E3: The Big Three Console Makers – Style Over Substance

(This article first appeared in the July 16, 2007 issue of Jon Peddie’s TechWatch)

The new E3 started as all recent E3 shows have – with much-hyped press conferences by the big three console makers: Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony. However, with all the next generation consoles now shipping, there was not much in the way of earth shattering news for them to reveal. In fact, what was presented amounted mostly to boasts and fluff – style over substance, and most of it was thoroughly predictable.

Attendees fill the Microsoft Press Briefing. (Photo by Jake Richter)
Attendees fill the Microsoft Press Briefing. (Photo by Jake Richter)

Microsoft

As has been the tradition, Microsoft went first with a press briefing, this time held at the Santa Monica High School Amphitheatre. To help reduce butt pain from sitting on stone benches for nearly two hours, Microsoft was kind enough to provide padded cushions for the event. The press event opened with the Halo theme played by Corporeal, a band of five diehard Halo fans from Libertyville, Illinois followed by Peter Moore, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of the Interactive Entertainment Business in the Entertainment and Devices Division at Microsoft.

Peter started off demonstrating the forthcoming Rock Band game for the Xbox 360 by jamming on stage with members of the Rock Band development team. For this reporter, the scene was reminiscent of the famous Howard Dean “scream” back in the previous U.S. presidential election as Moore butchered the song he was to be playing, while at the same time managing to pause the game in mid-play repeatedly by pressing the wrong buttons on the guitar controller he was attempting to play.

Hey hey, my my, Rock and Roll actually could die: Peter Moore demonstrates Rock Band. (Photo by Jake Richter)
Hey hey, my my, Rock and Roll actually could die: Peter Moore demonstrates Rock Band. (Photo by Jake Richter)

The jam session set much of the tone of the rest of the briefing, which consisted mainly of boasting about how great the Xbox 360 and Xbox Live were, and a preview of a number of new Xbox 360 and Games for Windows titles, just about all of which would be shipping by the Christmas holiday season. Among the Xbox 360 exclusive titles were BioWare’s anticipated Mass Effect, Viva Pinata Party Animals (a party game a la Mario Party, but featuring the oddly cute animals from the Viva Pinata game), Grand Theft Auto 4 (the base game will not be an exclusive, but the add-on chapters available via Xbox Live will be), Project Gotham Racing 4, Ubisoft’s Naruto: Rise of a Ninja, and, of course, Halo 3. Also notable was support from Namco Bandai in the form of Beautiful Katamari, to be released in the fall. Previously Katamari had only been available on the Sony PS2 – the new version will only be on Xbox 360. Exclusives are key for console differentiation, as Microsoft learned painfully when competing against the PS2 with the original Xbox, and now they are taking a page from Sony’s playbook and using it against Sony.

On the Games for Windows side of gaming, it was announced that Gears of War would ship later this year for both Windows Vista and Windows XP. The latter support caught many in the audience by surprise. Later discussions with Microsoft’s Chris Early and JJ Richards confirmed that Microsoft is now firmly supporting Windows XP for both key Games for Windows titles as well as the Games for Windows Live community and multiplayer feature. Previously, Microsoft had seemed to be indicating that they were focusing all their Games for Windows Live efforts solely at Vista. On a related note, even both the Vista/DX10 showcase titles of Crytek’s Crysis and Funcom’s Age of Conan will also come with Windows XP/DX9 support, indicating that Windows XP is far from being dead and ignored.

Jeff Bell, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for global marketing of the Interactive Entertainment Business in the Entertainment and Devices Division, also came out on stage to announce a new deal with Screen Life Games to bring Scene It?, a DVD-based trivia game, to the Xbox 360. Part of the deal involves the release of new, simpler to use (and less intimidating) controllers for the Xbox 360, specifically for use with Scene It? The new controllers will be marketed as “Xbox 360 Big Button Pads.”

Microsoft's newer, friendlier Xbox 360 debuts with SceneIt? (Photo by Jake Richter)
Microsoft’s newer, friendlier Xbox 360 debuts with SceneIt? (Photo by Jake Richter)

In addition to these new controllers, Microsoft appears to have finally realized that black and white should not be the only options for regular Xbox 360 controllers, and gamers will find pink, dark blue, and light blue versions available in stores in October.

Peter Moore also unveiled a new Xbox 360 – the Special Edition Halo 3 Console, which featured an “authentic” Spartan green and gold finish and comes with matching controller, a 20GB hard drive, headset, play and charge kit, and an exclusive Halo 3 set of gamer pics and themes. The new console will be available at the launch of Halo 3, set for September 25th, but price was not announced.

The Halo 3 edition controllers will also be made available separately. Oddly, the new console does not include a copy of Halo 3 itself, and when I later asked Jeff Bell about the inclusion of the smaller 20GB drive instead of the Xbox 360 Elite’s 120GB drive he indicated that the decision would be clear when more of Microsoft’s SKUs were revealed during the holiday season.

