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Sony's consumer compassion rises above all

The PS4 journey has been a victory for creatives over the boardroom, writes Dan Dawkins

The theory goes that "a mediocre strategy well executed is better than a great strategy poorly executed". And it's a theory that Sony blew out of the water.

[ PS4: News | PS4 Games | All Videos | Gallery | PS4 Price | PS4 Specs | What's in the box ]
[ Xbox One: All news | Xbox One Games | All videos | Games gallery | Price | Release date ]
[ Wii U: All news | Wii U games | All videos ] [ E3 2013: Game trailer & video library ]

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Microsoft delivered the best press conference of E3, and lost spectacularly. Whatever your feelings about their online and pre-owned strategy, the Xbox One conference was sublimely paced, with a rat-a-tat of exclusives and eye-catching third-party demos. Microsoft's approach was in stark relief to their usual parade of cardboard executives, celebrity cameos and empty buzzwords.

The Xbox conference was so lean, so relentless, that EA's show only a few hours after, felt like a hollow blast from the old world: stuffed with dazzling CGI and emotive marketing jibber.

For almost an hour, Sony's press conference felt the same. Bloated. Rambling. Muddied by political deference to PS Vita, with a frankly abysmal appearance from the CEO of Sony Entertainment Michael Lynton to talk about nebulous 'exclusives'. Sure, Vita's getting some good games, and The Walking Dead is a neat (partial) exclusive, but it shouldn't take an hour to achieve less than MGSV had managed in its opening frame.

It didn't matter, of course. It didn't matter even when Sony's show picked up pace with its first truly impressive piece of showmanship - the cascade of indie developers, unveiled in rapid-fire as part of the PS4 family. It didn't matter when The Order 1886 caught everyone by surprise, or David Cage's technically assured The Dark Sorcerer provoked genuine laughter.

It didn't matter, because Sony had already made the decision that would dominate E3. A decision that might not ultimately 'win' the console war - by whatever metric we're now deciding to asses it, given the current jumble of business models - but a decision that would win hearts and minds.

A decision that appeals to human beings, not consumers reduced to estimated revenue streams on a spreadsheet far, far away.

Give the people what they want. And, boy, did Jack Tretton give people what they want.

"We're equally focused on delivering what gamers want most", he began, as the crowd pricked up their ears. "For instance, PS4 won't impose any new restrictions on the use of...

And it wasn't really possible to make out what he said next for a white noise of cheering, but a 30ft slide behind Tretton said it all: "PS4 supports used games". What followed, for those with any interest in consumer rights - let alone with a vested interest in PlayStation - was like a slow motion highlights reel; the most spectacular Rocky Balboa knockout montage in E3 press conference history.

"That's a good thing" deadpanned Tretton, with sublime restraint, after soaking up 10 seconds of uninterrupted hollering and applause. By the time Tretton had pinpointed Microsoft's weak spot, inverting everything Xbox One's deeply unpopular ownership policy stood for, the crowd were barking "Sony, Sony, Sony".

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Tretton laughed, naturally and unexpectedly, at the warmth of the crowd's reaction. Even given how Sony expected people to respond to the good news, this was beyond belief - and Tretton's face showed it.

Yet it was all delivered with such a natural, unassuming grace, with little hint of gloat or malice, despite the massive damage it was doing to Microsoft's impeccable presentation. Sony had executed badly to this point, but did they have the right strategy. And in that moment, Tretton was executing it with effortless panache. It was showmanship, pure and simple. The public got what it wanted, better than it could have imagined.

Sony might well have been considering a DRM scheme of its own, but it read the public mood, and acted decisively.

Even the 20-second video of Shuhei Yoshida giving a game to Adam Boyes felt like an act of DIY, lo-fi showmanship. How better to show how easy it is to give your game to a friend?

Old Sony once released high-budget promo videos with rigid messages, flashing shapes and emotive pizzazz. This was something anyone with a smartphone could have created, and quite devastating in its simplicity.

In contrast, everything about Microsoft's approach to Xbox One has felt like a dusty chapter from the Harvard playbook, hatched by middle-aged executives, chasing a late-'90s set-top box dream in a world that's moved on. If Microsoft's fundamental plan to reinvent TV is solving a problem that doesn't exist, then simply executing it well is no longer enough.

Sony, oft humbled during PS3's life and facing severe financial concerns, has almost been forced to do the right thing - listen to what people want, rather than strategising a vision of the future, and executing it to the letter. Irrespective of your feeling about indie games, Sony's cascade of developers and attitude to self-publishing is in stark contrast to Microsoft targeting Minecraft as a one-stop-shop 'indie' solution. That's being unkind, but the symbolism feels appropriate.

Sony, of course, isn't reactive opportunists making this up as it goes along, but by stepping away from DRM, it has exhibited a flexibility to augment their long-term vision. Sony's show felt like a victory for the dreamers and thinkers, the game makers and the gamers; rather than making a faustian pact to surrender your privacy and consumer rights for the shiny baubles dangled by Microsoft.

From the minute Mark Cerny, wild eyed and grinning, unveiled the thinking behind PS4, to the moments Adam Boyes bounded around the E3 stage, championing the cause of nothing more mysterious than good games, the PS4 journey has felt like a victory for the creatives over the boardroom, irrespective of the wrangling that brought the risky multi-million dollar project to life.

And let's be under no illusion. Dropping DRM, however pleasing for us, is ultimately a business decision. A gamble on selling more machines and winning the long game, irrespective of all the potential revenue it flushes away. That's no secret. We see it, but the heart tends to warm to those willing to take intuitive risks.

Oh, and PS4 is £80 cheaper. Did we mention that?

In cold light of day, both consoles offer broadly similar experiences, with comparable third-party support and debatably superior exclusives. It's just that, for three incomparable minutes, Sony made it all feel like they were on our side, not dictating the rules of the game. For 180 seconds, they sublimely, almost intuitively, executed the best strategy. And it was enough.

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