Microsoft Takes Its Cues at E3 2008

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by Kyle Ackerman

They say that the Xbox 360 is trailing in the console wars. "They" say. Is that the same "they" that say your shoes are out of style and that Fred or Connie will go home with anyone after a drink or two? Well... yes. It's the enthusiast gaming press saying such things. Microsoft denies it, with the kind of hubris that has characterized past Sony press conferences, where the Japanese giant reveled in its confidence that no one could overtake its recent supremacy in the console space. Microsoft proclaimed its lead, relying on sales figures, upcoming games, and a bevy of features ranging from an interface and avatars designed to emulate the best of the Wii, to family-friendly franchises ripped from previous PlayStations, and Netflix support.

Microsoft may feel that it's in the lead, but it's not afraid to steal the best and brightest ideas from its competition. Read on to see what Microsoft thinks will cinch a lead for its console. Don Mattrick, Senior Vice President of the Interactive Entertainment Business for Microsoft, was confident enough to proclaim, the "Xbox 360 will sell more consoles worldwide than the PlayStation 3."

It's hard to imagine how the Xbox 360 could be perceived as the trailing party in a three-way console war. It's true that the Wii is a sensation, selling scads of units, but it's appealing to a new demographic, selling to nursing homes and nurseries as well as gamers. And the PlayStation 3 is experiencing an uptick in sales thanks to the fact that it finally has some worthwhile games and just introduced Xbox Live-like functionality after a halting start. The Xbox 360 launched well in advance of the other consoles, and has even more games thanks to the fact that it provides the development environment most closely akin to the PC.

Other consoles' recent news doesn't mean the Xbox 360 is trailing in a distant third. As Microsoft pointed out, it has sold more consoles and more software than the Wii or the PlayStation 3. But the Microsoft press conference treated its platform like it was a trailing third. The event was poorly organized, with underwhelming announcements designed more to steal the fans of Sony and Nintendo's platforms than to raise the Xbox 360 to new heights.

Erect Your Temple on the Pyramid of Those You Conquer

The conference was set in the West Hall of the Los Angeles Convention Center, once the sacred location of Sony and Nintendo's enormous booths, in the days when the Electronic Entertainment Expo was a spectacle. It's as if, by building stadium seating and a stage for a press conference on the corpse of other companies' console gaming at E3, Microsoft had planted its flag and declared itself the heir apparent to console gaming. That, however, isn't enough. The Xbox 360 isn't trailing as far behind the other consoles as "they" say, but it's not in a commanding lead, either.

Microsoft already unveiled its biggest news prior to the conference – it cut the price of Xbox 360 storage space, effectively lowering the price of the console that's been on sale. Microsoft was excited that it now has roughly 12 million subscribers for Xbox Live, and that more than one billion dollars have been spent on Xbox Live, with movie and television show rentals accounting for roughly one-third of that. Still, many of the other announcements at the conference were really just taking cues from Microsoft's competitors.

Nintendo Blazes the Trail, Microsoft Builds a Road

Alongside the recent price cut, the other big announcement was Microsoft's plans to entirely revamp the Xbox 360 interface, including avatars that look like more sophisticated versions of Nintendo's Miis. Sadly, this news already leaked to the net, deflating any excitement or surprise Microsoft might have managed. John Schappert, Corporate Vice President of Live (Software and Services for the Interactive Entertainment Business), described the changes by saying that this is the first time that "A consumer electronics device will be completely reinvented through software." That means that when the Xbox 360 receives its Fall software update, there will be an entirely new interface and dashboard. Gamercards will remain, but the interface will support channels and 3D avatars. Schappert says the interface will be "More fun, more social and simpler to use."

