Clash of the Titans
Not for the first time, this week's E3 conferences have left us questioning the process which creates these events. Having never been privy to the planning stages, we can only wonder at the effort which must go into the stage management of such an event - arguably each firm's best and most public opportunity to set out its stall before the public.
What games and products will be shown? Who will deliver each announcement? How much focus will there be on past success, and how much on future plans? What balance needs to be struck between first and third party titles, between exclusives and cross-platform games? Above all, to whom is the event meant to appeal?
As each of the three platform holders took to the stage to perform the resulting cabaret pieces in Santa Monica yesterday (and the day before, if you're working in a US timezone), three very different sets of answers to those questions became evident.
Microsoft, first to take the stage with Peter Moore acting as ringmaster, chose to focus almost exclusively on games coming out this year - an unusual, but entirely reasonable, approach to take in an E3 conference. It clearly reflects Microsoft's intent to make the most of its head-start over Sony; now that PS3 is competing with the Xbox 360 on retail shelves, Moore plans to milk the fact that the 360's software line-up is a year further down the line for all that it's worth.
It's a good strategy, in some respects, especially since Sony's own conference (on which more in a moment) could probably best be summed up by the words "Coming 2008". If it falls down on any front, it's probably on the sheer number of cross-platform titles which are on the slate for both consoles. Simultaneous releases for high profile titles (like GTA IV and many, many others) suggest to consumers that the PS3 isn't lagging in software terms, despite its later launch date, which is precisely the opposite message to the one Microsoft would like to send.
In fact, Sony's much-derided "timed exclusives" - which will see games such as Haze and Unreal Tournament 3 launching in late 2007 on PS3 before hitting the Xbox 360 in early 2008 - could be a great move. Aside from the fact that having two major FPS titles in the run-up to Christmas can't hurt Sony's efforts at damage limitation in the face of Halo 3's undoubtedly massive launch, there could also be significant PR benefits from this.
Despite the reality of the situation often being quite different, consumers tend to view later releases of major titles on other platforms with a degree of suspicion, with the assumption being that the original platform is the preferred one. In this instance, if UT3 and Haze are as heavily promoted as seems likely, the message to consumers is simple - PS3 is out in front with developers. The truth of the matter, of course, may be rather different.
The downside of Microsoft's decision to focus on 2007 is that while the strategy may be good, the resulting conference was dull. The firm has already shown off its 2007 line-up in full, and as a result, there was very little new material in Santa Monica on Tuesday night. For those who already own an Xbox 360, it may have been an affirmation of their purchase - but for those sitting on the fence or generally uninterested, it's unlikely that anything shown in the E3 conference will have changed their minds.
Of far more interest to the fence-sitters, in fact, will be the pre-E3 announcement that the firm is going to extend the Xbox 360 warranty to three years and refund those who have already paid for repairs to the "red ring of death" problem. Some commentators - myself included - believe that fears over hardware reliability are holding back sales of the Xbox 360. We'll have a chance to see just how widespread that effect has been in the coming months.
Nintendo's show the following morning couldn't have been more different to Microsoft's event, in some regards. With an ensemble cast of execs - Reggie Fils-Aime, Satoru Iwata, and Shigeru Miyamoto - the firm tap-danced its way through a vastly over-long presentation on just how great the Wii and the DS are, and just how much everyone loves them. For the mainstream media, perhaps, this message is important. For the kind of gamers and media who give a damn about E3, well, we hesitate to guess just how many yawns were stifled in the auditorium.
The remainder of the presentation was a perfect microcosm of the delicate balancing act which Nintendo has found itself engaged in. The firm wants to continue engaging a wider and wider audience of people with its products, but at the same time, is keen to ensure continued support from hardcore fans. So, in the space of one conference, we saw a "step" peripheral which measures your weight and the position of your body, with a fitness game in tow - but we also saw Mario Kart Wii, a zapper peripheral for shooting games, and release dates for titles like Metroid Prime 3, Zelda: Phantom Hourglass and Super Mario Galaxy.
