E3 2009 – What I Learned From the Microsoft Conference

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At the tail end of this week, I turn the page on 36 and look ahead to see what 37 has in store for me. At that point, it’s official. I’m in my late-30’s. And yet, it’s somewhat encouraging that this peek into the wild woods of Geriatric Park comes at the end of my favorite week of the year.

The 2009 E3 (the Electronic Entertainment Expo) launched in LA yesterday with the big Xbox 360 conference and the megaton charges that Microsoft lobbed were heard loud and clear (and streaming) a full coast away – making my day and more importantly, tightening my grasp on my youth.

No matter how old I get nor how many new responsibilities I draft into the fold, I always look forward to the next great video game experience. I used to call it my vice, as if there were some reason that I should hide my passion, but I’ve stopped that. I work hard – damn hard – and I lead a very fulfilling life. But at the end of the day, when the world quiets and my children are nestled all snug in their bed, I like to steal a slice of time and journey to the world of make-believe. I may never keep the tax man at bay, but I can save the princess this day.

As I did last year, I’m planning on running a series of posts over the next week or two. While the actual conference (where developers allow the press (and public) to get some hands-on time with this holiday’s big title) doesn’t begin proper until tomorrow, tradition calls for the three big game console manufacturers – Microsoft (Xbox 360), Sony (Playstation 3/PSP) and Nintendo (Wii/DSLite) to host their own press conferences. These events are usually star-studded and serve to spotlight a hand-selected series of major releases on the hardware and software fronts.

I’m planning to run 6 posts. One for each of the conferences, where I’ll give you my thoughts on what stood out most. And then I’ll chase that with three additional posts, where I give a run down of the 5 games I’m most looking forward to playing per system. Now, I don’t own a PS3 and that likelihood is slimmer than its ever been before (that’s what the loss of gainful employment will net you) but a guy can dream – so I’ll include Sony in the mix as well.

Today is Microsoft’s turn, so without further adieu, here’s what I thought about their announcements.

5.   Never Say Never Again
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There is no question that the Xbox wouldn’t hold the market share it does now without the original Halo – a system seller if ever there was one. The original Xbox launched alongside Bungie’s FPS adventure and it was that title, with its expertly crafted single player campaign and robust multiplayer suite that moved units and pushed Microsoft into a viably competitive slot. Going toe-to-toe with Sony’s big dog, the Playstation 2, was a fool’s errand and there was no way an upstart like the Xbox was going to wrestle the crown from Sony in that round, but all Microsoft wanted was a space on the fight card. They took their losses (in the mouth and the wallet) but when the bell rang, they were still standing. And that’s exactly where they wanted to be.

Microsoft quickly gobbled up Bungie and set them to work making what they do best, Halo games. And the partnership was lucrative, with Bungie producing two excellent sequels and furthering the fan base, thus locking in more potential consumers for Microsoft’s hardware and luring the Sony hardcore away to see what all the fuss is about. It was a smart, strategic partnership that paid off beautifully for both companies.

But, like most big dogs are apt to do, Bungie wanted freedom from its leash and asked the alpha male for time to stretch. With the release of Halo 3 in Fall 2008, they found themselves amicably emancipated from Microsoft and they pledged that while they would continue to support the Xbox, they wanted to broaden their horizons and try their hand at something new. While the door wasn’t shut on Halo, after all – the property belongs to Microsoft (not Bungie), it appeared that future installments would be guided by another development team.

Well, never say never again. At E3, Bungie came out swinging with a one-two punch. Their first salvo could be seen from afar, as we’ve known for some time now, that they had worked the Halo 3 engine to present a stand-alone side story, depicting the battle against those Covenenant bastards from an Earth bound locale. Yesterday, Bungie showed off some game play footage, making it clear that Halo: ODST takes a more squad-based approach to further coloring this canvas. As with the recently released strategy title, Halo Wars, this displays an intelligent use of the property – staying true to its roots but taking the universe in new directions while feeding that insatiable urge to eat up every little morsel out there. Bungie’s involvement with this title is clear. They built Halo 3 and with this game using that engine, they really are the best architects for this new experience. While true, I think there’s also a more compelling reason for their participation which I’ll get to in a moment.