It has been obvious from the start that Microsoft wants to position the Xbox 360 as the core component in a family entertainment system, especially with the on-going expansion of support for Xbox Live downloads of high definition and standard definition video content in the form of TV shows and even feature length movies. Also at the briefing, Microsoft announced that they had recently signed a deal with Walt Disney Studios that would bring movies from the Disney family of studios – including Touchstone, Miramax, and Hollywood Pictures – to Xbox Live, with 35 films being available starting at the end of the briefing and more being added on an on-going basis. Microsoft already offers over 2,300 hours of premium entertainment content from over a dozen partners via Xbox Live, over 500 hours of which is in high definition.

The Disney content will be offered in the form of “movie rentals”, meaning that there is a finite limit to the number of days the content will be allowed to reside on a user’s Xbox 360. Costs for content range from $3.00 for classic feature films in standard definition to $6.00 for high definition new release movie rentals.

While Apple’s iTunes has a bigger library of standard definition content, Microsoft certainly wins out in the downloadable high-definition arena. Jeff Bell also indicated that the plan is to offer the same content to users of Games for Windows Live (although they may have to change that name) on PCs as the Live technology evolves there. And to counter the problem with how long it takes to download HD video content from Xbox Live, plans are in the works to provide web-based remote download functionality as well as locally scheduled downloads and downloads in the background while the Xbox 360 is being used for other things, such as game play. That means users will continue to have “video on plan” instead of “video on demand” until bandwidth improves, but at least there will be more flexibility for users – not an unreasonable compromise.

Throughout the briefing, numbers were tossed at the audience, intending, no doubt, to impress upon us that Microsoft and the Xbox 360 were above and beyond any possible competition, especially in the light of the fact that, since launch, the Nintendo Wii continues to beat out sales of the Xbox 360 and PS3, and that’s with Wii systems still in very scarce supply.

Moore said that, to date, more than 11.6 million Xbox 360 consoles have been sold world wide (37 countries), and that there are over seven million Xbox Live users – both the free Silver and paid Gold users combined. Bell later added that more than half of those are paid Xbox Live Gold users. Peter also indicated that there is an “astounding” 5.9 game attach rate per console sold, but that is not terribly surprising when you consider that there are approximately 180 Xbox 360 games on the market, compared to mere handfuls for the Wii or PS3. Naturally they will have much lower tie ratios until that changes.

Microsoft also offers over 70 Xbox Live Arcade games for download, and Xbox Live members have spent more than 2.9 billion hours playing games on Xbox Live (of which 65 million is on Xbox Live Arcade games, 230 million hours playing Xbox 360 sports games and the balance is for all other Xbox 360 games).

The Microsoft briefing, while mildly informative, was devoid of the two things most of us had thought would be present – a price cut on the Xbox 360 consoles and an announcement of newer Xbox 360 hardware which runs cooler and quieter (see article this issue on Microsoft’s announced warranty upgrade and service agreements). The things that were announced, however, did reaffirm Microsoft is not resting on its laurels, and is a major force in the game industry.

Nintendo

Nintendo’s press briefing was held at the Santa Monica Civic Center, with Nintendo of America’s president, Reggie Fils-Aime presiding over most of the morning’s events. Serving as a backdrop to the briefing were video sequences, shots of blogs, online news stories, and even the occasional fan-generated video proclaiming the success of Nintendo’s DS and Wii.

As Peter Moore, the previous evening, did for Microsoft, Reggie worked to give the impression that Nintendo was unstoppable, recounting Nintendo’s successes in truly interactive entertainment with the Wii and DS platforms. Reggie was also unabashed about reminding the audience that Nintendo owns the handheld gaming market, both with the Gameboy family of products as well as with the Nintendo DS.

Nintendo’s successes with their unique platforms, and unique content seem to be resonating well with developers too, with nearly 100 titles under development from third parties for the Wii and over 140 titles for the Nintendo DS.

In terms of announcements, the briefing was a bit sparse. A number of new Nintendo titles under development for the Wii were announced, including the much anticipated Super Mario Galaxy (ships November 12), Mario Kart Wii, Super Smash Bros. Brawl (December 3), and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption (August 27). There will also be a “Check Out My Mii” channel coming for the Wii, so that people can show off their Mii avatars and participate in Mii creation competitions.

On the Nintendo DS front, Nintendo will be coming out with The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, Brain Age 2, and Flash Focus: Vision Training in Minutes a Day. And third parties like Ubisoft will be coming out with a raft of self-help and instructional titles for the DS as well, with titles such as My Life Coach, My Word Coach, My Spanish Coach, and My French Coach (all in their MyCoach series). Electronic Arts will be releasing a word puzzle game as well. These sorts of titles just further differentiate the Nintendo DS from what one would think of as a traditional hand held game system, a trend started with Nintendo’s own Brain Age title.