Perhaps it's because of the lack of many other new software announcements (a common theme at this year's conferences, and disappointing given the expectation that there would be a strong focus on software), but the Wii Fit product seems to have attracted an astonishing level of ire from gamers. While the potential of the device to open up new kinds of game control (new 1080 Snowboarding and Wave Race games have been suggested as two uses) is acknowledged, a common accusation in the hours after the conference was that Nintendo has created a product more at home on the QVC shopping channel than at E3.
In fact, that might not be far off the mark - and it's quite possibly exactly the effect Nintendo is aiming for. The firm's new watchword is diversity - it hopes to turn the Wii into a core entertainment device for everyone in the family, not just gamers. In this instance, that means encouraging middle-aged parents concerned about their weight or fitness to take part in a range of games based on balance and full-body exercises. Gamers may recoil in horror at this pollution of "their" medium; commercially, however, the idea is genius, and may well find enormous success even beyond that which Brain Age has enjoyed.
From Microsoft's showcase for the hardcore, via Nintendo's most blatant pitch for the mass-market yet, we arrive at Sony's conference. After being much-maligned last E3, the firm clawed back much-needed respect at GDC earlier this year; now the pressure was seriously on to deliver a confidence boost in the wake of a PS3 price cut.
A new model PSP was a nice bonus early in the conference, with a number of minor upgrades to the handheld looking likely to drive a fair few sales this Christmas. However, the real focus here was on PlayStation 3 software - and here, Jack Tretton, Phil Harrison and Kaz Hirai scored something of a mixed grade.
The positives, first; PlayStation Store looks like it is rapidly outclassing Microsoft's Xbox Live Marketplace in terms of software, with a wide variety of brand new, high quality games filtering through. By comparison, Microsoft's retro-gaming offerings are starting to look rather pale, and desperately need to be supplemented with more original content. The PS3's software line-up as a whole is also looking far less anemic than some had feared, and as previously mentioned, a few timed exclusives will help to bolster its retail presence in the run-up to Christmas.
Metal Gear Solid 4 looks like it's staying exclusive, despite repeated rumours to the contrary; and Killzone 2 received a reaction both from the audience and from gamers on the internet which was astonishingly positive, given the improbable levels of hype and cynicism surrounding the game. Other titles, including two from Naughty Dog and one from Sly Raccoon developer Sucker Punch, were also received warmly, but by and large the focus was on games we'd already heard about.
Therein lies the key negative - partially the fact that we'd already heard about these games from Sony, but also the fact that we'd also heard about the games from Microsoft only a day previously. Many of the trailers which Sony displayed on its vast screens were exactly the same videos Microsoft had used at its conference - a fact which will undoubtedly fuel critics who question why you would buy a more expensive console to play the same games.
Sony may well have needed to do more to convince the doubters - but what the company did do, most certainly, was to lay out its vision of the future of its business, just as Nintendo had done a few hours earlier.
Nintendo believes in a mass-market accessed by providing products that appeal across a much wider cross-section of the population, and by creating a console which has "gamer" games in balance with "non-gamer" products. Sony, however, believes in creating an entertainment centre which ties together your computer, your console and your mobile phone, leveraging ideas like blogging, virtual worlds, user-generated content, movies, and music - all in one place. Ironically, it's Microsoft, so often accused of entering games with a "Trojan Horse" console, which now appears to have the most "pure" console, from a gamer's perspective.
As this year's cabaret draws to a close, there's little question that it was a rather more low-profile and perhaps even disappointing showing on all sides than we've seen in previous years. However, looking past the dearth of major new game announcements, the conferences have provided a vital glimpse at exactly where all three platform holders are headed. It's more clear than ever that this road forks in three very distinct directions - what's not yet clear, however, is which of those forks will turn into motorways, and which, if any, into dirt tracks.