Microsoft and Sony Go Casual But Nintendo Steals E3

This article was originally intended to be included in the Weekly Video Game Newsletter last week but due to some issues (both website and non-website), the newsletter was never published. Instead of putting out two newsletters this week, I figure it would just be better to post this article online rather than as an exclusive article for a second newsletter. Therefore, there will only be one newsletter this week as usual..

There was a lot of hype going into the 2010 Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3). For the first time in a while it felt like all three major console manufacturers were destined to shine at the event. What transpired last week in Los Angeles was a bit bizarre. Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony did not hold back and did their best to win over the confidence of both the media and consumers. The reactions between media outlets and gamers may differ but this E3 really showed that the industry is moving into two separate directions.

Microsoft started the event early with a Kinect event on Sunday night with Cirque de Soleil. While this no doubt impressed those in attendance, a presentation of that level may have put Kinect into the red permanently. Just the circus act alone will need to ensure that Microsoft will sell several hundred thousand units of Kinect. Throw in the planned huge marketing blitz that Microsoft will unleash upon the world during the holidays and Microsoft will no doubt have to sell at least a million, if not several million units this holiday to not be buried.

If Kinect wasn’t already behind the eight-ball, many hardcore gamers who use E3 to prepare their holiday wish list were incredibly disappointed with Microsoft’s show on Monday. While the show started off strong with many hardcore titles, not much new stuff was shown. Even the highly anticipated titles didn’t come off strong. Gameplay video for Halo: Reach and Gears of War 3 were

disappointing in the fact that they didn’t really show off anything new. It felt like we were seeing more of the same as we have seen with previous instalments of the franchises. It wasn’t all like that as Call of Duty: Black Ops sort of felt like a mix between Call of Duty and Far Cry gameplay. While they only showed a trailer and it looks to still be at least another year away, Metal Gear Solid Rising looked to be an interesting reboot for the series with it resembling a mix between established Metal Gear Solid gameplay and Devil May Cry or Ninja Gaiden. However, it seemed like Microsoft wanted to rush through the traditional Xbox 360 games as quickly as possible as their keynote was dominated with Kinect stuff.

While the hardcore crowd may not like it, this is what Microsoft needed to do. Microsoft has never been profitable in the home console business. Even though they had plenty of momentum at the beginning of this generation of consoles, they’re almost out of gas. Sony has made great strides to make the Playstation 3 competitive against the Xbox 360. In fact, it’s getting to the point where there are some major releases that are selling more copies on the PS3 than on the Xbox 360 (which opens up the question as to how many more Xbox 360 owners there are than PS3 owners considering that many 360 owners have bought more than one console to replace defective ones).

They need to go after Nintendo because, at the moment, the Big N is running unopposed. Nintendo is the only console manufacturer making money this generation. They’ve done that catering to an untapped market. Now Nintendo has a monopoly on this large group. Microsoft and Sony can cater to the hardcore market all they want but, considering that they’re not making any money doing so, they need to go after a market that Nintendo virtually owns in entirety…aggressively.

So, most of the Microsoft presentation was an attempt to curry favour with the mainstream media. In fact, most gaming media reporters were relegated to the back of the auditorium for the Microsoft presentation. For the most part, the first few rows were dominated by reporters for major newspapers, television networks, and major news websites.

Kinect was a major part of this casual strategy as Microsoft showed off six games in detail for the new piece of hardware. However, many of them were glitchy and seemed to have problems in some way or another. In fact, it suspiciously looked like the game footage for some of the games were prerecorded and people acted along with the game (Kinectimals was one of the games that looked guilty of this with the girl’s hands not moving in conjunction properly with the on-screen hands and her talking while pretending to hide yet the in-game microphone not picking up on her speaking). They also showed off a very lame on-rails Star Wars lightsaber game that might have been neat in the arcades back in the mid-90s but looks very outdated in 2010.

