The PlayStation 4 and the odd timing of game companies

Sony announced the PlayStation 4 on February 20. On the face of it, that's a weird date, because it doesn't really coincide with any major trade show, gaming event, or sales period. However, when you really think about it, the timing makes perfect sense, as do other seemingly bizarre announcements from game companies.

Yes, common sense might dictate that a game company would make a major announcement around E3, or the Game Developer Conference (GDC), the Tokyo Game Show – or indeed just before Christmas, but to paraphrase H.L. Mencken, the problem with common sense is that it's clear, simple, and wrong.

Sony announced the PS4 and some of its features, but it held several details close to its chest. Those are the details that will probably be released at E3. Until then, Sony has generated a huge amount of buzz a month before GDC and PAX East, a few months before E3, and most importantly just after Bungie announced Destiny.

Bungie created the game series that defined the Xbox and Xbox 360, and while Halo is now in the hands of a Microsoft-owned studio that's proven itself very capable of continuing the series, everyone was wondering what Bungie would do next.

The PS4 will be the first next-gen platform to run Destiny, and that means the PS4 version will have graphical enhancements and features that make it more compelling than the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions. It's an exclusive without the explicit exclusivity, and by timing the PS4 announcement along with it, Sony has stolen the thunder Microsoft might have had by saying Bungie's next big game will be available on the Xbox 360. Plus, if the PS4 version has some exclusive content, that's the version to which gamers will flock.

Besides the Destiny buzz, Sony made a smart move by not announcing things like pricing, storage capacity, or even design at its announcement. That's where the company will hit hard during E3, after generating the months-long pre-show buzz. The attention will die down, then Sony will bring it back up again just when Nintendo will be scrambling to announce big Wii U and 3DS games to look out for, and when Microsoft might announce its own new system.

Every blog and news site will be filled with concept and early design photos of the PS4 that Sony will release, alongside a few other technical details and launch titles, and that will dominate at least part of the news during E3. Meanwhile, Microsoft might announce its new system with a logo drop and feature list like Sony's announcement last week, but it will be overtaken by the visual attention of what the PS4 will look like. Alternately, Microsoft will reveal the design of the new Xbox, but then it will miss out on the one-two attention punch Sony is grabbing.

In terms of timing, Sony is holding all the cards thanks to this seemingly random announcement date. It has the buzz, and it has the room to pick up the buzz again. Microsoft will get a lot of attention when it announces the new Xbox, but it seems as if Sony might have beaten the company in terms of timing.

What about Nintendo?

Meanwhile, Nintendo will announce new games. I can almost guarantee that three of the following franchises will get a new game announcement: Zelda, Metroid, Mario ("regular" 3D Mario like Sunshine/Galaxy/3D Land, not 2D New Mario, which is its own sub-series), Mario Kart, Animal Crossing. Some of these series upgrades were hinted at during previous Nintendo Direct broadcasts, but none were announced either as part of the Wii U's six month launch window or as an upcoming title.

That's because Nintendo needs to have big system-seller games to last the life of the system, and since its biggest properties are first party, it has to parcel them out itself. It's the same timing logic as Sony. If Nintendo announced every major Nintendo game on the Wii U at once, gamers would go nuts for a few months and the Wii U would get a huge surge of purchases. Then it would die off.

Nintendo needs to keep the buzz going and the way it does that is by staggering out the eight to ten major games everyone wants for the new Nintendo system over several years. Each time, a handful of others will be swayed to get a Wii U and Nintendo gets a slow burn of purchases. Without major third-party games, it's Nintendo's best tactic.

As for Microsoft, it's a wild card. Microsoft is the latecomer to the console world and while it has become well established, it doesn't have a set pattern or a ton of exclusives. Kinect fizzled somewhat and everyone is waiting for the next system from Microsoft, so the company's strategy depends entirely on what features, power and compelling games it will get. If it wants to keep grabbing attention like Sony and (to a lesser extent) Nintendo, it has to let that information trickle out. Don't expect much more than a logo and a few features from Microsoft at E3 – assuming Redmond does wait until then – while Sony will use that time to show everyone what the PS4 will look like.

For more on the PS4, see our article entitled Sony PlayStation 4 launch: all the big questions answered.