Consoul's Blog Consoul Games: Sony's Pre-E3 Conference 2006

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Sony's Pre-E3 Conference 2006

The pre-E3 conferences for 2006 have begun. Of the three console manufacturers, Sony staged theirs first, in what has proven to be a strategic move. After kicking off nearly an hour late, Sony's two hour presentation was a solid success, even if many of the games were less than inspiring. The conference dragged at times, but the surprises at the end certainly made up for it. Here's my own complete breakdown of the event with some further analysis:

Kaz Hirai, president and CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment America, began by reaffirming the success of the Playstation brand and their ongoing commitment to Playstation2. Sony have shipped over 100 million PS2 consoles in less than half the time it took to shift that many of the original Playstations. On the software side, over a billion units of PS2 software have been shipped. Hirai went on to talk about the PSP, which Sony can now comfortably say "delivers gaming experiences rivalling that of Playstation2". On average, PSP has sold nearly a million consoles a month since its launch, with over 17 million PSPs now shipped worldwide.

Unfortunately, it seems there are relatively few PSP titles on the way that are worth getting excited about. The video montage of PSP titles "scheduled for release later in the year" included some titles that are already out (like Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror) and spent far too much time on lackluster titles like Ape Academy 2. On the upside, Killzone: Liberation, LocoRoco and breakdancing game B-Boy are showing promise. A budget "Greatest Hits" range of PSP games (similar to PSone and PS2's Platinum series) was announced, and the forthcoming addition of RSS video support, Voice Over IP (VoIP) and camera and GPS peripherals for PSP was confirmed.

Finally Kaz moved on to Playstation3: "Last year we outlined the specifications of the machine, but let's review its main features and benefits". This clever introductory line was no doubt intended to distract attention from the fact that PS3's specifications have changed somewhat since we heard about it last year...but more on that later. Hirai once again explained how PS3 is compatible with Blu-ray movies, PS3 games, CDs, DVDs and PSone and PS2 games. He also detailed connectivity options between PS3 and PSP via wireless or USB connections, or via memory stick. After stressing the importance of Blu-ray media's mass storage space for next generation HD gaming, he went on to reveal that according to their research, 25% of US households will own a HD display next year. All PS3s will ship with a harddrive built-in and things are still on track for a simultaneous worldwide launch in November. Compared to the silver PS3 prototype seen last year, a slightly fatter "clear black" model of the PS3 was displayed on stage. After last year's 'target render' scandal, Kaz was genuinely pleased to tell the crowd that at this E3, Sony would be demonstrating real live gameplay on final devkits, and that the assembled crowd would have the opportunity to play it for themselves on the showfloor. He then introduced Phil Harrison to the stage.

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As president of the newly consolidated Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios, Phil Harrison is the frontman of Sony's first-party software. Phil brought Kazinori Yamauchi out to give a rather long look at a Gran Turismo HD prototype made specifically for E3. Rather than being a GT5 work-in-progress, it was basically assets from GT4 given a boost for rendering at high definition. The demonstration ran at a smooth 60 frames per second in full 1920x1080 progressive resolution. Four tracks were selectable, and the vehicles included racing, production and formula one cars, as well as motorbikes and even scooters. Yamauchi made the point that as a full uncompressed 1080p signal, the PS3 was delivering about three times as much picture information as most high-definition broadcasts available today...or twelve times GT4 on PS2. Despite the high level of detail, through utilizing PS3's harddrive, loadtimes from menu to race were reduced to just two or three seconds.

Next up Phil introduced Dr. Richard Marks (creator of Eyetoy) to demonstrate an interesting card based battle game called Eye Of Judgement that uses the Eyetoy to make creatures materialize on screen above real world cards placed on the table. The cards in front of the player can be moved and tapped to manipulate and command the monsters on screen. We'll likely see more games like this on PS3 using this kind of augmented reality technology. As a bit of an in-joke, Phil ended the demonstration by whipping out a special card from his jacket making a fire-breathing yellow rubber duck materialize.

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Just as the audience was starting to get a taste for actual PS3 gameplay, Kaz Hirai reappeared to prattle on about Sony's online network strategy. In short, he described a system virtually identical to XBox Live, without ever using those words. He followed this by launching into the first public demonstration of classic PSone games being downloaded and emulated on PSP. Sure enough, there was Ridge Racer in all its original 1995 pixelated glory on the PSP...and Kaz managed to drive into a wall straight off the grid. Hirai revealed that like XBox360's Microsoft Points system, Sony's online service will include microtransactions to pay for content, with pre-paid Playstation Cards available at retail outlets as one payment option.