However, Microsoft did a very smart thing by giving away the new Xbox 360 Slim (which they revealed at the end of their show) to all of the reporters at the show. Yes, some reporters can easily be bribed and Microsoft definitely earned some positive press by giving away all those systems. Even if gamers felt shafted by Microsoft’s press conference, it was very successful for the company. Kinect was the talk of the show for many. In fact, many members of the mainstream press were given private time with Kinect under ideal and highly supervised conditions to ensure that reporters would only get a positive experience with Kinect.

Electronic Arts had their press event later that day. Like Microsoft, there weren’t many surprises. Most of the content they showed had already been revealed and there weren’t that many games talked about that we didn’t already know about. In fact, they only talked about two new games and an expansion pack for Battlefield: Bad Company 2. Unfortunately, one of the games revealed was a new Need for Speed game. Considering that Need for Speed games are no longer as important as they once were and don’t sell all that well, it was a big letdown. It would have been better had they announced a new Burnout, considering it has been several years since the last iteration of the franchise. It almost feels insulting considering that Criterion Games, the makers of the Burnout series, are developing the new Need for Speed game.

Another retreaded franchise of EA, Medal of Honor, was front and center for their presentation. They showed off a 24-player multiplayer event that was unimpressive. Graphically, it didn’t look that great and this was despite the fact that they reduced the screen size of the gameplay footage to show off multiple screens. In fact, on the live Internet feed, they seemed to show more footage of people’s hands manipulating a game controller than the game itself.

Electronic Arts was quick to mention that they were using an early alpha edition of the game so it might be a bit buggy but then immediately after the game demo they announced that the multiplayer beta was going to be online June 21st. That’s an incredibly quick development cycle for a game to go from early alpha to playable beta for regular consumers (although they announced that those who owned Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and preordered Medal of Honor would gain access to the beta on Jun 17th). That’s just plain dishonest. If Microsoft or Sony had done something like that for Kinect or Move, there would have been a backlash. Luckily for EA, nobody really cared considering that nothing big is expected for Medal of Honor. There’s a chance that Medal of Honor will only be the 3rd or 4th best-selling FPS of the year. It will do well but it won’t be a breakout hit like Modern Warfare was a few years ago.

The last event of the day was Ubisoft. The biggest mistake I made throughout E3 was to watch that piece of garbage. Joel McHale was the host of the event and he did such a horrible job that even though I thought Ubisoft had some really interesting games, he almost had me ignoring them. He wouldn’t shut up for a minute and felt the need to interrupt the people who were introducing their projects with horrible jokes that sometimes were very insulting. He undermined Ubisoft’s entire show and set them backwards despite them having a solid lineup of software.

In fact, we saw a lot of content from Ubisoft that we hadn’t heard of before. Sure, there may be some who were disappointed by the fact that they didn’t get a chance to see anything regarding Beyond Good and Evil 2, but there were plenty of interesting titles that look to be on tap for the next year. Shawn White Skateboarding, Raving Rabbids: Travel Through Time, and Rayman Origins look like fantastic games and have the potential to make end-of-year top ten lists. They finally showed footage of the previously announced Tom Clancy: Ghost Recon Future Soldier and Driver: San Francisco. While both games still left plenty of questions unanswered, they looked like they were taking their respective franchises in the right direction. Overall, when it came to software, Ubisoft did an incredible job.

The only trainwreck that wasn’t McHale’s fault was the Your Shape presentation. Ubisoft had shown off Your Shape during the Kinect portion of Microsoft’s event and, for the most part, things went well. However, the Ubisoft presentation exposed the bugs of Kinect. The big problem was that they did virtually the exact same thing for both the Microsoft and Ubisoft events. The woman who did the Microsoft show also did the Ubisoft show. However, it appeared as though she lost two inches in the few hours between the two events. The Kinect sensor had indicated two different heights for her. Also, while it was a bit apparent during the Microsoft event, the Ubisoft demonstration kind of looked like there was tons of ‘waggle’ involved. Definitely not a good sign for a major part of Microsoft’s strategy moving forward.

