by Ken Gagne

Forget "continental breakfast". Without offering a single hot selection, Sony fed the vast throngs of the electronic entertainment industry to their complete and utter satisfaction. Three cheers for free food!

I almost wish it was my stomach that would do the rest of the typing from here, and not my brain, as I wonder if Sony really knows how to give a press conference. I was unimpressed with their performance last year; this year's proved to have better presentation, but remained of little substance.

Kaz Hirai started the show from a business perspective, demonstrating that Sony is a consumer products company, not a gaming company. He focused heavily on numbers, and though it's good that U.S. sales for the entire industry were up 43% in 2001 to $9.4 billion, it's not as important as him informing us that "the console wars are over." Last year, Hirai asked, "Who's going to be number two?", demonstrating the arrogance with which Sony's PlayStation 2 platform had claimed the lead; this year, Hirai stepped back and said the question is moot: only number one matters.

Sony, we're very happy for your success — but we are gamers, not stockholders. If you are #1, it is because we have put you there with our dollars. Could you please whet our appetite for games and remind us why you are #1?

Well, they certainly tried. Just as Sony last year delivered Jak & Daxter, this year's conference brought us Ratchet & Clank, a 3D platformer from Insomniac Games, the people who created Spyro the Dragon. In R&C, players can equip over 35 different weapons and gadgets to assail the enemy and obstacles they'll encounter. That could be fun, but it's not terribly innovative. Will Sony every year unveil a different Banjo-Kazooie clone as its secret project?

The next presentation was given by Brendan McNamara of SCEE, who demonstrated The Getaway. This title combines action and driving across 46 simulated square kilometers of London. A large cast of actors and an involved storyline are intended to give this game a movie-like feel and development, justifying Sony's tagline, "When is a movie more than a movie?" Unfortunately, they got a bit carried away with this cinematic presentation in a several-minute trailer which, unbelievably, demonstrated no gameplay footage. None. Just bad actors in silly situations. Look forward to listening to an hour of narrative dialogue across a hundred-page script in this game, coming fourth quarter 2002.

If Sony is innovating anywhere, it's in the online arena. The PlayStation 2 will go online this year, courtesy a $40 broadband/narrowband adaptor to be released on August 27th. Players can use their own ISPs, including AOL and MSN, to connect with such games as Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 4, Twisted Metal Black Online, and a variety of Sega Sports. Hirai admitted that getting the PS2 connected is happening more slowly than expected, but even the lack of widespread broadband access has not dampened their enthusiasm for the online model.

We saw a live demonstration of SOCOM: U.S. Navy Seals, Sony's first online game which was presented at their conference last year as well, and does not appear to have changed much since then. This team-based game, scheduled for simultaneous launch with the network adaptor, allows 16 players to compete and cooperate in authentic military action. The $60 price tag includes a USB headset for voice communication. Due to the amount of data involved in such transmissions, this game will be online through broadband only.

In the highlight of Sony's conference, pro athletes Dante Culpepper and Jevon Kearse engaged in an online game of Madden 2003, with Culpepper on-site and Kearse operating from Orlando. Live commentary was provided by John Madden himself, who was hilarious in his explanations of the two players' strengths and weaknesses. The final score was 7-6, Culpepper.

Hirai closed by listing other games we can look expect to enjoy online, including Final Fantasy XI, Everquest Online Adventures, Star Wars Galaxies, and Resident Evil Online.

The online dimension will give the PlayStation 2 a new depth, but all current consoles are headed to this arena as well. What will ultimately distinguish one from the other is the unique gameplay experiences each platform can deliver. Does Sony grasp this concept? Or will they be too wrapped up in the goal of stealing dollars from Nintendo and Microsoft that they'll overlook the means to that end? Time will tell.

This article is copyright (c) 2002, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Gamebits, 22-May-02