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E3: Microsoft's Conference

Wed 11 Jul 2007 8:42am GMT / 4:42am EDT / 1:42am PDT

Halo 3, sales stats and Peter Moore on guitar.

There were no tattoos on show at Microsoft's E3 conference this year. But there were announcements, there were surprises, and there were clear indications as to where Microsoft wants to take Xbox 360 - and how it plans to get there.

And, of course, there was Peter Moore. He took to the stage following a performance by a band introduced as "five Halo fans from Libertyville, Illinois", who opened the conference with a tune accompanying images of Halo 3 flying across a giant screen.

There was much more Halo to come, but first Moore had a stall to set out. Xbox 360, he began by declaring, offers "the biggest blockbusters and the most exclusives". In fact, he said, the console has "the greatest holiday line-up in videogame history".

Moore went on to reveal that for the first time, every game Microsoft shows at E3 will be out by the end of the year (although as the audience was to find out later, there is one exception to that rule).

It's a novel strategy considering the emphasis usually placed on tantalising glimpses of what's to come - and arguably a risky one as despite the aforementioned surprises, much of what Microsoft had to show has been unveiled before.

That included Rock Band, which Moore demoed along with three Harmonix staff members on guitar, drums and mic peripherals. He also picked up a guitar peripheral, reminding the audience that he's never been one afraid to make a fool of himself, and promptly fumbled and got kicked out of the game. Before interrupting play by accidentally pausing it, twice. But the point was he gave it a go, and there were more cheers than jeers from the audience.

After Rock Band came the first new game announcement of the evening - Viva PiƱata: Party Animals, a party game developed not by IP creator Rare but Krome Studios. It's all part of Microsoft's strategy to bring "fun, new experiences and blockbusters" to consumers, according to Moore.

Following another game trailer - Mass Effect, an Xbox 360 exclusive which, it was revealed, is out in November - Moore turned once again to that strategy, and to how it has proved successful so far.

So successful, he said, that Xbox 360 is "driving growth across the entire eco system" of the games industry. This year, Moore predicted, a "major landmark" will be hit as consumers spend more money on games than they do on music.

Then it was time to discuss how 360 is faring against its rivals, and Moore pulled out a weapon that Sony might have trouble defending itself against: numbers.

He quoted NPD figures which state that Xbox 360 has the largest installed base of the next-gen consoles; 5.6 million have been sold in the US since PlayStation 3 launched in November, compared to 2.8 million Wiis and 1.4 million PS3 consoles.

"We're in a tight race with Wii, and outselling PS3 two to one." And what's more, "Xbox 360 is selling more games than anyone else" - 18.1 million, compared to 8.8 million Wii titles and 4 million for PS3.

Considering games and hardware together, Moore said, consumers have spent USD 2.4 billion on Xbox 360 since November. That's double the figure for Wii (USD 1.3 billion) and PS3 (USD 1.1 billion).

Moore asked the audience to cast its mind back to Christmas 2004, when game sales reached a peak that has not since been equalled. Back then the top three sellers were San Andreas, Madden '05 and Halo 2.

"Now, three years later, the same perfect storm will touch down in time for holiday," Moore said. As a result, "This holiday will be unlike anything that's come before it."

It was time then for the obligatory trailer montage. More than 30 games were featured, including big hitters such as Project Gotham Racing 4 and new favourites like Bioshock and Assassin's Creed. Some of the loudest cheers, however, were reserved for Beautiful Katamari and Ace Combat 6.

Moore took a break from the stage and was replaced by Jeff Bell, vice president of global marketing. It quickly became clear that his role at the event was to promote 360 as "a destination for every member of the family".

That means more family-oriented games, including newly announced title Scene It. Based on the movie trivia board game, Scene It for Xbox 360 will come complete with four new controllers for the same price as a standalone game.

Bell illustrated his point with an image of the controller on the big screen. With its giant round red button at the top and four more coloured buttons running down the handle, the controller will look have looked very familiar to people who have played Sony's Buzz! The Big Quiz. Which is an awful lot of people, as Microsoft is no doubt aware.

After a Naruto trailer the focus switched to EA Sports's 2008 titles, which Bell revealed will run at "twice the speed" and be "twice as smooth" as last year's editions.

NFL star Reggie Bush appeared to help Bell demonstrate this by taking him on at Madden. He definitively defeated the Microsoft executive, which came as no surprise - and certainly not to those in the audience who had one eye on the autocue screens on either side of the auditorium. It seemed they were there not only to remind Bush how excited about Xbox 360 he is, but to miraculously predict his win before it actually happened.

