It wasn't so long ago that Sony was known as the bad guy of the video game world. It's quite a feat when one of the chief players in a games space is Microsoft, and yet Sony's gaming team earned it the nickname "the Evil Empire." Years of anti-consumer moves – from removing features across platforms to security breaches to forcing proprietary formats – will do that.
Yet, over the past few months, something looks to have changed. Sony seems to have become somewhat kindler and gentler. Could the company be on its way to becoming the good guy of the business?
Exhibit A: In February, Sony confirmed that games on the upcoming PlayStation 4 console will be playable without an Internet connection.
For a while now, controversy has been simmering over whether next-generation consoles – including a new Xbox from Microsoft – will require an always-on Internet connection to play. Many game publishers are very much in favour of such a set-up, since it will help them fight piracy and the second-hand used-game market, both of which cost them millions.
However, for many gamers living in rural and remote areas, or with otherwise spotty broadband, or even highly restrictive data caps, always-on Internet is basically a recipe for "never-on game console."
Microsoft has had plenty of opportunities to quash the controversy but has stayed ominously silent. Worse still, in-house studio creative director Adam Orth recently stirred up a hornet's nest on Twitter by saying that gamers opposed to always-online games should just "deal with it." The company apologized for his comments – and Orth ended up leaving shortly thereafter – but still refused to address the issue at the heart of the fracas.
Needless to say, if Microsoft scares off legions of fans with always-on games and Sony doesn't… well, the next-generation of the console war is could end up quite lopsided.
Exhibit B: Speaking of those next-generation consoles, Sony is also now suggesting that the PS4 will be more reasonably priced than past releases.
The company took a lot of heat when it released the PlayStation 3 in 2006 at a starting price point of $499. Sony Worldwide Studios' vice-president Michael Denny says the company has learned from its mistakes. "We listen and learn and take the judgment from every console launch we ever have and we have to be informed by what the strengths of our PlayStation 3 system have been, but also the challenges of that," he recently told Edge.
Gaming industry analyst Michael Pachter believes this to mean that Sony and/or Microsoft will subsidize the cost of their next-generation consoles. Whether or not that happens, it sure looks like Sony is signaling the PS4 won't empty gamers' wallets the way the PS3 did.
Exhibit C: Independent game developers are fleeing Microsoft to the warmer confines of Sony, according to a recent Wired article.
"Microsoft treats independent developers very badly," said Braid creator Jonathan Blow. Sony, on the other hand, rolls out the red carpet.
"I've worked on just about every console and hand-held of the past decade. The PS Vita boasts the best development kit of them all," said Retro City Rampage developer Brian Provinciano.
When I spoke to Sound Shapes co-creator Shaw-Han Liem recently, he reiterated the sentiment. "There is something genuine in them wanting to bring in cool, weird stuff," he said. "They definitely seem to have a track record of supporting smaller and unique projects."
With game developers having so many options in terms of platforms to create on, the business is fragmenting, meaning that the number of indies is only likely to grow. It's a trend Sony seems to have realized and is evidently looking to capitalize on. Warming up to indie developers is a sure-fire way to win not just their hearts, but those of gamers as well.
Indeed, Sony looks to have woken up to the fact that it's in a much more competitive business than it was just a few years ago. It wasn't so long ago that the company was routinely raising the ire of customers by doing things like axing their ability to install Linux on the PS3, allowing a major security breach on its online PlayStation Network, and of course continuing to force its own proprietary formats, like expensive Vita memory cards.
Future missteps from the company are still probable, but for now, gamers can take heart that at least one of the big console players seems to be listening to their concerns.