However, they also took the time to show off new hardware…sort of. They beat Nintendo to the punch by announcing they will be releasing their own Vitality Sensor apparently before Nintendo. Innergy will be a relaxation game but it won’t be released for a particular system. It will be a USB device for the computer. They also decided to take the time to show off Battle Tag which is essentially a laser tag knockoff. It’s not new technology at all. In fact, I remember the stuff being around when I was a kid fifteen years ago. The hook here is that it communicates with the computer to keep track of the score and to issue new challenges. Why Ubisoft would want to move in this direction is beyond me considering that most of their software is intended to keep their consumers in front of the television. If kids realize that they can have fun away from a video game system, the company is finished.

All joking aside, Ubisoft could have had a really good show. McHale was so bad that he almost killed it. The quirky products didn’t help either as they felt like diversions away from the good stuff. Ubisoft is one of the few game publishers that are making money year over year and their lineup is solid enough that I don’t foresee any change to their financial status. However, even if they were to get McHale’s appearance fee back, I doubt that it was enough to make up for the potential loss of sales that McHale caused by preventing the press from enjoying the products presented. There has been virtually no mention of Ubisoft products in the mainstream media outside of Your Shape: Fitness Evolved (but that’s basically due to the fact that it was a big part of Microsoft’s event). Even though Shaun White Skateboarding has my vote as one of the best games to come out of E3 (and this is coming from someone who can’t stand skateboarding/snowboarding games), I read and saw very little about the game reported in the press. Unless Ubisoft throws plenty of marketing money behind these smaller titles, I don’t see there being much hype behind these products. Here’s hoping for Ubisoft that McHale doesn’t have an unsackable mutli-year deal.

Nintendo kicked things off on Tuesday with a thud. Even though most people felt Nintendo stole the show, it almost never happened. Shigeru Miyamoto was trotted out to present the new The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword at the beginning of Nintendo’s event and then things went horribly wrong. The Wii remote that Miyamoto used was not being all that agreeable and made the game look hardly playable. In fact, Bill Trinen, who was translating for Miyamoto, looked very stressed out as Miyamoto muttered stuff angrily in Japanese. Trinen looked as if he didn’t know what to say but he managed to keep his cool and blamed the problem on interference.

It’s mostly Nintendo’s fault as they didn’t learn their lesson from last year with the problems that arose during the Wii Sports Resort demonstration. From what I can gather, the issue is that the Wii Remote’s pointer interacts with the screen via infrared. The setup wasn’t intended to be played in an environment with tons of people and plenty of bright lights. All that interacts with the infrared and can cause quite a bit of interference. Most of the reporters who got hands-on time with the new Zelda game said that it worked beautifully.

Nintendo continued their tradition of past E3s by showing off a bunch of casual titles that keep the hardcore market sedated. While Mario Sports Mix looked somewhat interesting, nobody in the audience was asking for Wii Party or Just Dance 2. At least the push with Just Dance 2 is understandable considering that the Xbox 360’s Kinect will be encroaching on Nintendo’s territory and one of their big titles is Dance Central. Just Dance has been a major success for Nintendo and Ubisoft and they need to show that they won’t allow Microsoft to steal some of their turf without a fight.

Things changed quickly though when Nintendo showed off the trailer for Goldeneye. The new game exclusive to the Wii sent the crowd into the first big frenzy of the week. Thankfully, Nintendo was just getting started as they announced a brand new game starring Kirby and another one with Donkey Kong (and it doesn’t involve bongos!!!). Then they showed off the biggest item of all of E3 with the Nintendo 3DS. While they didn’t show off much in terms of game footage from the system, they did announce one new title for the system; Kid Icarus Uprising. The game looks great and puts the system on par between a Playstation 2 and a Gamecube (although some of the stuff seen on the E3 floor where slightly better than Nintendo 64 visuals, so it’ll take some time before we see some decent video footage of games). Since the 3D effect can’t be seen through giant screen videos, the conference ended by Nintendo sending out a large army of women with Nintendo 3DS systems tethered to their hips for the audience members to try out.