The Wii Zapper. (Photo by Jake Richter)
The Wii Zapper. (Photo by Jake Richter)

Up until nearly the very end of the briefing, the only hardware related announcements were the Wii Zapper – a $19.99 plastic case which holds both a Wii Remote and Nunchuk in a configuration reminiscent of a small machine gun, to be used with shooting games like the forthcoming Resident Evil: The Umbrella Chronicles, SEGA’s Ghost Squad, and Medal of Honor; and the Wii Wheel – a steering wheel shaped housing for the Wii Remote to be provided with Mario Kart Wii, due out in early 2008.

I was prepared to leaving the briefing yawning when Nintendo’s Mr. Smiley, Shigeru Miyamoto, came out and introduced Wii Fit, a brand new product slated for release during the first half of 2008. Wii Fit consists of both software and a new input device, something currently referred to as the Wii Balance Board.

Shigeru Miyamoto with Wii Balance Board - an integral part of Nintendo's new Wii Fit series. (Photo by Jake Richter)
Shigeru Miyamoto with Wii Balance Board – an integral part of Nintendo’s new Wii Fit series. (Photo by Jake Richter)

The concept is brilliantly simply – use a device which looks like an oversized bathroom scale with two sets of pressure and tilt sensors (that would be the Wii Balance Board) and then develop a bunch of exercise and game software which uses the device inputs to help users improve their balance, and thus a large number of muscles in their legs, back, and stomach. Of course, the software is the real key. The Wii Fit software includes Yoga and Tai-chi-like activities, with the balance board being used to help encourage stable stances. Also included are games that let players use micro-adjustments to tilt a surface with marbles on to roll them into a hole instead of having them fall off the surface.

Jake Richter demonstrates a credible Tree Pose.(Photo: Passerby)
Jake Richter demonstrates a credible Tree Pose.(Photo: Passerby)

And there is also a dance game that involves stepping on and off the Wii Balance Board in sequences determined by the software. Wii Fit picks up where Wii Sports left off in terms of using a video game system for both fun and fitness. In retrospect, this was probably the single most interesting and exciting thing shown during the new E3. Sure, there were a lot of cool games shown, but none showed as much ingenuity and novelty as Wii Fit.

Sony

As in past years, Sony’s press briefing was held at their Culver City movie studios, but the E3 and Sony invite process had certainly filtered things down. Instead of the several thousand people that Sony’s past gaming briefings had drawn, there were merely many hundreds.

That made things less hectic and crowded.

If there was an overriding theme to the Sony press briefing it could be stated as “Don’t count us out yet. We’re just getting started. Really! We mean it!” While Microsoft touted the scads of new titles available before the end of the calendar year, Sony Computer Entertainment of America president Jack Tretton, introduced titles that should be available by the end of Sony’s current fiscal year, which ends in June of 2008 – a full half year after the major buying period for 2007 ends.

These new titles included Heavenly Sword, Ratchet & Clank Future: Tools of Destruction, Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune, Killzone 2, and Gran Turismo 5 Prologue. Most of the new titles showcased seemed to be first-party titles developed by Sony’s various game development arms.

Tretton reminded the audience that PS2 sales are still going strong, and new titles continue to come out for that old game console, including the best-selling God of War 2, but at the same time, Sony’s news last week of a new 80GB PS3 model that does not include the same PS2 hardware backward-compatibility as the current 60GB PS3 model (now priced $100 lower) seems to poise the PS3 as a PS2 competitor instead of a successor.

The only real news about hardware developments that Sony shared with the audience was the release of a newer and better PlayStation Portable (PSP). The new PSP will be 33 percent lighter than the current model, and 19 percent slimmer, while still maintaining the same screen size and controls, but with faster load times during game play due to new caching functionality. The new PSP can also be charged via the USB port on the device. Something that is lacking in the current model. And battery life has also been improved as part of the new design.

However, more importantly, Sony has added a long overdue feature – the ability to send video output out via a new connector so that UMD movies as well as games can be shown on TVs. This makes the PSP a portable video player to be reckoned with – maybe. Movie studios have not warmed to the UMD video format, nor, for that matter, have consumers.

The new PSP (model PSP-2000) will start shipping in September, and ultimately be available in three colors: Piano Black (the current color), Ceramic White, and Ice Silver. The price will be the same as the current PSP – $169.

Sony also announced two new bundles of the PSP based on the new smaller version. The first is the Daxter PSP Entertainment Pack, which includes the Ice Silver PSP and a Jak & Daxter game. The second is the Star Wars Battlefront PSP Entertainment Pack, which features LucasArts’ new Star Wars Battlefront Renegade Squadron game and a limited edition Ceramic White PSP with a Darth Vader image on it. Both of these packs will cost $199 and be available in October.

