E3 2012 is racing at full steam, and already one thing is clear: Sony, for all its PlayStation 3 might, has a challenge on its hands from Microsoft and Nintendo. Whereas gaming so far has centered around a single, big screen and the most engaging, graphically-rich or multiplayer-involving titles, two of the three players have opened the door to multiple screens. Sony may have stitched together PS3 and PS Vita, but it’s looking increasingly left behind as its arch rivals each make their play.
On the one side is Nintendo, taking advantage of the touchscreen integrated into its primary Wii U controller to deliver a DreamCast-on-steroids style companion display. Nintendo’s initial demonstrations of the Wii U were somewhat half-hearted in their use of the secondary screen; a golf game where the slate, on the floor, showed the tee as you swung a Wiimote club was eye-catching, yes, but hardly delivered a long-term immersive experience.
The Wii U of E3 2012, however, is a far more enticing prospect. Games, social and entertainment are all on the roster, with the promise of Netflix, Hulu Plus, YouTube and more on the Gamepad’s screen. While Sony’s Vita integration with its main console amounts mainly to the same titles being compatible on each – allowing Vita gamers to play against their PS3-owning friends – Nintendo’s controller promises an altogether more info-rich experience of two displays for one player.
Microsoft has taken things even further with Xbox SmartGlass. The new multi-screen system will not only spread streaming media across Xbox 360, smartphone, tablet and Windows 8 PC, but allow each to turn into a game controller or show contextually-related information. We’ve dug deep into SmartGlass’ potential in our SlashGear 101 feature, but Microsoft is quite obviously making a play for a market that doesn’t necessarily prioritize gaming above home multimedia, and which might not normally consider adding an Xbox 360 to its shopping list.
The real irony is that, of all of the big three gaming players, it’s Sony that already had the most pieces in place. The company may have had to acquire Sony Ericsson so as to take total control of its “four-screen strategy” but, when it comes to tablets and PCs, it had a head-start on Microsoft and certainly Nintendo.
That it has so singularly failed to capitalize on that is testament more to Sony’s own struggles to rediscover profitability and focus than it is the shakiness of a “four-screen strategy.” As tentatively enthusiastic reactions to both the Wii U tablet and Xbox SmartGlass have demonstrated, users are ready and willing to think in terms of multi-device ecosystems rather than siloed content.
What it has precious little of is time. Nintendo has recommitted to having the Wii U on the market – or select markets, at least – by the 2012 holidays. Xbox SmartGlass arrives even sooner, with Microsoft promising its launch this fall. Sony, meanwhile, is still yet to convince us that, even with its PlayStation certification for Android devices, it can even begin to deliver a convincing cross-platform experience that’s anywhere near to being as joined-up as Nintendo’s and Microsoft’s appear. Sony has many of the pieces it needs to rectify that, but it needs to act fast if it doesn’t want to find PlayStation being left behind as a game-centric brand while Xbox and Wii U dramatically broaden their appeal.