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Beat Retreat: PlayStation Experience 2015

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Before the Moscone lobby opens for pickup.

Some call it a game console, but one nation of fans calls it a lifestyle. This past weekend at Moscone Center West in San Francisco over 25,000 people attended the second PlayStation Experience, which amounted to two days of gamers playing new and unreleased games, grabbing merchandise and free t-shirts, attending parties and panels, and more.

Last year, Sony launched Experience in Las Vegas to over a modest 10K fan crowd. While Vegas is known for being a place to have a good hush-hush time and its certainly no stranger to large shows like CES; something about being there didn’t feel in sync with what PlayStation was all about. Bringing the sophomore show to San Francisco was a natural move and one much needed for the city convention scene. This weekend proved that while PlayStation might have been born in Japan, its soul resides with all the passionate industry workers and fans who call the bay area home.

crowd packs upstairs room for keynote 2hrs before showtime.

The weekend kicked off on Saturday morning with a near two-hour jam-packed keynote address where fans got the latest word on ALMOST every current PlayStation project from ALMOST every PlayStation figurehead. Indeed, the presentation, while full of applause worthy content, felt like it was marked by red herrings. When the opening sizzle reel finished its purpose of raising crowd excitement level to fever pitch; we saw an Uncharted 4 cinematic featuring the game’s first meeting between Nathan Drake and his long lost brother. The acting from voice-over masters Nolan North and Troy Baker makes the wait for the game even harder than it has been. Then PlayStation CEO Shawn Layden took the stage in a Crash Bandicoot shirt (????). Other than a handful of industry insiders, there wasn’t anyone in the crowd that was nonplussed to hear the news that the mascot they loved 20 years ago would be coming back home. Nope. Now anyone is entitled to wear their fandom out loud at conventions, even CEOs. But come on!

Shawn Layden in a Bandicoot shirt
Gio Corsi and Tim Schafer during keynote

Well the PlayStation freight train of a show kept on rolling. We won’t recap detail for detail (you can watch it below), but some of the high points included the earth shattering response from the crowd when the Final Fantasy VII Remake footage was shown. The RPG that defined PlayStation’s inception and spawned countless sequels/spinoffs hasn’t been forgotten by its diehard fans. This is the smoothest and engrossing Final Fantasy has ever looked and will definitely be a remake to get excited over. A ton of new games were announced with titles that ranged from experimental independents, favorites getting sequels, to outright ludicrous–so much so that you just have to try it. Iconic game creator Tim Schafer recently launched a kickstarter for the game so many of Double Fine’s fans wanted, Psychonauts 2. Yes, Rasputin is back!  On the PSX stage Tim debuted Psychonauts for PlayStation VR. The other spit take worthy moment came with five simple words: 100 Foot Tall Robot Golf.

It’s exactly what it sounds like. Overall, the keynote certainly wasn’t among Sony’s most memorable. Yet, it was in tune with what PlayStation experience is. A chance for Sony to emphasize the little things that fill out the brand’s value. The only things really missing from the presentation were a release date on No Man’s Sky and hearing from head of PlayStation Worldwide Studios himself Shuhei Yoshida

After the keynote ended it was time for everyone to funnel down from the top level ballroom to the 1st and 2nd floor exhibit halls to play some games. The PlayStation Experience is not a cheap ticket and the issue with video game-centric shows lies with how easy it can be to feel ripped off when you have to spend your whole day in one line. It’s a problem most of us face at SDCC as well. PlayStation worked well with its partners to pack the show floors with content, activity, and staff. Most large booths had enough demo stations to move between 20-30 people at a time which kept lines flowing. Whether you were waiting to try San Diego Studios game Kill Strain or Bungie’s new Sparrow racing content for Destiny; the wait was never excruciating or day killing.

Almost every major PlayStation first party studio brought out their current projects. God Of War creator David Jaffe brought the game he announced at last year’s PSX, the four person psychedelic death match known as Drawn to Death. Not only were fans treated to game play, but you also had the opportunity to doodle in the giant notebook outside the booth with the possibility of all the created artwork making it into the final game. You know… once their legal department takes out all the Batmans and Bobba Fetts people drew. Naughty Dog let fans try the Uncharted 4 multiplayer beta in their massive island themed booth. While that was one of the longer waits of the show; they loaded the line with lots of screens and a photo op to help pass that time. PlayStation VR had a huge presence where gamers could try new experiences like The London Heist, the atmospheric Eclipse, Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, and EVE: Valkyrie to name a few.

Sony also brought loads developers from their 3rd party partnerships to accentuate their show floor. Activision showed off Destiny’s PS4 content while WB Games brought Lego Dimensions and the upcoming Lego Marvel’s Avengers (We’ll have an exclusive interview on Friday with the game’s producer Arthur Parsons). Capcom will be making next year’s Street Fighter V console exclusive to the PlayStation 4, naturally they’d be one of the big show floor focuses going into this year’s PSX. While the publisher delivered the official word on a new character and hosted the Street Fighter Capcom Cup tournament, they also brought the new Umbrella Corps game; an online competitive shooter from the world of Resident Evil. Gaming giant EA gave fans an early taste of this week’s Battle of Jakku content for Star Wars: Battlefront. The most crowded third party exerpeince had to do with Gearbox Software’s upcoming Battleborn game. The studio behind the hit Borderlands series packed in eager fans all weekend who just wanted to try the game’s over the top multiplayer combat mayhem.