Closing the show, Microsoft offered one final, teasing image. In Fall 2010, Microsoft will release Halo: Reach. Now, it’s not called Halo 4 and probably for good reason as this appears to bring us back to the beginning – depicting The Fall of the Reach – a famed battle that serves as prologue for the adventures we’ve already played through. Again, this shows Bungie’s commitment to exploring their expanded universe and transforming their game into a property pregnant with potential. The fervor for these titles aught to echo loud and clear – at least a few blocks down from the LA Convention Center – where if those Universal honchos are listening, they’ll realize that Bungie is just aching to serve them the next Star Wars. Handled properly, this franchise could stretch decades and truly become that household entertainment that every producer covets.

While, I have no doubt that Bungie is hard at work on new intellectual properties, I think they’re continued involvement is simple. They can’t bare to see someone else raise their child and I think Microsoft has been very smart in how they’ve handled Bungie. They’ve granted them emancipation and autonomy and have been respectful to Bungie’s wishes. Rather than push them away and play hardball by inserting Developer X to drive the franchise into the ground, Microsoft knows every offspring performs best under their parents watchful gaze. So they give Bungie the freedom they desire while keeping the bankroll open knowing this partnership will pay dividends – at the cash registers but also through furthering games as a legitimate art form. And make no mistake, Halo may have begun as a first person shooter but it has transcended its humble origins and grown into something more complex and engaging.

Halo and Bungie will be tethered for a very long time and we’re all the better for it.

4.   Every Move You Make
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This has nothing to do with Sam Fisher but everything to do with spying.

Now that Microsoft has made cyber stalking from the comfort of your couch as simple as can be, it’s high time they start working on making Internet piracy completely undetectable. Where’s the love for those deviants?

Last year, Microsoft furthered their goal of turning the Xbox 360 into the center of your home entertainment, by adding Netflix streaming into the stable of entertainment options available through the system. This year, they’ve gone and added more features – with a defined focus on blowing out the social networking aspect of the system.

Coming this Fall, the 360 will integrate Twitter and Facebook into the 360 – meaning you’ll be able to keep up-to-date on your friends’ activities while you continue ripping Liberty City a new one.

Now, I don’t tweat but I am on Facebook and that utility does look compelling. In fact, I recall last year, when I was in the first days of the Facebook honeymoon, I would often pinball between the TV and the PC, bouncing between game to computer screen to see what the latest updates were and to see if any conversations sparked an ounce of my thought. Now, I never have to leave that couch bringing me one step closer to Wall-E’s vision of humanity. You know what – at the end of the day, after I’ve been bustin’ my hump at the docks hauling in today’s catch, that’s fine with me. All I wanna’ do is work on digging a couch divot and spending an hour or two in fantasy land. If I can keep up with my Facebook cronies while runnin’-and’gunnin’ alongside my Xbox pals, GREAT!!!

Oh, who am I kiddin’. I’m never gonna’ set it up. But it is cool for the kids.

3.   Game On
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With this generation of consoles comfortably sitting at the midpoint of their life cycles, these conferences becomes less about unveiling new tech (although Microsoft did have that base covered – more in a moment) and more about showcasing the reason we own these bricks in the first place.

I think the one trend we’ve seen this generation is the deterioration of system exclusivity, aside from first party endeavors, which is a good thing for all involved. Suddenly, you don’t feel compelled to own every system (although the first party ware is usually a tasty carrot towards that end). While I’ve got a separate piece coming that will dive a little deeper into my most wanted titles, I thought Microsoft had a good showing and it looks like it’s going to be a very busy winter gaming season again.

Last year’s megaton blast was reserved for the unveiling of Final Fantasy XIII on the 360, the first time since Final Fantasy VII that the venerable role-playing series had escaped Sony’s clutches. The year before, Microsoft heisted Grand Theft Auto. This year, they stealthily grabbed Metal Gear Solid: Rising.

Now, it wasn’t the port of Metal Gear Solid 4 that the 360 elite wanted but I think we’re better for it. That game’s been played. What Kojima Productions has done is serve up a brand new Metal Gear for the system, although it remains to be seen if its exclusive. Those words were never bandied about which makes me think this will go multi-platform.

Metal Gear Solid: Rising looks like it jettisons Snake for the once maligned Luke Skywalker-wannabe, Raiden. Of course, his star has risen ever since Hideo dressed him up as a kick-ass cybernetic ninja so I don’t think there will be much crowing about this selection. Besides, if I wanted to continue the further adventures of a creaky old man, I’d get Up.

