Sony and the Three Unicorns
I will admit, I am still giddy about the whole thing. Work had been stupid all day with more red tapes and yet I’ve just been laughing through it with not the slightest care. Life is good, being a gamer is good.
For those not into gaming, E3 is the biggest video game conference in the world and every year publishers and platform holders will announce new projects, demo announced ones and showcase their lineups. The attention is always on the big 3, Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft as they are the major gaming platform holders.
Games get announced every year, some big, some small. Some for kids, some for sports fans, it’s all good fun. But every once in a while, you get announcements that are bombs and blow everyone away.
Then there are the legends. Gaming mythical beasts that only exists in fan’s wildest imaginations. Games whose predecessors had been critically received and loved, and yet no sequels to finish the journey. Games that have defined its genre and generation but has been worn down by the passage of time and there are calls for remakes to return the game to its former glory. And games that have been seen, but disappeared into nothingness as time went by, so called development hells perhaps never to emerge.
Bringing just one of these mythical beasts to E3 would grab the attention of all gamers, smash headlines and ignite social media in frenzy. Just one, will do.
This year, Sony brought 3, and some of the most elusive of gaming’s unicorns at that. The Last Guardian, FF7 Remake, Shenmue 3. It was the wildest of conferences, so surreal that if one travelled back in time to the day before and told people about it, all would laugh and dismiss one as a troll. One unicorn, maaaybe by a long shot. Three? So ludicrous it’s not even worth contemplating.
The first unicorn, The Last Guardian, was announced just 5 minutes into Sony’s conference presentation, it was a bold statement.
This is a unicorn of Sony’s own making. Originally announced near a decade ago for the PS3, a continuation of a series of well received games by Team Ico, it disappeared not long after with constant rumours of its true fate. Sony’s been assuring people that the unicorn still lives, but most wonder whether Sony accidentally fed it rotten feed and really there’s now a dead unicorn in their barn and they’re just going Baghdad Ali about it.
The Last Guardian because of its status of being Sony’s own doing, while a fan favourite was not going to be received well had it showed up by itself, practically begging for snide remarks of “about time” after any initial shock wears off. It was potentially more a blot on Sony’s repute than a PR win.
But this is where Sony’s brilliance shows, and why they held off on the re-reveal for so long.
Sony had one unicorn, and it was one unicorn it controlled and could unleash at will. So Sony bid their time for the moment.
The second unicorn is the FF7 remake. Probably the best known RPG, it was the symbol of Square’s glory days. Fans talked about remaking it, but most dismissed it as being too expensive and Square Enix too out of tune to greenlight such project.
Indeed SE infamously trolled fans last year at the PSX by announcing a FF7 port. A freaking port, of the original game. When the announcement trailer was shown fans’ had high hoped, high hopes that were subsequently crushed in tears and curses.
In retrospect, I’m pretty sure SE intended that troll to throw people off about the rumours of the FF7 Remake. SE making a port made sense, announcing it at a high profile conference in front of the world didn’t, at the time anyway. As a result it culminated in the most dramatic roller coaster amongst fans. As Adam Boyes began his speech of Final Fantasy’s history, and the cinematic began to roll, Fans went between dismay to dry laughter of not going to be fooled again, to reserved trepidation, to excitement restrained for fear of hopes being eviscerated yet again. The trailer was masterfully done, the narration foreboding, hinting but never certain. People knew it was FF7, it had Barret, and Cloud! But in what form? A spin-off? A movie?
Then finally in a confident, daring statement, the trailer closed with nothing but the FF7 logo, followed by the words remake. There were no mention of FF7 anywhere. The flashes of midgar, shot from the back of two strolling characters and their iconic weapons, the meteor logo, was all that was needed.
It was as if saying “Hell yeah mate, look who’s here. You know me”
FF7 Remake made people delirious, people went wild. This was the second unicorn, one which practically lived in that patch of pasture next to TLG. Sony have a close relationship with SE and while they do not control it, was in the position to be in the know and exert some influence on it.
And to their benefit, after Microsoft abandoned the Japanese gaming scene Sony had no competition, the only question is whether SE would announce it at Sony or their own conference, which is easy enough to remedy – ka-chin!.
A clever insert of a indie game segment allowed people to calm down, for what had been shown to sink in a little.
Then the final unicorn was shown.
Whereas FF7 relied on its iconic imagery to unveil to the fans, the final unicorn was revealed in even more brilliance. There was no foreshadowing, no hints of what is to come. Something coming to kickstarter, that’s it. Shenmue have perhaps one of, if not the most iconic main theme for games. The screen went black, and the music came on. Fans who have played the game and many who didn’t but admired it (like me), immediately recognized the music. But it could not possibly be.
Then the petals began to fall. Another Shenmue icon, flower petals fell across the screen before the words Shenmue was revealed. It was emotional. It was cathartic. Shenmue’s grand, longing and rueful music was itself a description of the series’ sad fate, enduring 14 years of abandonment, a dream kept alive only by the most devoted die hard fans. They had been laughed at, mocked, told to give up their wish for a sequel for 14 years and to move on. Yet, some never gave up hope.
This was the third unicorn, one of gaming’s greatest most have resigned to be entombed in the museum, here, revived. People cheered for FF7 Remake, now, they wept.
Like one day when you were in primary school the family had to move house but your dad forgets your dog and it goes missing. You beg all the neighbours and nailed posters in a 10k radius yet no one has seen a hair of your dog. Every year you go back to the neighbourhood to look for him. It’s your last year of uni and mom and everyone tells you that Lucky is in a better place now (but you know he isn’t) and you need to move on.
Then on your graduation day you see a mangy hairball wander up the hallway.
This was Sony’s brilliance. It controlled the first unicorn, had good knowledge and influence over the second unicorn, but could not control the timing of the third. Unlike FF7 Remake a kickstarter cannot be delayed, Yu Suzuki would announce Shenmue 3 if and when the time comes, whether Sony is there to stand by it or not.
So Sony pitched in to control the timing of the reveal. And in one brilliance stroke, brought 3 unicorns to E3.
Investing in Shenmue 3 is a big risk for Sony. They do not own the IP and given the possible audience, is very likely expecting a loss or at best, meager returns. Which is perhaps why Shenmue had to go the way of kickstarter with Sony as one of the backing investors, sing the kickstarter to gauge how much interest there really is after long 14 years in the series, and hopefully use this as a guide to decide how much to ultimately pitch in. And even then this was risky. Can you imagine the headline if the kickstarter failed to garner even the measly 2 million required? Sony triumphant rides out on the unicorn and next moment the unicorn just falls over and dies? Sony will be forever associated as the one that rode the unicorn to its doom.
No mistake, FF7 Remake and Shenmue are two of the biggest myths out there. Only Half Life 3 is bigger, but that one is firmly locked in Valve’s towers.
By releasing 3 at once, Sony ensured their reveal would amplify each other, reaching heights not possible had they been shown individually.
Yep, Shenmue.. grown men reduced to tears