Phil came back out to show the content store interface in PS3's operating system, and to explain how the shops could also be integrated in-game. Singstar PS3 was demonstrated with an integrated iTunes-like "Singstore" interface to buy songs. So as not to scare anyone, song pricing was set at $0.00 in the demonstration. The Japanese historic battle action game Genji 2 was demonstrated next. While technically impressive, it's next-gen Dynasty Warriors-style gameplay failed to excite the crowd. Phil's attempts to drum up more applause for it also fell flat.

He quickly moved on to show an interesting example of PS3-PSP connectivity in which a PS3 running a Formula One game was wirelessly connected to a PSP that acted as a real-time wing mirror, showing the view backward down the track during the race. Phil stopped talking for a moment to let a huge live gameplay demo of Heavenly Sword speak for itself. It's God Of War-style combat action was frantic, varied and amazingly cinematic. In all aspects, it easily lived up to last year's target render. The crowd cheered and applauded.

Having ended those gameplay demos on a high note, a selection of rendered videos of first-party games still further out in development were shown. Dragon epic, Lair, London gangster tale, Getaway, dark fantasy, Monster Kingdom, and uhh... nature documentary game, Afrika, all looked intriguing, but gave no impresion of their actual gameplay. Everybody's Golf looked just as you'd expect. Sony's London Studio unveiled Eight Days, showing off a truly spectacular trailer featuring a car chase and explosive gun battle at a gas station in the Arizona desert. Let's hope the game can live up to the trailer. Naughty Dog, developers of the Crash Bandicoot series, enthused the crowd with their trailer for a surprisingly violent and realistic action adventure game set in a dense jungle. No name was given for this project. Concluding the first-party game demos, Insomniac's Ted Price talked about their bleak 1950's alien invasion shooter Resistance: Fall Of Man, and played the game live, displaying significant improvements over last year's early work-in-progress.

Kaz came back out to introduce PS3's third-party game line-up. Snippets of many games were shown, including Assassin's Creed, Mobile Suit Gundam, Coded Arms: Assault, Ridge Racer 7, Brothers In Arms: Hell's Highway, Sonic, Virtua Tennis 3, Virtua Fighter 5, John Woo's Stanglehold, Fatal Inertia, Bladestorm and Armoured Core 4. Tekken 6 was also shown briefly and appears to be headed down the Dead Or Alive direction of greater environmental interaction.

EA's CEO, Larry Probst, took the opportunity to talk about EA's PS3 catalogue. The EA Sports team have been doing a lot of work on improving their characters' awareness, responsiveness and footwork, as well as their expressions and believability. By using their new universal capture system, they were able to reproduce a very realistic and expressive Tiger Woods in real-time. As well as NBA Live 07 and Tiger Woods PGA Tour 07, Larry also confirmed that Fight Night 3, Need For Speed: Carbon, Medal Of Honour: Airborne, Army of Two and Madden NFL 07 are all set to appear on PS3.

Kaz Hirai introduced Square-Enix's Final Fantasy XIII for PS3, adding cryptically that multiple versions would be available, including Final Fantasy Versus XIII. Needless to say, the trailer looked incredible, featuring a female lead character and a mix of natural environments with a very futuristic fantasy aesthetic, reminiscent of Namco's Xenogears/Xenosaga series.

As if that wasn't enough, Hirai continued to pull out the big guns by introducing the new trailer from Konami's super producer Hideo Kojima. Before the trailer began Hirai made sure everyone understood the footage in the trailer was running real-time on PS3 hardware. The mere mention of the words Metal Gear Solid 4 had the crowd cheering with excitement. What followed was a dark, deeply contemplative musing by an aged and troubled Solid Snake on the nature of war and how it has changed. By contrast, it made every other game shown in the conference seem shallow and meaningless. Every major character from the series made an appearance in the trailer, and while they've all aged, none have aged so much as Snake. Something unnatural (Foxdie?) is at work behind Snake's haggard visage. The trailer ended with the shocking vision of a resigned Snake flicking away his cigarette and slowly loading a bullet into his pistol before putting it into his mouth. The screen flashed red and the title appeared: Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. If you'll forgive the pun, it was mind-blowing - the fans were shellshocked. As we've come to expect from Kojima, MGS4 looks absolutely staggerring and it's atmosphere was nothing short of electric.