There are a number of sequels coming (of course) with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 hitting during the holidays and followed a week later by Assassin’s Creed 2. Splinter Cell: Conviction was shown but I’m fuzzy on the release date. It was supposed to release last year. Then it was listed as June 30th but I didn’t get the sense we’d be playing this in a few weeks. With Assassin’s Creed hitting in the holiday season, I think Ubisoft might be holding this one to early 2010, which seems to be a trend for many of these titles.

One game that should finally see the light of day is Alan Wake, which was first unveiled 4 years ago at the 360 launch. This title gets shown each E3 (usually in snippet form) and then slinks back into the darkness. Well, Microsoft has shown the light on this one and it looks like a moody, edgy adventure, further blurring the line between game and cinema. My guess is that this launches in October as a little treat for all those tricks they’ve played with it.

Another title that’s risen from the ashes is my most anticipated game of LAST YEAR – Tim Schafer’s Brutal Legend. Schafer is the absolute man, having created some of the most creative games of all time including Psychonauts, Grim Fandango and Day of the Tentacle. Brutal Legend is a twisted adventure that takes place in his brand of metalocalypse – or at least, in a fantasy world inspired by hard rock album covers. Schafer’s choices inspire at every turn including the revelation that Ozzy Osbourne, Lita Ford and Rob Halford join Jack Black for the voice cast. The title died earlier this season when Activision dropped it in a merger deal but EA opened their big wallet and gave Schafer the funds needed to polish his masterpiece.

Finally, there is nothing sweeter than seeing all these rabid Halo fans, who once upon a time bought Crackdown solely for the Halo 3 Beta, now falling all over themselves for Crackdown 2. And for good reason!!! Crackdown was a fantastic game and once they stopped playing the tired beta and actually gave the primary title a shot, many people caught on to that. I was initially wary of Crackdown 2 as I knew Realtime Worlds, the original game’s developer, had moved on to their new IP, APB, but I’ve since learned that Crackdown 2 is developed by former Realtime employees, meaning we should be in good hands. Give us a new city with new abilities and I’m back on the Crack pipe.

2.   Cool Fun in the Summer Time
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Last summer, Microsoft launched a very successful promotion – The Summer of Arcade – where they released a spotlighted new arcade title each week for a month. During that time, the system saw some of its best titles including Bionic Commando Rearmed and Castle Crashers.

This summer, they repeat the promotion with some brand new titles that look like absolute must-haves. Of the titles coming our way, two jump out as instant purchases.

First, Epic (Gears of War) releases Shadow Complex, which the main developer says is his attempt at giving the world its next Super Metroid. The game is a 2D action-adventure that favors exploration and in the great Metroid tradition, has players accumulating new abilities in order to gain passage to new areas. It’s a compelling game design that really teases the puzzle-solver in me and coupled with the jaw-dropping high def visuals (which make this title look like a full price retail game) this will be downloaded the moment it drops.

And then, after a 10-year lull, the secrets of Monkey Island were revealed once more. Early in the day, word dropped that Telltale Games had secured the license to launch a new episodic series, The Tales of Monkey Island. So far, that’s listed for the Wii and PC but my guess is they’ll find their way on XBLA too.

Then, during the Microsoft conference, a high-def remake of the original Secret of Monkey Island was announced. The screenshots are gorgeous, with hand-drawn artwork replacing the pixilated blobs that charmed us way back when. And with almost two decades passed since I last played this title, I am utterly convinced that I don’t remember a damned thing about it. I can’t wait.

1.   Wii Want to Play Too
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I knew we’d eventually get an HD Wii, I just had no idea that Microsoft would develop it.

The absolute stunner of the day was Microsoft’s unveiling of Project Natal, a motion sensing, voice and facial recognition application that expands the functionality of the 360 in some dynamic and exciting ways and really does provide the next evolution of what Nintendo started with the Wii. While rumors of this tech have swirled for months, hearing about it and seeing it in action are two completely different things and from what I saw, Microsoft landed a major blow across the bows of the Playstation and Wii armadas.

That being said, I think people need to caution themselves in terms of what we’ll be able to do with this tech, at least in the short term. For starters, I don’t think we’ll see this in homes until at least mid-2010.

In addition, like the Wii, this is designed to bring in the casual game players. Nintendo had an easier sell for that and I think that despite the major advancements Microsoft has made in terms of what you can do with less (i.e. no controllers), they are still considered a hardcore platform and don’t possess that family-friendly instant household name recognition that Nintendo covets. Obviously, people know Microsoft but when they hear the name, they think corporate greed, not cute n’ cuddly plumbers.

