The most remarkable thing about Sony's Gamescom press conference today wasn't the big game announcements (Sony still loves indie games) or the PS4 feature demonstrations (the new menu looks like a video game console menu). It was Sony's overarching, at times infectious confidence.
While the event didn't have the same razzle-dazzle of their PS4 reveal event or their megaton E3 showing, Sony's confidence remained evident at every moment of their blue-hued stage show. Well... OK, not every moment; the cameraperson might have had a few too many cups of coffee:
Sony mostly treated today's press conference as an expected waypoint on the way to the PS4's release, and as an opportunity to flesh out the broader infrastructure atop which it will sit. Specifically their Vita handheld, which now makes more sense than it ever has, both as a clearinghouse for cheap-to-publish, terrific indie games and as a fantastic-looking accessory for the PS4. (I truly hope the Vita's off-TV remote play works as well as it did in that demonstration. I've been wanting to do that on my Vita ever since remote play was announced -- but sporadically implemented -- for the PS3.)
In between the indie game onslaught, the welcome focus on the Vita, the granular PS4 reveals and the release-date announcement was a relaxed, calm assuredness that Sony clearly hopes will continue to set them apart from their biggest competitor, Microsoft.
Sony managed to maintain a measured on-stage attitude that didn't quite edge over into swagger... for the most part, anyway, as Sony's Andrew House couldn't resist taking a shot at Microsoft's inconsistent Xbox One messaging.
"While others have shifted their message and changed their story," House said, briefly interrupted by hoots and applause from the audience, "we were consistent in maintaining policies and a model that is fair and in tune with consumer desires."
The potshot at Microsoft made for good console-wars theatre, but it's also worth noting that it was one of the only shots Sony has left to take. Sure, it's been amusing watching Microsoft futzabout like The Gang Who Couldn't Shoot Straight, but they've also managed to turn around their most unpopular Xbox One policies and come up with a console that is, in terms of features, very similar to the PS4.
There are differences: The Vita is a distinct asset for the PS4, albeit an expensive one. Kinect is a distinct asset for the Xbox One, albeit one that reasonable gamers have a lot of doubts about, and one that might not wind up being all that different from Sony's sold-separately PS4 camera. As Sony's Shuhei Yoshida snarkily pointed out on Twitter shortly after today's event, the PS4 will be launching in 32 countries, significantly more than the Xbox One's 13. And each console will have its own passel of exclusive games, any combination of which could theoretically tip the scales one way or the other. But when you strip things down to the big black box, the consoles are more alike now than they've yet been.
Back at E3, Sony used their evening press conference to loudly, publicly declare their differences from Microsoft. It was the sort of high drama that we rarely get to see anymore, a real "Genesis does what Nintendon't" moment.
But back then -- oh, to refer to something that happened a couple months ago as "back then!" -- Microsoft was making it easy for Sony. Microsoft's unpopular Xbox One DRM and Internet-requirement set their console apart in an obvious, negative way. All Sony had to do was mention those differences and their work was done.
Since then, Microsoft has significantly changed course, dropping the Xbox One's Internet requirement and used games DRM and levelling the playing field in a way that's good for everyone. (At least, that was my take: There were plenty of people who were disappointed that Microsoft changed course.) And just earlier today, they finally outlined their indie games publishing strategy, [email protected], which should lead to all kinds of interesting indie games getting published on Xbox One. (While some have described this as "another 180" for Microsoft, that seems like a stretch. It's not a huge surprise to see them supporting indies, given how ahead-of-the-curve Microsoft was in many ways with their imperfect but groundbreaking Xbox Live Indies program.)
At this point, the most notable thing left setting Sony and the PS4 apart from Microsoft and the Xbox One is Sony's confidence and consistency, so it makes sense to see them leaning on it a bit. By outward appearances, they are the better-run, more clear-eyed competitor in this fight, and while Microsoft has managed to adjust their product in a way that matches Sony's in terms of features, everyone at Sony is hoping you remember who had more of their shit together, earlier.
It's all good rhetoric, but there are a number of things to keep in mind: My gut says that when it comes down to it, most gamers care less about the consistency of marketing leading up to a console release and more about the actual console itself. Furthermore, a number of the ideas that Microsoft has cut from the Xbox One could still return in some form, and a few of them sound interesting and, more importantly, distinct from the PS4. It could well be that in the not-so-distant future, the things setting Microsoft's console apart from Sony's will make the Xbox One seem more desirable, not less.
We're attracted to confidence; it's something we look for in business associates, bosses, romantic partners, and, yes, the people who sell us things. But all of this pre-release fighting won't matter all that much once the consoles are on the market and ready to be played. And while it's been fun to watch Sony cruise toward November with a grin and a wave, time will tell whether their confidence will actually translate to a better experience with the PS4.