E3 2007

E3 2007: Sony Takes a Knee


There was a dead possum in the gutter.

The short walk from where the shuttle buses dropped us off and Sony’s studio in Culver City was about three blocks, and halfway there I saw it. It was a possum. And I was pretty sure it was dead.

I could have poked it just to be sure, but the smell was a fairly definitive statement. This possum wasn’t playing; it was dead.

My first reaction was to feel sorry for the poor critter. My second was to think that someone from Sony should have been more careful than to leave such a dangerous metaphor lying around on their big day.

It’s been about a week since Sony announced the $100 price drop on the 60 GB PS3, but so far that marginally good news hasn’t generated enough momentum to wash the taste of failure out of their mouths – or mine.

As I sipped a bloody mary cocktail provided by Sony, waiting for the event to begin, I thought perhaps on this day we’d find out if Sony was just playing, or they really had gone and died on us.

The outdoor waiting area was like a garden party. Fruit cups, cocktails and umbrellas. Inside it was all Sony. A booming techno track accompanied by a pulsating thread of computer generated smoke on 4 giant projection screens. The chairs were draped in white suede and the façade was painted to look like marble. The light show might have even been better than Microsoft’s, but only a trained eye could tell.

For the first time in at least a year it seemed Sony might have finally learned their place in the new generation: dead last. It would take an awful lot of humility to gloss over their abhorrent PR moves over the past several months, and when Sony CEA President and CEO Jack Tretton appeared on the screen, in the form of his digital Home avatar, it was clear humility wasn’t on the menu as any more than an appetizer.

“We feel that we’re in a very strong position heading into the holidays,” said Tretton, “and we’re confident we’ll continue our industry leading role.”

After Tretton exhausted his meager public speaking chops (“I’m more of a Powerpoint guy,” he said), Kaz Hirai was introduced, again in Home, where he was tending a virtual barbecue grill on his virtual patio. He offered to take the stage for a moment, but not before suggesting Tretton should stay behind to “keep an eye on the burgers.”

Hirai apologized for having less time for speaking engagements, saying his new job meant he was “traveling more [and] spending less time in my office on the PS3, and more time on the PSP.” Really, they should look out for those metaphors.

The news for Sony isn’t all grim. The PS2 currently sports a 118 Worldwide install base, and the PSP, although the number 2 handheld, has sold 9 million units this year alone. Hirai promised 140 new games for the PSP this fiscal year, and, they introduced a new PSP model with the help of a wookie.

When Chewbacca came on stage to present the Star Wars themed PSP entertainment pack (bundled with a Star Wars PSP and Star Wars Battlefront: Renegade Squadron) I started looking for Toto, because I was sure we’d left Kansas at least a lightyear behind. Tretton proclaimed he was humbled that in spite of his years in the industry, this was the first time he’d been on stage with a wookie. I knew exactly how he felt.

After the wookie, it was all downhill. Phil Harrison took the stage to introduce a few more features of the Playstation network and Sony’s Home service, the most intriguing of which is the promised ability to launch any PS3 game from within the service. Meaning you can meet up with friends in the virtual space and then all head off to play the same game together without leaving the interface. Pretty sweet. As was the demonstrated ability to snap a picture with a cell phone and upload it nearly instantaneously to your personal Home space. I have no idea why this would be of use, or if it will sell a $600 machine, but it was neat.

But the coolest thing on display on Sony’s stage wasn’t a giant game, a giant Blu disc, or a gigantically expensive black console. It was a little black and white game based on Escher-like optical illusions called Echochrome. The goal of Echochrome is to maneuver a tiny stick man across various puzzle mazes, constructed of M.C. Escher-esque impossible structures. Stairways that rise to meet their beginnings, curves that turn inside out with both sides joining, etc. But the trick with Echochrome is you can rotate the structure so that the logical fallacies align with the possible. Turn it just so and that gap from where you are and where you want to be is hidden behind an obstacle. And if you can’t see it, it isn’t there and you can walk right over it. The mechanic is cool, and I can see how it would easily fill hours of time.

Then there was Pain (a Jackass-like injury simulator), Warhawk (battle royale), Socom Confrontation (high octane testosterone replacement), and Haze (Halo meets Motorstorm meets Socom meets FarCry) but that pretty much exhausted the list of exclusives for this year without going anywhere near what I’d consider a system seller.

Matching Microsoft’s deal with Epic to optimize the Unreal engine for Windows Live, Harrison announced that he and the house that Cliffy built were teaming up to optimize the Unreal engine for PS3 development. In the hopes, one would assume, of reducing the exorbitant cost of developing for the platform and luring back some of their turntail third party developers. For a clue as to how well that’s expected to work out, see: Dreamcast.

The event did end on a high note, however, with Tretton all but acknowledging that the company had been a pain in the ass for the past year, and desperately needed to appear apologetic.

“We know all of our accomplishments bring no guarantee for the future,” he said. But there’s a wide gulf between knowing and doing. With the Playstation star diminishing, and no immediate hope in sight, it will be very interesting to see what Sony has planned for the Tokyo Game Show and beyond.

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