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E3: Live and well

Calm and confident, Microsoft mobilises for the next-gen battle

If Nintendo won the show, as some suggest, then perhaps Microsoft won the battle of the E3 conferences. The company's 2006 briefing at Grauman's Chinese Theatre was a vast an improvement on last year's. Gone were the three amigos. Gone were the embarrassing soundbites - something brought into even sharper contrast by Reggie Fils-Aime's self-parody a couple of hours earlier. The weighting was just about right; the script was much better. It was content-rich, and bold without too much arrogance. Peter Moore and Bill Gates hammed it up, but the crowd was on their side by then.

It wasn't an easy sell either. Microsoft had relatively little in-game footage of "the second generation of next generation games" - Gears of War, yes, and a snatch of Halo 3, but other than that it was largely third-party, and multiformat - and we'd heard about much of it already.

Viva Pinata, undoubtedly a good idea for a company keen to expand its demographic, wasn't what the crowd was there for. Nor was Crysis, however good it looks. Rendered attract sequences for Forza Motorsport 2, Fable 2 and Blue Dragon weren't a strong message in themselves, as Sony learned the previous day with Eight Days, Getaway and Naughty Dog's latest. Devoting so much of the conference to the PC, and inter-platform connectivity - a thorny subject at the best of E3s - was a risky strategy.

The change in tone and strategy and the platform's increasingly broad range of recognisable brands were key. When Microsoft embarked on its Xbox crusade, its weapons were forthright evangelism and a confusingly divergent platform strategy. These days, it has solid brands and a strategy of unification. What's more, there's a real sense now that this isn't Evil Old Microsoft. The self-effacing tone of Peter Moore's subsequent E3 interviews, where he even chuckled about being slagged off on forums and comment threads on our sister site, Eurogamer.net, was undoubtedly pre-planned, but it was meant, too. Microsoft genuinely feels it's learned from its mistakes - and it wasn't short on evidence to support that view, either.

Last year's demos of the Xbox 360 interface at E3, Leipzig, TGS and even X05 all gave the impression of a console clawing after a market it already had - the networked multimedia platform provided illicitly by Xbox 1 mod-chips - and it wasn't until Microsoft sat people down a month or two out from launch and effectively did an "ask till you drop" press briefing that people started to get the picture. Even at that point, the true importance of Gamercards, Achievement points, Live Marketplace and the system's community features had yet to become fully apparent.

Moreover, the Xbox 360 ahead of launch seemed haunted by the spectre of exploitation and commercialisation of an emergent medium - concerns about the pricing of downloadable content, in particular, and jamming iPod compatibility options into every game. The firm's behaviour in the months following 360's launch is putting paid to those concerns. The decision to launch first has paid dividends, despite the stock problems. It has erased long-term concerns, whatever the short-term ones, and given Microsoft a platform to build on - not only in terms of units, with an impressive goal of a ten-million-unit installed base prior to the launch of PS3 touted - but in handling the press on occasions such as these. The launch of Live Anywhere was met with goodwill, and the decision to provide a lengthy demonstration was a well-informed one.

The argument and demonstrations were convincing, promising a system that will bring PC, console and mobile phone together in a way no other platform holder can achieve or even aspire to without breaking ranks. Gamercards and Achievements shared over multiple platforms went down very well, as did the prospect of shared multiplayer and Friends alerts. Demonstrating how to edit a Forza car on the PC or send it to a friend's phone was a useful proof-of-concept.

Not everyone will care about that - but they may well care about global access to Live's community features, and things like Live Arcade games unlocked on Xbox 360, PC and phone. It's symbolic of Microsoft's newfound maturity in the market - and, for all its competitors' bluster about innovation, it's a risk neither of them have taken. Nintendo and Sony routinely release the same games on console and handheld; they never give you both for the price of one. Zuma running on a Motorola Q isn't a headline-winner, but the copy of Zuma you bought on 360 being playable on other formats for no additional cost is. It practically lumps Microsoft's competition in with the zealously protective recording and movie industries, which continue to fight a losing battle to restrict people's rights to enjoy content they've paid for on any device of their choosing. That Microsoft should be the firm to break out of that mould in gaming is all the more amusing and ironic, and perhaps even all the more laudable, given the firm's growing affection for both of those industries.

Furthermore, dual development on PC and Xbox 360 will be a tempting option for developers with the two now even more closely aligned and Microsoft making big noises about the future of the PC market. Microsoft's marketing support will, undoubtedly, be a critical component for publishers considering whether to commission dual developments.

The notion that publishers will abandon PlayStation 3 to develop for Xbox 360 and PC is provocative but ultimately foolish, of course; less so is the idea that games coming out across all three could see stronger sales on the latter pairing. After all, they can play together. Uniting the audience, in an era where multiplayer is in the ascendancy, isn't quite "dramatic", as Bill Gates put it, but it could have a dramatic effect on multiformat buying decisions. After all, if you're buying a game to play online, you'll want to play with a larger audience. And if Sony wants to disrupt this duopoly with its own presence, it'll have to bite its tongue and play by Microsoft's rules.