Plus, there’s the simple matter of all those Wiis out there. The hardcore may turn up their noses at the technically deficient Wii but for the mainstream that have embraced the system, it’s all they need. It’s going to be a hard sell to convince the average casual gamer that they need a new system. For some of these people, the Wii was the first system they bought since the NES. This thing has a shelf life of at least another decade or two.

So, I think Project Natal is really going to cater to the true hardcore gamers however I’m not sure its going to reward as much on that front as it would on the casual game front. The reason being – the true hardcore games (your Halo, Gears of War, Call of Duty) feature increasingly complex control schemes that may be second nature to us but are absolutely mind-boggling to a casual gamer. The complexity will not translate well to Project NATAL without the need for an increasingly complex series of visual cues and commands (and who’s going to remember all of that in the heat of battle). You think it’s hard going from the Halo control scheme to Call of Duty and remembering which button selects grenades, imagine pantomiming a grenade on Project NATAL and suddenly having goggles drawn on your face. To that end, I think there will be a very defined need for controller based hardcore games for quite awhile. Although, the voice recognition functionality could go a long way towards alleviating those issues.

What I think we’ll see out of the gate are a number of titles aimed at bringing in the casual consumer. Think Wii Sports and the like, only prettier. And they’ll be seen as toys by the hard core and then trotted out when they want to impress company.

Of course, I’m in the camp that is dazzled by this tech. Hell, I’m a Wii60 household and have just as much fun on my Wii as I do on my 360. They both serve their particular niche. So I know I’ll eat up their casual offerings. I’m excited, I just don’t think the whole world will be.

What really engages me is the ability for motion sensitive interface navigation. It’s no surprise that Steven Spielberg was on stage to demo the tech. Besides being a perennial E3 mainstay and an avid gamer, Spielberg first showcased this technology seven years ago in his future fantasy, Minority Report. And now, we’re apparently one step closer to Thought Police. C’mon, who didn’t think of Big Brother when the system called out that kid’s name the second he walked in the room. Anyway, the ability to turn the system on, select movies, navigate through menus without ever pressing a button was jaw-dropping and the main reason why I want this thing right now.

Well, that does it. I’ll have my thoughts on Nintendo in the next day or so. Let me know what you thought.

Comments now closed (5)

  • I think we are going to be locked in our houses playing tons and tons of games this Fall. I watched the 2 hour presser live on the web at work — because I am awesome — and if you watched the demos for Natal, you’d see this thing is aimed squarely at Joe and Jane Everyperson. That said, some hardcore games could leverage the technology, I’m just not sure I’d want to play those that way. The voice commands would go a long way, but the camera will probably never get the precision you need never mind any of the other actions you need buttons for no matter what. However, I would be all for stuff that kicks Wii’s ass, like the reverse dodgeball type game they showed off. If anything, it would be fun to watch people falling over trying to play stuff like that. The other bit that was interesting from the demos was the fact it could recognize you when you walk up, by facial recognition, and log you in to your profile automatically, etc. This is HAL9000 type stuff, right? Let’s hope it doesn’t become 1984 type stuff… which I’d be more scared of if it were Google instead of Microsoft.

    As far as games go, it will be a crazy Fall for sure. I will wait to comment on those until that post, but I will say that the Ubisoft dude said at the end of their presentation that SC:C is coming out this Fall. Ubisoft has never shied away from having multiple products drop around the same time and they know both of those games are gonna sell.

    As far as Bungie goes, I think you nailed it on the head. They wanted to think they were free, or have the opportunity to do other properties, but you figure they had to know this was going to continue to be their moneymaker if they stuck with it. Taking the franchise in different directions like ODST and Wars was a brilliant move. I am playing Wars now and having multiple Spartans kicking ass has been fun, so I imagine Reach will be crazy ass fun. In fact, ODST is probably halfway there as from what I can see, they have a lot of Spartan like abilities except for a shield! I can’t wait the 3.5 months for it to drop… can’t wait!!!

    Oh, and the Shadow Complex demo was awesome. That’s gonna be a great XBLA game for the Summer doldrums.

    BTW: Your numbering scheme above goes 1,2,3,2,1…

  • I’ll have to correct that but at least it shows you’re paying attention so that’s all good.

    The only barrier I am going to have with all this insane goodness is the actual funds to actually buy these – unless AVault starts making my day. We certainly know I’m likely to have an abundance of time.

