the 360′s red ring.
The war is going to get really ugly in a few short months, but it will also result in intense competition between each company, and that always leads to better games being created. In the end, this really only results in a win-win for everyone in due time since each platform will have top-shelf exclusives, and third parties will be able reap the rewards of occasional exclusivity deals and system bundles for some games, while still managing to reap the rewards of having most of their products on both systems.