If Sony felt like they were going to have it easy after the Microsoft conference, they probably were sweating bullets after Nintendo’s show. It was the first time since the revealing of the Wii that Nintendo had a strong E3. Actually, it almost felt like E3 should have ended with Nintendo’s show because it was so great. Sony came into this E3 playing catch-up and Nintendo nearly lapped them after a mind-blowing 80 minute presentation.

Sony still had some big guns of their own to wow the crowd; although in the end it felt like a mixed bag. They tried to push the importance of 3D gaming and how the Playstation 3 will be the only system this holiday to have games available that can be played in an additional dimension. The problem with this though is that, while it wowed the crowd of glasses wearing journalists (and the people watching the Internet stream of the show if they were overworking their imaginations or on some sort of hallucegenic), Sony seemed to completely ignore the mass public’s current apathy towards 3D televisions.

While 3D movies are all the rage right now in cinemas, nobody is buying 3D televisions. The reason for this is because, for the most part, the financial investment to see 3D movies in theatres is on the theatre operator (while the ticket payer only has to pay a very small surcharge compared to the total cost of the equipment upgrade). However, when it comes to 3D televisions for home use, the entire financial burden is saddled with the consumer. If 3D televisions were cheap it would be one thing but they tend to start at the asking price of over $2000 and go up steadily from there. Combine that with the poor economy and the fact that many people have already shelled out for new TVs in the last couple of years and you’ve got a recipe for a very cold market.

Yet Sony is telling us that 3D gaming for the Playstation 3 will be immediately adopted and, if we’re not on the boat, we’re about to sink. Then again, this is the same Sony that told us rumble wasn’t important in a game system’s controllers (and later changed their mind). It’s also the same Sony that told us that Blu-Ray was the wave of the future. In four years, Blu-Ray has still only captured 11% of the home video market (DVD pretty much has a stranglehold on the rest) and is only gaining around 2% market share per year (and it’s growing at a constant, not exponentially). By the time Blu-Ray overtakes DVD in market share, it will have been overtaken by another format like solid-state media.

But back to the games, because Sony talked about a few of them. Killzone 3 looked really gray, which is what I hear the kids like in their first-person shooters nowadays. They they talked about the Playstation Move controller. In a nutshell, it’s a Wii Remote knockoff (down to the Nunchuk-type controller extension). However, the pointer functionality is sensed by the Playstation Eye camera instead of by an infrared sensor bar. Sony is playing it off like the whole thing will cost consumers $50 (which is the cost of one Move controller) but, considering that the Navigation sub-controller is pretty much required (at a cost of $30) and that most Playstation 3 owners don’t have a Playstation Eye, it becomes a really expensive setup. If you don’t have a Playstation 3 and you’re interested in the Playstation Eye, you might as well start saving your pennies now as its going to cost well over $400 dollars to be set up properly. Remember when Playstation 3’s weren’t moving all that well at $400 when the economy was better? Apparently Sony doesn’t because there doesn’t appear to be a price drop happening before next year.

Unlike Kinect which looked drastically different from what we’ve seen with the Wii, there wasn’t much to say about what the Move can bring to the table. In fact, most of it is almost identical to what we’ve seen with the Wii. They showed off Sorcery which looks like a very elaborate tech demo. It basically resembles a Harry Potter-type platformer and could have some potential but there wasn’t enough shown off to make it seem like a must-buy title (although to be fair, it’s coming out in 2011 so there’s still plenty we don’t know about it and plenty for time to redefine the controls and the graphics). They also showed off the Move-enhanced Tiger Woods 11 which plays exactly like the Wii version (including the Wii-version of Tiger Woods 10). In fact, Tiger Woods 11 look so similar to a Wii title that they had motion-control issues while it was being demoed. Another title they showed off was Sports Champions which looks a lot like a realistic version of Wii Sports Resort.