Comic fans know that when you want to see what’s next in the industry there’s no better place to look than artist alley. It’s the place at every show where the most out of the box experiences and future next big thing books can be discovered. PlayStation is big on indie game development and PSX is a chance to showcase unique and intimate game experiences that don’t always grab the headlines. Both upper and lower show floors were lined by rows of smaller team developers showing off clever, fun, and occasionally cutting edge games. Last year this artist alley like area called “DevOtion” row was where most of us first discovered Psyonix’s Rocket League. This year the team brought new DLC content and loads of shirts as a thank you to fans. Drinkbox Studios, the creators of Guacamelee, showed off their follow up game entitled Severed. It’s a hack-n-slash macabre where you play as a one-armed character. Every 10×10 booth in these rows had passionate game creators eager to have attendees try their work. Games like Viking Squad, Brawlhalla, and Nuclear Throne were some of the stand out ones we caught.

The show was so chopped full of gaming experiences to run down each individual one would take till next year’s PlayStation experience, so this week we’ll go in depth with our three favorite from the show floor.

As far as the show is concerned; the exponential leap from the first PlayStation Experience to this one is like going from building a house with some wood and nails to assembling a skyscraper the following week. Everything about Experience 2015 was streamlined PlayStation. The show utilized RFID technology similar to what Reedpop does with NYCC. Every attendee’s badge had an encoded microchip linked to their PlayStation ID. When checking out a game, scanning your badge at a nearby kiosk would record your activity to unlock digital rewards such as exclusive themes, content, and even PSN cash. Attendees were able to track their progress in the PlayStation Experience app, which also notified them when physical rewards such as the conventions meta card collecting game were available. This was Sony finally using the technological muscle at their disposal. If you’re not impressed by any of that; consider that at the first show all you were given to show you were an attendee was a nylon wrist band that felt gross after you had to leave it on in the shower.

Like any good convention, programming rounds out the nooks and crannies to create the complete package. PlayStation Experience went with the quality over quantity philosophy and it was a better event for it. There was no confusing panel room map to cipher or ballooned schedule that made you pick and choose what you felt you could miss. If you wanted to see a panel there was only one place, and all you had to do to find it was follow the sounds of raucous cheering and laughter upstairs. While all day Sunday was dominated by the Capcom Cup tournament; Saturday had an entertaining mix of Sony-centric and industry related panels highlighted by a look at the stories behind the motion capture of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End. During that panel Naughty Dog creative director Neil Druckmann talked about the controversy over having actress Laura Bailey voice an African American character. He talked about how the look of the character hadn’t been established when Bailey was cast and over time both she and the aesthetic had come together in such a way that changing anything would disservice the story. Her castmates Nolan North, Troy Baker, and Richard McGonagle vocally supported her work on the project and felt like Naughty Dog had made the right choice.

The other standing room only panel was the live PS I Love You XoXo podcast. Trending Gamer award winner Greg Miller was joined by co-host/ life partner Colin Moriarty and from PlayStation Blog Ryan Clements, Shuhei Yoshida, and Gio Corsi for 45 minutes of captivating cheap plugs, Vita giveaways, and just friends having a good time. Despite the lack of actual content, it was a panel attendees won’t soon forget. If you’ve never heard the PS I Love You podcast check out the best gaming podcasts on Youtube.com/kindafunnygames.

The weekend wasn’t all sunshine and roses. Sony probably wasn’t able to test run the RFID badge tech properly before the show. I heard a lot of attendees asking about check-ins that had not gone through, preventing them from claiming physical and digital rewards. As I write this, Sony has taken steps to fulfill outstanding digital rewards convention goers were not able to collect during the show. One other thing I gave consideration to during the weekend was why San Francisico no longer had any big comics shows. Moscone South and West, combined with the nearby Yerba Buena arts center, could house some really great events. Then I went to a nearby Burger King and figuratively spent my life savings on a Whopper and then I remembered, “oh yeah that’s why.” San Fran is not a budget conscious location. In fact, it’s actually one of the most expensive cities in America. A lot of PSX goers told me about the horrible motel rooms they had to rent because they couldn’t afford any of the nicer hotels.  Later on this month we’ll talk about the state of conventions and what shows like PSX mean to the con-scape.

Through its triumphs and turbulence, PlayStation has built a comfortable relationship with a large segment of the massive gaming audience. I saw gamers with PlayStation controller button symbols tattooed on their knuckles. It put the nature of what makes this particular show special into focus. I don’t see a lot of PC or Xbox tattoos. Yes, PlayStation Experience is for a corporation made by a corporation. So is NYCC and SDCC really.  You could shove any show that attracts millennial brand sponsorship to pay for it into this category. What sets PlayStation Experience apart from those and other shows like D23 is heart.

In the grand scheme of things, very few things are truly done for fans. The X-Files didn’t come back because fans demanded it. It came back for a better Netflix rights deal. That preview movie screening you went to wasn’t because a studio loves you, it’s because they need to use you to generate publicity. As fans we all buy into a trade off. Sony already has a massive lead in the current console war. They don’t need to put on this event. In all probability, it doesn’t make them any considerable revenue in the short term. PlayStation especially didn’t need to give every attendee a gift bag with branded hand sanitizer and a rad knit hat to protect you from one of San Francisco’s coldest weekends. PlayStation Experience is as close to a genuine for the fans event as you’ll ever come across. A huge part of that belongs to what PlayStation owns that few other corporations own, community. Gaming has a demographic, audience, buyers. PlayStation has fans. Fans who resist buying some new games in order to use that money to travel from all over the world to a party Sony throws. That’s powerful.

Fans write messages on Sony’s commemorative wall. Filled before the first day even ended

Sony has made no announcement on the future of the PlayStation Experience. There is no news on its future dates or locations.  However, should they announce a third event, it’s worth keeping a space open for it. Even if you’re not a die hard PlayStation fan or just a casual gamer; with the quality of programing, free giveaways, and an energy unlike anything you’ve been a part of, PlayStation Experience is something you have to behold in person.

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