Whatever happens, Live Anywhere could help the PC market a lot, and won't do 360 any harm. You can't say much for sure until the other guy is on the market - if there's any lesson from the last 12 months of Xbox 360 then surely it's that. But even so, Live Anywhere was yielding short-term benefits before Moore even left the podium - as it means 360 owners can expect big titles like Alan Wake and Shadowrun semi-exclusively, and that's enough because the PC and console markets simply aren't the same. As Oblivion proved, it doesn't have to mean dumbing down the content for the console market, either.

Where Sony struggled, Microsoft - already established in the next-generation - looked to the future with conviction. Grand Theft Auto IV, apparently a late addition to the conference line-up, was decisive. Exclusivity would have rewritten a lot of headlines, and this editorial, but Moore's right; it doesn't actually need to be exclusive. The prospect of GTAIV for 360 on day one is enough, because the 360 catalogue has depth now and this could qualify as a deal-breaker in the wider market. We didn't need to see Fable 2, Forza Motorsport 2 or even Halo 3 in any great depth. They're proven games, and the names alone carry significant weight. Forza Motorsport 2 and Gears of War, which looked far more impressive during Cliff Bleszinski's playthrough in Los Angeles than it had in a lacklustre presentation at TGS last September, are both on track for release this year. Even on an established format that's a solid festive pairing, backed up by a wealth of impressive multiformat and PC ported titles demoed in an extensive trailer reel, and spread over a bed of desirable Live Arcade content.

The public's affection for Live Arcade grows day by day. Games plucked from the casual recesses of the Internet, suddenly thrust in front of a hungry gaming audience in demo form, are filling gaps in the evening. Even as Moore was traipsing back and forth in front of Grauman's giant screen, plenty of people around the world were preparing to download the UNO demo and give that a go. Geometry Wars has sold more copies now than Resident Evil 4 did during its first few weeks in the UK. The prospect of retro games from Namco, Konami, Midway and even SEGA - along with the oft-trailed Street Fighter II adaptation and a surprise Lumines announcement - struck a chord with a convivial crowd, online as well as off.

In the end it didn't even matter that Microsoft's use of Live Marketplace during E3 itself - lauded by many including us during the run-up to the show - proved a bit of a damp squib in content terms, with fewer demos than we'd hoped and more third-party trailers than anything. From Microsoft's perspective, it helped it speak to a huge captive audience - 1.5 million people connected to Live during E3 week, and many of those downloaded E3 content - with the rest amply catered for during its conference showcase.

Beyond the conference, Microsoft's E3 show floor was less impressive, with creaky Crackdown and Too Human demos proving to be second-page stories for most of the gaming press. But like Nintendo, people are prepared to invest belief in the platform now - as phalanxes of journalists rushed back to their keyboards it was to tell the story of what was happening behind closed doors, where games like BioShock, Mass Effect, The Darkness and Alone in the Dark proved hard to ignore. If there was an over-arching story of the show, perhaps it was that Nintendo knows games, Microsoft knows platforms, and Sony thinks it's won already.

And if there was a lasting impression of Microsoft's conference, it was that it's getting the hang of this now. It was more intimate. The browbeating was gone. Microsoft didn't just learn lots from the 2005 reaction, it let it direct the script, weighting things like the introduction of a camera, steering wheel and new headset sensibly, and refusing to follow Sony's lead in evangelising its next-generation DVD format extensively. The HD-DVD peripheral will be out this Christmas, we were told, and this is what it looks like. Then we moved on.

Talk quickly got around after the show of the peripheral and the console together costing less than PS3. Public opinion suggests that Microsoft and Sony care more about who wins that war than most of their customers, with increased scepticism about a new disc format's significance in the next-gen arms race. The decision to release the drive as an add-on is starting to sound a lot less insane than it did at CES.

The whole conference simply gelled. Microsoft in general is sounding very different; jovial and inclusive rather than brash and divisive. Less Colony, more community. Bill Gates' presence gave it all a credibility that Moore alone probably could not. This is Microsoft's strategy now, not just a fringe group within the giant company. Xbox is no longer the moneybeast gnawing at the heels of Microsoft's financials, nor is it undertaken cynically; it's serious business, but it's allowed to be fun at the same time. It's telling that where Bill Gates sounded convincing talking about his fondness for PGR3 and having trouble getting his kids to stop playing on Live Arcade, Sony's Kaz Hirai, trying to play Ridge Racer on a PSP, came off looking foolish. Microsoft will be hoping the trend continues.

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Tom Bramwell avatar

Tom Bramwell

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Tom worked at Eurogamer from early 2000 to late 2014, including seven years as Editor-in-Chief.

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