As the conference neared it's end, the big talking point of Sony's conference occurred when "the father of Playstation", Ken Kutaragi, took the stage and revealed Playstation3's "one last big secret". He pulled the final PS3 controller out of his jacket. After the overwhelmingly negative reaction to previous showings of the prototype "batarang" controller, Sony have apparently decided upon a design that the public will feel more comfortable with: it looks just like the PS2's DualShock2 controller. Virtually identical. It's wireless (via Bluetooth), weighs less, and features slightly deepened shoulder buttons as well as the now obligatory home button. Kutaragi chuckled at the crowd's underwhelmed reaction. What really sets it apart from the DualShock2, he said, is not its appearance, but the systems inside it.

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Ken called Phil Harrison back out to demonstrate what it could do. An image of the controller in a box appeared on screen. As Phil picked up the controller on the podium in front of him, the controller on screen flew into the air. Phil began tilting the controller in his hands and the on-screen controller mirrored those movements. As Kutaragi stood by looking hugely pleased with himself, Phil explained that the PS3 controller features six axis tilt-sensitivity. You could almost hear the Nintendo fans crying out in agony at this shock announcement. On the face of it, it certainly felt like Sony had copied the core innovation of Nintendo's Wii controller, thereby robbing them of their main selling point. However, it's not quite that simple.

The Wii controller actually has motion tracking, not just the tilt sensitivity of the PS3 controller. In other words, while the PS3 controller's six axis sensitivity can detect pitch, roll and yaw, as well as acceleration along the X, Y and Z planes, Nintendo's Wii does all that and also knows where the controller is in 3D space and what it's pointing at. In short, Wii's motion sensitivity is smarter and more versatile, but whether Nintendo can convince people of that is now in doubt. Nintendo certainly appear to have lost some of their edge, so it will be interesting to see how they react (if at all) in their conference just fourteen hours later. If Nintendo really do have some secret ace in the hole, they now need it more than ever.

As an aside, it seems we can't go calling Sony's new controller the DualShock3. While it wasn't mentioned in the conference, according to Sony's press release, "the vibration feature that is currently available on DUALSHOCK® and DUALSHOCK®2 controllers for PlayStation and PlayStation®2, will be removed from the new PS3 controller as vibration itself interferes with information detected by the sensor." Hmm...yes. Well, there's that and then there's the Immersion lawsuit that the press release doesn't refer to. In 2005, Immersion sued Sony claiming their haptic feedback intellectual property had been used in DualShock controllers. Sony chose to fight...and lost. Microsoft had previously faced the same lawsuit over their XBox controllers, but in true Microsoft style, they settled out of court and bought stock in Immersion. The Immersion case may have had something to do with the removal of rumble from the PS3 controller. After all, they could have included both tilt-sensing and rumble, and left it to developers to decide when to use either feature.

Not surprisingly, Phil and Ken talked about the "fantastic innovation" of the PS3 controller as if it were an entirely original idea. It was as if they'd never heard of Nintendo's new controller, or Logitech's decade-old tilt-sensitive Wingman controller for that matter. Following yet another rubber duck demo from Phil using the tilt features, Dylan Jobe, one of the developers of Incognito's Warhawk used the new controller's sensitivity to fly an aircraft in the game. His banking and rolling was most enthusiastic. Motion sickness ensued. From what Dylan and Phil said, it seems that the controller's new features have only been finalised in the last few weeks, so I'd expect that virtually none of the titles currently in development would have been designed to exploit them.

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Kaz came back out for the final wrap up and in an unexpected move, finished by laying out all the details on pricing and exact release dates for all territories. The Playstation3 will be available in two configurations, with either a 60GB or 20GB harddrive. It will hit retail in Japan on November 11. The 20GB version will sell for 59,800 Yen, while the 60GB version will have an open price to be determined by the retailers. In North America, PS3 will launch on November 17, with the 20GB SKU retailing for US$499 and the 60GB at US$599 ($549/$659 for Canada). Europe and Australasia will also see PS3 launch on November 17 for 499 (20GB) or 599 (60GB) Euros. While the conference didn't reveal specific Australian pricing, I have since read an official press release confirming that it will cost $829 Australian dollars for the 20GB PS3 and AU$999 for the 60GB version. Considering the components inside, I expected it to cost a thousand bucks locally, so I'm not surprised, but I'm sure many Aussies will be. Kaz confirmed that there will be 2 million units shipped on launch, with a total of four million PS3s shipped by the end of the calendar year.