The avatars will be customizable (here's hoping Microsoft doesn't ask us to pay premium prices to clothe and style our avatars, especially after so many people have paid for gamerpics). But Microsoft's equally important point is that you'll be able to experience content and social activities with your friends and their avatars. Xbox Live members will be able to create and participate in live parties – events where up to eight people can chat, share pictures, move together to play games or even watch one person's video content. I suppose Microsoft perceived the need to have seven other people heckle the television show or movie you rented. Those avatars will also be compatible with games. For example, when the next Scene It? game (Scene It? Box Office Smash) is released, players will be able to include their avatars as contestants.

Casual Content Rules the Day

Microsoft threw in several of its usual announcements. NBC and Universal were added as television and movie content today in North America, and MGM International and Constantin were added in Europe. All of those will be moved to a movie channel when the redesign takes effect this Fall. There will be an Xbox Live Primetime channel, that is being developed in conjunction with Endemol &ndash the folks behind the game show 1 vs 100. The channel will feature game shows (including 1 vs 100) that will be entirely populated with Xbox Live gamers and will offer "real" prizes (whatever that means). Microsoft also confirmed another long-rumored partnership. It will be possible for Netflix members to watch their instant queue movies on the Xbox 360, without the need to pay for additional services or hardware. Essentially, the Xbox 360 will be able to do for Netflix members what their PC already can do, but without needing to hook the PC to the television.

Microsoft has more plans for Xbox Live Arcade beyond the usual march of new downloadable games. The company is promising a new version of Uno (called Uno Rush), a new Geometry Wars (called Geometry Wars Retro Evolved 2, sporting four-player cooperative play), Portal: Still Alive and a South Park game.

Two big new franchises were introduced, designed to bring in casual gamers. Lips is a SingStar-style game coming out late this year. Keiichi Yano (Gitaroo Man) is leading the design. It looks very much like SingStar in style although Yano promised you would be able to pull songs from your own music collection (say on your Zune... or iPod) to sing, but his spiel implied this would only work for songs they had processed. Lips will come with motion sensitive, wireless microphones (that can be used to emulate dance moves or tambourines) that light up and shimmer based on your play. The best part of the announcement was that they had pop star Duffy show up to sing her own song "Mercy" along to the game track based on her song. She nicely demonstrated that a star singing her own song won't hit the game's precise bars with her usual vocal flourishes. Then she performed an ending to the song that missed all the game tracking bars and continued well after the track had the (in-game) audience applauding her (in-game) performance.

Microsoft also announced You're In The Movies, being developed by Zoe Mode (formerly known as Kuju). The game has players using the Xbox Live Vision camera to play mini-games much like the frenetic activities that came out with Sony's EyeToy games (such as running or slapping bugs). But the real hook with this game is that those mini-games produce stored video of your friends engaging in silly activities that are automatically recut into a trailer for a B-movie. The example in the conference had Microsoft executives running from giant lizards and flailing about in a laboratory. Microsoft promises that when the game is released this holiday season, it will be possible to control the action, make edits and share these films. Clearly, Microsoft wants the Xbox Live Vision camera to get more attention. The conference even showed that you'll be able add more characters to the next Viva Pinata game by scanning collectible cards with the Xbox Live Vision camera.

A Nod to the Hardcore, but not for the PC

Not everything Microsoft talked about was designed for capturing the casual audience. Microsoft emphasized several upcoming games for hardcore gamers, all titles for older Xbox 360 owners, and most with plenty of violence and gore. Microsoft showcased several Square Enix games that will be coming to the Xbox 360, including Final Fantasy XIII (which will be released for the Xbox 360 when it launches). The first downloadable content for Grand Theft Auto IV will be released later this year on the Xbox 360. Fallout 3, Resident Evil 5 and Gears of War 2 all showed plenty of gore coming to the Xbox 360, while Fable 2 emphasized belching and showed an opening cinematic that starts the player as a little boy who gets pooped on by a bird. But they all looked like great fun. So there will be great games coming for the hardcore and casual gamers. To the Xbox 360 – nothing was said concerning the PC.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on July 14, 2008 1:00 PM.

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