    It’s good that so many of these titles may shift into 2010 (we know Metal Gear is clearly a 2010 title) so we’ll have some room to breathe.

    I’ll have my Wii post up tomorrow and while it was’t nearly as robust, there were a smattering of titles that had me intrigued.

    That said, unless Sony pulls out something earth-shattering, Microsoft really changed the game here.

    Also, on Natal, I am definitely intrigued and like I said, the hands free interface and voice commands are aces – I just think it will take awhile for that true “virtual reality” with hardcore games to become a reality. I think this will be best served, in the outset, with casual games, simple sports titles, racing games and adventures. In fact, that concept that Peter Molyneux showed off looked like it has real potential.

    Good stuff!!!

  • Well, there are at least five games that should drop this Fall, so that’s more than too many: AC2, H3:ODST, BS2, SC:C and CoD:MW2. I think Mass Effect 2, also, right? And I’m sure there is other stuff I’m not even thinking of right now…

    I caught some live blogs of Nintendo and Sony today. Metroid and Mario for Wii, which I know you’ll be jazzed about but I still don’t have one. (Insert joke here.) Sony was very underwhelming if you ask me. Other than God of War 3, what do they have really? The next, next Final Fantasy? Gran Tourismo 5 (which Forza 3 looked just as good as)? Another PSP that is going to get waxed by the iPhone/iPod Touch? I didn’t read too much about their motion control thing but a casual glance didn’t make it seem better than what MS just announced, but again, I’m more about the games than that stuff.

    Therefore, I am already declaring Microsoft a huge hands-down winner. By a very large margin. I even forget how pathetic it was with them starting with Beatles Rock Band. Which was funny because all the children have no idea who they are and definitely seemed not to care. I felt bad for the horrible response Ringo and Paul got, although, it wasn’t shocking as they were pretty dull. “Thanks for the boat load of cash for the appearance.”

    Yeah, you know Molyneux is seriously woody for this Natal technology.

  • If I had to rate them, I’d give Microsoft an A+, Nintendo a solid B and Sony a C+. Sony should get docked a few points for letting most of their big “reveals” actually slip through the cracks in the days prior to E3. Not many surprises when every big piece of news (new PSP, etc) was scooped last week. I’ll have separate posts for Sony and Nintendo but here’s my quick two cents.

    Microsoft I’ve covered. Exhaustively.

    Nintendo gets the B+ for some solid 1st party games – although most are 2010 releases. Super Mario Galaxy is one of my favorite titles of the last 10 years, so I am drooling for the sequel. And Team Ninja (the Ninja Gaiden guys) coupled with Metroid is huge news. Nintendo doesn’t usually bring in star 3rd parties to develop their properties so this might be a great breath of fresh air.

    Also – I’ll pick up that New Super Mario Brothers Wii as it looks awesome for playing with the kds plus I’m a sucker for 2D Mario.

    Finally, Nintendo has some great 3rd party games coming (built for the Wii) which is something they lacked in the last few years. Red Steel 2 (from one of my fave 3rd party developers, Ubisoft) looks awesome. It’s a cel-shaded, Dark Tower looking action game that looks very unique. Also – No More Heroes 2 looks good and there are a handful of other titles coming that look good. They’ll have the best holiday season they’ve ever had.

    Sony – on the other hand – didn’t give me much reason to bemoan not owning a PS3. I love the Final Fantasy series but only the single player RPGs – not MMO – which is what FFXIV is. Bleh – who needs it? Plus, with XIII not due until mid-point next year, XIV has to be 2 years off.

    Other than that, the only thing of importance was the God of War title, which we already knew about. They didn’t even get their own Metal Gear – just a stand-along for the PSP so again, who cares.

    Also, their motion sensitive controller is not in the same league with the Wii Motion Plus or Natal. Either improve what you already have (as Wii did) or make something gobsmackingly cool (Natal) or dont do it at all.

    As for games, Mass Effect 2 is supposedly a winter release. I’m betting it moves into the Jan/Feb slot. You missed Brutal Legend on your list above for Fall games.

    Halo: ODST is September
    Bioshock 2 is October
    Brutal Legend (October 13th)
    Dragon Age Origins (November 3rd) – new Bioware RPG
    CoD:MW2 is November 10th
    AC2 is November 17th
    ME2 listed as December 31st – so yeah, I say 2010.

  • See… knew I’d miss one… and one of the best ones too!

    Other than the Blu-ray player, I feel like Sony has fumbled during this generation every time they have a chance to do something great.