Bush left the stage and Bell turned to Xbox Live, which now has more than 7 million members. "That means that in the last year we've added a new member every 8 seconds," he said. Microsoft is aiming to hit the 10 million mark "before next year's E3 - July 2008".

So what of Xbox Live Arcade, one of the service's most popular features? More numbers - 45 million game downloads so far and more than 100 titles on XBLA by the end of the year.

That will include Sonic the Hedgehog and Golden Axe, released tonight, plus more than 20 other titles featured in another montage - such as Hexic 2, Track and Field and Bomberman Live.

Consumers have spent USD 125 million on Xbox Live downloadable content so far, and they're likely to be spending even more following tonight's announcement that Disney films will make "their huge library of classic films" available via the service.

That will include live action features such as Unbreakable, The Water Boy and Bringing Down the House, plus Atlantis, Tarzan and Hercules, to name but a few of the 20 or so films featured in a montage. All of that number will be available from tonight, Bell revealed, and new theatre releases will follow.

Good news for US Disney fans, but what of those in territories where no film or TV content is available as yet? Well, Bell said, the service will extend to Canada and Europe by the end of the year. And what's more, Xbox 360 Elite will launch in Europe on August 24.

Bell was followed by Microsoft Game Studios' Shane Kim, who reiterated the emphasis on software: "As Jeff said, everything starts with the games, which is why with all due respect to Mr Gates I have the best job in Microsoft," he told the audience.

Kim highlighted the success of Forza Motorsport 2, with 1 million units expected to have been sold by the end of the month. It will be followed up with Project Gotham Racing 4 which, as two members of Bizarre Creations took to the stage to demonstrate, will be the first game in the series to feature motorbikes. New tracks and weather effects are also promised, along with a new online community feature called PGR On Demand.

Kim went on to declare that "Xbox 360 is the most powerful videogame console on the planet" before playing a Lost Odyssey trailer. He said "Xbox 360 is simply the best console to own this holiday" for RPG fans.

It wasn't all about Xbox 360 though - another trailer featured forthcoming Games for Windows titles, and Kim announced that Viva Pinata and Gears of War will also be coming to PC.

Epic's Cliffy B appeared to show off a new level in the latter, which will feature "completely new content, a game editor and a couple of other surprises". Then Moore returned to introduce Grant Collier and Jason West, there to demo Call of Duty 4 - which looked stunning.

Next up was Grand Theft Auto IV. Moore revealed that the footage from the first two trailers to be released was captured from Xbox 360, and said that two new episodes will be available from spring 2008. "Xbox 360 the only console where you can get the complete GTA IV experience... Where the GTA IV experience stops on other consoles, it continues on Xbox 360."

As the evening drew near its conclusion, it was time for one of those tantalising glimpses more familiar at other E3 conferences, and that exception to the rule of only showing games out this year. It came in the form of a trailer for Resident Evil 5, which showed a hot, dusty village, an angry mob and a public hanging. "Thank you, Capcom," said Moore.

Ubisoft's Jade Raymond appeared to demo Assassin's Creed, watched closely by Yves Guillemot and Ubisoft Montreal boss Yannis Mallat from their seats in the audience. Then it was time for Moore to bring the conference to its climax.

Back to Halo 3, then, with a short live action film created by Neil Blomkamp and Bungie. "Halo is an epic work of gaming fiction," Moore said, before declaring, "Halo 3 will record the biggest launch in entertainment history."

He then answered the question asked by all those who had noticed that there was an empty stool alongside the three on the stage bearing two grey Xbox 360 units and an Elite. The fourth place will go to a special edition, dark green Halo 3 console, which will launch with new accessories alongside the game in September.

The response was perhaps more muted than Moore might have hoped for - just a few claps and whistles were heard, for which he expressed thanks, while the rest of the audience remained silent.

But the event wasn't really about hardware, as Moore himself concluded. "Tonight, we let the games talk... Our cards are on the table. This is who we are and what we will deliver to you this holiday."

Microsoft has been the first to show its hand at this year's E3, with Sony and Nintendo both yet to hold their conferences. There may not have been a great deal of new games on show tonight, but there were plenty of games, full stop - and that, as Microsoft would perhaps argue, is the point.

As far as Microsoft is concerned, and as Moore believes the sales figures illustrate, Xbox 360 is winning the next-gen console battle. It remains to be seen how the company's rivals will counter these claims - not just tomorrow, but in the wake of the Halo 3 and GTA IV launches, the Disney deal, and Elite going global along with movie and TV content. In the meantime, though, tomorrow will be an interesting day.

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