One quick thing about the similarities between Wii Sports Resort and Sports Champions: one of the neat things about Wii Sports Resort is that it looks incredibly cartoony. It looks fun to play with a group of friends. Sports Champions’s realism kind of takes away that goofiness that makes Wii Sports Resort appealing. Even Microsoft gets it with their Avatar characters which are just knock-offs of Miis.

Then, it became very clear that Sony doesn’t have a clue. They basically acknowledged that they’re having problems with the PSP sales. However, instead of promising a boatload of new titles (outside of a new God of War and the camera-enabled Invizimles) or coming out with new hardware that fixes some of the issues that are currently plaguing the PSP like the lack of real analog control or incredibly long load times, they basically blame the PSP’s problems on poor marketing. That couldn’t be the furthest thing from the truth. The PSP has been marketed very well in North America (aside from that fake blog fiasco from a couple of years ago).

I had been worried before E3 last year that my PSP would collect dust after major developers announced they were abandoning the platform. However, at E3, they showed off a strong library of games and throughout the holidays they practically bombarded the airwaves with interesting PSP commercials for the hardware. I was not too concerned about the system’s prospects last November because it looked like Sony was doing a good job marketing the system.

The games, on the other hand, were very poorly marketed. Not much was mentioned about many of the first-party PSP titles and the third-party PSP titles could have been vapourware for all it matters. In fact, Sony decided to forgo advertising the PSP version of LittleBigPlanet (which had been released as Sony’s big holiday PSP title) and decided that pushing the year-old PS3 version of LittleBigPlanet was a safer bet (in hindsight, it wasn’t a horrible play since LittleBigPlanet had a very strong 2009 holiday season).

So a summer marketing campaign with an annoying kid is not going to matter any. If there’s no content worth buying and the games control horribly due to a poor interface, then gamers are not going to invest money in the system. Just look at the Nintendo 64 or the Gamecube. Both great systems at the time if you didn’t mind waiting every three months for a good game to come out (ok, maybe two months for the Gamecube).

Speaking of LittleBigPlanet, they showed off the sequel to the PS3 game although none of the demoed part of the game involved the single-player game. They were showing off mini-games created using the level editor within the game. The problem here is that while LittleBigPlanet eventually sold two million copies, it took two heavily promoted holiday campaigns to do so. The chance to play someone’s creation of Bumper Balls (stolen from Mario Party) does not make me want to spend $60 on a game. The only question I had about this title was whether the controls were tightened up to make it feel less like Sackboy meanders around on screen like a drunk. I still have no idea because they didn’t mention anything about the single-player stuff.

They showed off more Medal of Honor 2 and Dead Space 2 which wasn’t all that interesting considering we had already seen these games earlier in E3. However, it’s interesting to note that PS3 will be getting exclusive special editions of each game (which probably explains all the Sony references during EA’s conference on Monday). It almost feels very bizarre considering that EA was one of the first publishers to be visually disgruntled over the launch of the PS3, it’s high price point, and it’s complex hardware architecture that made developing games for it a nightmare early on. Now the two companies are in bed with each other. Is there a developer backlash against Microsoft?

Since we’re on the subject of bitter enemies who became hot-and-heavy lovers, Gabe Newell came out and announced Portal 2 would be coming to the Playstation 3. This is kind of hilarious considering that Valve was probably the biggest voice against the Playstation 3 (probably even bigger than Microsoft) and that EA’s port of The Orange Box to the PS3 a few years ago was considered so horrible that some reviewers deemed the game unplayable. However, it appears that Valve and Sony have made up to the point where Newell said that the PS3 version of the game would be the best console version (although the best version overall will still be the PC version but he failed to mention that to the audience).

