A Fab Interface for Microsoft's Xbox 360
With its usual impressive stage set-up, multiple colossal screens and hundreds of dynamic lights, Microsoft launched its E3 2009 briefing with a trailer for Beatles Rock Band. Launching into a live play session of "Day Tripper," Beatles Rock Band became the keystone of the Microsoft's presentation, taking on the same kingly role that games like Halo, or the Xbox 360 console itself, have occupied in recent years. The emphasis on the Beatles was surprising given Microsoft's other important hardware and social networking announcements.
This was the first time that a Microsoft E3 conference left me unsure what to think. Beatles Rock Band is a big deal. No question. But how big a deal? The Rock Band and Guitar Hero franchises are the most popular (and most lucrative) genre to join the gaming fold, but how much do the games' demographics overlap with hardcore Beatles fans? Beatles downloadable content for the existing games seems like a license to print money, but will enough people buy the standalone Beatles Rock Band to make it worth the no doubt astronomical licensing fee and marketing costs? I'm not sure.
But the cheering when Yoko Ono Lennon and Olivia Harrison took the stage might convince me that Beatles Rock Band will be a bigger hit than I expect, even with younger gamers. The standing ovation and thunderous applause the crowd gave to Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr got me to believe that Beatles Rock Band might just be as important as the conference keynote position is meant to make me believe. Certainly, the production values on Beatles Rock Band look to surpass those of most games, with amazing animations, backgrounds and great sound. As Ringo Starr said, "The game is good, the graphics are very good... and we were great!" Paul McCartney summed it up cheekily, saying, "Who'd have ever thought we'd end up as androids?"
The focus was particularly odd, given that the only thing about Beatles Rock Band that will be exclusive to the Xbox 360 is a single song: – "All You Need is Love" will be released as exclusive downloadable content for the Xbox 360, with proceeds from the song going to Doctors Without Borders.
Microsoft's big hardware announcement was the revelation of what it calls "Project Natal" a bar on a stand that stands in front of the television and uses a pair of cameras and a microphone to allow Xbox 360 gamers to use voice commands and motion capture to interact with the console. The demo footage that Microsoft showed was impressive – people waving their hands a la Minority Report to navigate the Xbox 360 menu options, the console using facial recognition to automatically sign users into Xbox Live, using body motions to knock balls from the air or participate in a martial arts competition and a mixture of gestures and voice commands to hurl paint at a canvas in a Pollock-esque painting demo.
The theme of Project Natal was that "Controllers will continue to evolve," and Steven Spielberg took the stage to claim that Project Natal will make the console approachable, and will draw in those for whom the controller is too much of a barrier to make games playable by everyone. As Spielberg said, "It's not about reinventing the wheel... it's about no wheel at all."
It's true that Project Natal is not merely an evolution of the Wii Remote or the motion-sensitive SixAxis controller, but neither is it something totally new. It feels like an evolution of the EyeToy camera and the kind of interactive software (such as EyeToy Play) that Sony introduced for the PlayStation 2. It's possible that the early EyeToy stuff was just the right technology at the wrong time, or maybe the technical advances of Project Natal (3D motion capture, facial recognition and voice recognition) will help the hardware succeed where the EyeToy games just didn't take off.
The demos were intriguing, including a demo of Milo from Peter Molyneux in which people used the Project Natal interface to talk and interact with a virtual young boy. Watching the character Milo and the demo participant pretend to hand things back and forth through the screen was interesting, but it seemed like another evolution – an upgraded version of Eliza or Seaman. Is it exciting? Well, it seems to me like you'd need a lot more processing power than the Xbox 360 offers to fulfill Peter Molyneux's promises – not just a fancy new interface.
Microsoft didn't announce a launch date for Project Natal but did say that "Development kits are arriving at our partners today." We'll probably see next year whether Project Natal transforms the way we interact with games, or if, like the EyeToy games, it's a novelty with only minimal adoption.
The biggest software announcements Microsoft made weren't about games, but social networking. Felicia Day took the stage to explain that Xbox Live will be integrated with Facebook and Twitter later this year. Of course, if you are both an Xbox Live user and big Twitter fan, you probably already read tweets to that effect. Using a customize Xbox Live interface, it will be possible to access Facebook and Twitter, and easily tweet or update your status from the comfort of your console.
There will also be a few updates to the Xbox 360's various media capabilities. Xbox Live's video service will be rebranded with the Zune name, and HD videos will be upgraded to full 1080p. Also, movies will start immediately, rather than having to wait for a download to complete. The Netflix interface is being updated so that Xbox 360 owners can browse the catalog and add movies to the queue without having to go to a PC. Microsoft is even adding radio feeds that will be included in Xbox Live Gold membership, provided by Last.fm. In all cases, parties of Xbox Live members will be able to watch entertainment together.
Beyond Beatles Rock Band, the focus of Microsoft's presentation was once again about games that you'll be able to play soon. Perhaps it's the fact that the conference is being rebroadcast to the millions of people who don't have the chance to sit in the auditorium. The event isn't about building buzz for the long-term future of the platform, it's about what you'll be able to purchase this holiday season. To that end, Microsoft was showing off drop-dead gorgeous trailers for games that will be released in a manner of months.
Microsoft emphasized upcoming games such as Crackdown 2, Left 4 Dead 2, Splinter Cell: Conviction, Forza Motorsport, Halo 3 ODST and Alan Wake. The biggest game announcement was that Hideo Kojima will be bringing Metal Gear Solid: Rising to the Xbox 360, an MGS game that will focus on Raiden (rather than Solid Snake).
The game announcement that most caught my attention was actually Joy Ride, an Xbox Live Arcade kart racing game that will be free to download and play (but will offer premium purchasable content). It's not surprising to see Microsoft touting premium skin content for cars in Forza Motorsport, but it is something of a landmark to see Microsoft pursuing the free-to-play, pay-for-fun model that has overtaken online games on the PC.