So that was Sony's pre-E3 conference. No doubt there'll be many more PS3 game announcements as E3 itself takes place. The price differential between the 20GB and 60GB Playstation3's seems a little excessive though doesn't it? Does the extra 40GB really cost a hundred US dollars? A thorough read of the press releases reveals what Sony's conference didn't. The 20GB PS3 is very much a cut-down version of the 60GB model. After hyping the PS3's dual-HDMI output last year, Sony have now decided that the 20GB PS3 will not feature HDMI output at all. For a Blu-ray device, this seems like a ludicrous choice. The AACS copy-protection scheme employed on Blu-ray movies ensures that all movie content is downscaled to a non-HD resolution unless it is sent via an HDMI output. Put simply, the 20GB PS3 will not be able to display Blu-ray movies in high definition, which kind of defeats the purpose of them. Furthermore, the 20GB PS3 will apparently have no wi-fi capability, and no card reader for SD, Compact Flash or Memory Stick.

Even the 60GB PS3 shows a significant drop in the number of rear ports since I wrote my original PS3 hardware feature based on last year's PS3 prototype. After all the talk of dual-HDMI output last year, it now appears to have been completely scrapped. Two of the three ethernet ports and the rear USB ports are gone as well. I'll leave you with this comparison shot I've put together of PS3's rear ports:

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Anonymous havic said...

It's almost like they dropped ports to make room for ventilation.

3:07 pm  
Blogger yum9me said...

Nice rundown! Just what i was looking for ;)
And maybe they were trying not to have the PS3 getting too warm because people complain about overheating.

4:16 pm  
Blogger Diesel said...

Very good read (took me 20 mins, lol)

60GB the only smart way to go Considdering what the 20GB loses out on.

The new controler I must say I do like it Posibly compatible with PC via USB?

the one thing I was Dissapointed on by EA is BF2142 that game is a major selling point to me and there's no mention of it (so I better check my facts to see if it is coming to PS3)

and very interesting Back shot of the concept, 20gb and 60gb very interesting indeed.

thanks for typing it up Consoul! :D

6:18 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Solid write-up. Some interesting points there.

I watched Sony's press conference live & found the whole presentation to be flat. There wasn't one presenter bar Kaz that got me excited about the product. I was expecting an infectious presentation, one that left me wanting more. Sadly this wasn't the case.

The hardware capabilities & provisions shown at E3 2005 are, as you pointed out no longer present in the final version i.e. dual-HDMI output last year, multiple Ethernet ports and the rear USB ports. Whilst these omissions wont be missed by the masses, the deletion on the Dualshock feature in the PS3 controllers will be. The forums are full of "why did they take this feature out". We all know the real reason but for Sony to hide the fact by saying that their motion sensoring system & Dualshock can't cohabitate is a copout. But what really irritated me was a comment made by Phil Harrison saying that the dualshock feature was last generation & that motion sensing is next gen. what a wank. I predict this feature will be reintroduced sooner than later because of all the negative consumer feedback.

Anyway, I've already preordered my PS3 & Wii & are patiently waiting for both to be launched qtr 4 2006. Till then its back to my Xbox 360, PS2 & GC.

1:19 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeh bit of a crock about the removal of the vibration ey the real reason could be related to the lawsuit with Immersion Inc., who has sued Sony for illegally using their vibration technology.

But anyway I won't miss it, and am looking forward to the new form of control

3:08 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very nice summary, one thing I'd like to mention. High Definition Disk players dont only rely on HDMI, yes they downscale if you use an analog conection for piracy reasons. You need a digital connection to get the Full HD image. So that does mean HDMI, but it also means DVI, and like the 360, I'm sure Sony will release a AV - DVI connector for the PS3. Otherwise they will be cutting a lot of the 25% market in the US that have HD ready TV's but without HDMI which has only really been more common the last 12 months or so. Lucky for me I got myself a LCD with HDMI last christmas, but for everyone else, they can use a DVI PC monitor if they dont have the money for a more "modern" expensive TV :)

6:31 pm  

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