Chewbacca to the rescue? Chewbacca shows Jack Tretton the new Star Wars PSP. (Photo by Jake Richter)
Chewbacca to the rescue? Chewbacca shows Jack Tretton the new Star Wars PSP. (Photo by Jake Richter)

One of the more amusing things done during the Sony presentation was the use of the previously announced PlayStation Home virtual world space to compose part of the presentations, with avatars of Jack Tretton and Kaz Hirai doing the “speaking” (no virtual lips were moving, though, making the whole thing seem a bit surreal). Sony has high hopes that their PlayStation Home “world” will provide an online community that is unique enough to be interesting and captivating to a large number of PS3 users, and has been taking steps to provide all sorts of ways that people can customize their environments with static objects as well as dynamic ones, such as photos taken with cell phones and interfaces to download games located on the user’s own PS3.

The PlayStation Network and its adjunct PlayStation Store – Sony’s answer to Microsoft’s Xbox Live – will also see some new content in the coming months, including a weirdly Escher-esque game called Echochrome, as well as WipeOut HD and another game called Pain. And, available either via download purchase or on physical media, will be SOCOM US Navy SEALs: Confrontation and Warhawk. Approximately 40 games and game packs are in development by Sony for download in the next 12 months.

And aware that exclusives can make (or break) a platform, Jack Tretton also announced an exclusive game development deal with NCsoft, maker of the popular MMOs (Massively Multiplayer Online) games Lineage and City of Heroes. No details on what games might be involved in the deal, also it would be likely to involve MMO games, and using existing and new intellectual property owned by NCsoft. However, with sparse details, this announcement felt rather empty.

While the graphics of those titles shown on the big screens from live play, such as Killzone 2, were impressive, there appear to be no truly stand-out titles coming for the PS3 which differentiate themselves from the rest – mostly all are some sort of variant on first person or third person shooters, racing games, or sports games that are also available on other consoles. The only truly unique title I saw in the game demonstration area after the briefing was Media Molecule’s LittleBigPlanet – a game first previewed at the Game Developer’s Conference in March of this year, and while it is a fascinating game and learning tool, it’s not likely to sell lots of PS3s for Sony. The same goes for the innovative Eye of Judgment which I covered after E3 2006, and which may finally make it out this year.

Sony’s presentation was sadly underwhelming. Sure, they showed a lot of cool things, but Sony’s been doing that for several years now where the PS3 has been concerned. Sony needs to stop showing the future and focus soley on delivery quality content. But due to the complexity of the PS3’s architecture, that’s apparently easier said than done. Sony’s former role as the king of console-land seems to have affected their attitude. Perhaps they’ve gotten over-arrogant and just assumed that the masses would flock to them because of the success of the PS2. But gamers can be a fickle lot, as can game developers.

Conclusion

All three of the presentations offered by the console makers were mostly fluff – Nintendo’s Wii Balance Board, Peter Moore’s jam session, and Chewbacca’s appearance with Sony’s Jack Tretton notwithstanding. All three companies can see big gains in the future if they play their cards right, but that will be far, far easier for Microsoft and Nintendo than for Sony.

There’s no question that Microsoft is leading the field at present on almost all fronts: video game consoles, video game titles, and online content and community. Nintendo currently leads in the handheld gaming market, and with the DS and Wii, Nintendo is carving out whole new markets that Microsoft cannot even touch. In fact, as I have postulated before, Nintendo is really in a category of its own with the Wii, and not truly in direct competition with the Xbox 360 and PS3.

The big loser at present is Sony – the new smaller PSP with video output might make some inroads against the Nintendo DS, but it is still missing the wealth of diverse and unique content and connectivity that makes the DS so popular, and the UMD format had already been given up for dead last year by a number of movie studios. Sony will have to work hard to boost support for UMD video content to make it a format with long-term viability. And the PS3? Well, let’s just say that the present state of the PS3 market is underwhelming at best.

Fellow JPR analyst and writer Ted Pollak insists that the PS3’s future is bright and it’s too soon to make judgments, but Microsoft has incredible momentum in most everything, and Wii has sex appeal, pure fun appeal, and leadership in new niche markets that didn’t previously exist. That makes Sony’s job of competing very difficult, if not impossible.

While Sony has its own development studios for PS3 content, and has some minor exclusives from others, without the committed support of third-party developers and, more importantly, lots of got-to-have exclusive titles from those third-party developers, the PS3 will just be a Blu-ray Disc player with a video game option. And it doesn’t even do the Blu-ray thing well out of the box, considering you have to buy a separate Bluetooth remote control to make it usable to the average consumer.

Game developers follow the money, and the money is in installed base. And the future installed base appears to be with Microsoft and Nintendo, not Sony.