They showed another trailer for Final Fantasy XIV Online but still no gameplay footage. They finally dated Gran Turismo 5 for November 2nd, 2010 (as long as they don’t push it back to 2011). Then the show ended with a new Twisted Metal game.

Some people are really excited about this but I still can’t see why. There has only been one Twisted Metal game that sold over two million copies in North America (the second game in the series on the original Playstation). Twisted Metal is not a strong Playstation-branded franchise. It felt like they ended the show with no promise. If they had ended it with the Move or 3D gaming, it would have felt like the show ended with a bigger bang. Instead it just ended.

There is one thing of importance to mention about Sony’s event: Kevin Butler. They had him come out and do his funny shtick but it didn’t help sell a single console. He can bash (or his writers can have him bash) Microsoft’s Kinect or anything the Nintendo 3DS all he wants but at least there’s substance to what they have. It felt like Sony was chasing after their competition throughout their entire event. It wasn’t that their show was bad but it didn’t feel like there was any substance. It didn’t make me excited to be a PSP owner (unlike last year) and it didn’t make me feel like I needed to become a PS3 owner (unlike last year). Kevin Butler is funny and all but I would have rather the time wasted on him devoted to highlighting more games instead of cramming a bunch of titles within a few trailers that offered about five seconds worth of gameplay.

It’s hard to compare the three console E3 events because they were all trying to do different things. Microsoft was trying to captivate the casual market. I think that they did a decent job and do have quite a bit of momentum going forward (some retailers are saying that Kinect presales are doing very well and are actually surpassing Wii sales). The problem is that many of the hardcore fans feel like they’ve been abandoned by Microsoft. The thing though is that there really isn’t much of an alternative. Sure, the Microsoft core audience can all go out and buy PS3s but that’s probably not going to happen. Maybe they’ll see something more exciting at July Gamescon but for now they’ll have to contend with having to look forward to an “absolutely horrible” lineup of games on deck, including; Halo: Reach, Gears of War 3, Call of Duty: Black Ops, Medal Gear Solid: Rising, and Fable 3 (not to mention all the games announced at the EA and Ubisoft conferences as well).

Nintendo was lucky in that they didn’t have to waste time introducing a new method of input into a pre-existing device. Basically, Sony and Microsoft had to announce that they recreated the wheel while Nintendo was able to use the wheels they created four years ago to highlight an explosive lineup of games. For the last couple of years, Nintendo left people who watched their E3 presentations with a feeling of emptiness because they were busy wasting their time on gimmick products (remember Wii Music?). This year it was all about games and Nintendo delievered. It also helped that they were introducing a brand new system that would show off things that haven’t been done before. Nintendo didn’t have to waste time trying to copy or compete with the other companies. They just brought the goods to the show and left everyone watching the show feeling fulfilled.

Sony couldn’t do any right, it seems. Their 3D gaming is going to be a bust in the short term. If they can keep it going for the next five years, they’ll have something to work with because people will eventually adopt 3D technology when the prices go down and the glasses aren’t part of the equation. The Move feels like another thing that Sony has ripped off from Nintendo (whatever happened to Sixaxis?). They didn’t reveal any big titles (Twisted Metal is not a big title) and showed off plenty of stuff that we’ve already seen before. That being said, it’s not like Sony didn’t have decent content to show off. However, their stuff didn’t stand out. There’s a reason why Sony is getting very little mainstream press from this event. It’s because it feels like we’ve already seen Sony’s event before.

All in all, E3 was enjoyable. There were plenty of interesting titles shown off and there really was something for everyone. Usually, after watching all the presentations during the expo, I only see a couple of games that I get really excited about (usually a Mario game and one other title). This year though I got excited by a bunch of games and I might be making quite a number of preorders in the next couple of weeks. If you’re a casual or a hardcore gamer, it really doesn’t matter; E3 had plenty to offer for anyone who’s interested in gaming entertainment.

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