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Three For All

<emph>GamesIndustry.biz</emph> picks apart the E3 conferences of Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony

Another year, another E3 and another set of 'Big Three' press conferences down. By now we're all familiar with what Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony each announced, what their messages for the year ahead will be, and we've got some idea as to how each company will position itself in the run up to the Christmas period. But what do they tell us about the companies involved?

As far as Microsoft was concerned, the clear message for 2008 was all about online, and more specifically about collaboration and community. It was the thread that ran through almost every stage presence, from the first five core titles that saw the online multiplayer modes championed, to the new Media Center-meets-Vista version of Xbox Live.

Social gaming with Lips and You're in the Movies was also high on the list, and with both Chris Lewis and David Gosen subsequently using the word 'schizophrenic' in the GamesIndustry.biz interview to describe Microsoft's approach to differing audiences, it's not hard to read between the lines and see what being 'on message' this year is all about.

In the room itself during the presentation the atmosphere was somewhat muted, with the biggest cheers reserved for Duffy's performance of her own song on Lips - for which she thankfully scored highly - and the CG trailer for Final Fantasy XIII revealed at the end.

It's something which demonstrates what is arguably Microsoft's biggest challenge - getting people excited about what it is doing, and that's a problem made more difficult when the term 'second-mover advantage' is clear for all to see.

Something I've heard repeated this week is the accusation that the corporation constantly reinvents ideas that others have already had. Lips, for example is a development of SingStar, just as Scene It was a port of Buzz! Meanwhile the new Xbox Live avatars draw inspiration from Nintendo's Miis and titles such as the Sims.

Of course, that's not entirely fair - Microsoft would undoubtedly argue that it's been innovating in the videogames space for years, and to be fair it has made some astonishing breakthroughs that its more experienced rivals should be regretting - Achievements, for which there's still no compelling alternative two and half years later, and the strides made in the online multiplayer space which the entire long-term Xbox strategy is built on, not to mention effectively pioneering the digital distribution of content via consoles in the first place.

Sadly for Microsoft, none of that was enough to engage the audience to any great degree, and it was during Yoichi Wada's speech - admirably delivered for a person not used to addressing large gatherings in English - that the audience was at its most attentive.

Indeed, Microsoft's friendship with Square Enix is important on a number of levels, not just to spur software sales in the West - it wasn't highlighted that Final Fantasy XIII would only be available for the Xbox 360 outside of Japan - but to help stir things up inside Japan itself with other titles such as Infinite Undiscovery. Success in Japan is still proving elusive, and it remains to be seen whether even Square can help Microsoft there.

Moving on, according to Jack Tretton, 2008 is the 'Year of the PlayStation 3' - a notion that's been uttered in more than a few quarters in the past few months. After all, since the price cut late last year and the Blu-ray format victory earlier this year, PS3 sales have been far more promising than at any time previously. What's more, with a number of new compelling titles out there, including the key exclusive franchises of Gran Turismo and Metal Gear Solid, the complaint that beset Sony last year - that there weren't enough good games on the platform - has begun to evaporate, particularly when you take into account the promise of Resistance 2 and LittleBigPlanet before the end of this year.

Interesting to see was the way in which Sony acted swiftly to quash Microsoft's principle weapon against the snowballing support for Blu-ray - downloadable films and TV shows - by announcing a deal to provide what looks to be a fairly extensive service of its own.

However, not content with simply equalling its rival's push in that sphere, it managed to lay down a few nice cards of its own by offering content for sale and not just rental, and the option of watching it all on the go using the PlayStation Portable - an example of seamlessness that Microsoft should be particularly envious of.

But while it's interesting in itself that one of the pillar announcements for the Sony press conference this year was nothing to do with games, what everybody wanted was to be blown away by some new title announcements - some really ambitious and mouth-watering pieces that would prove Tretton's claim.

Sure enough, towards the end of the event, God of War III was confirmed, and a new title was unveiled - Massive Action Game, the premise for which certainly demonstrates ambition, with its Battlefield-like notion amplified tenfold by plans to put 256 online players in one place at one time.

Ambition certainly deserving of applause, but disappointment that all the audience really came away with was that number - 256 - because both MAG and God of War were offered in CG trailer format only, with no glimpse of gameplay possible at this stage.

Okay, the dangers of showing gameplay for a title that's still a long way off are well documented, but ultimately we don't have any real idea of how the leap to the PS3 will strengthen the God of War appeal, or what the look-and-feel of MAG will be at all. Maybe it should be enough to know the titles are underway, but sadly it isn't.

Sandwiched between the two, the Nintendo press conference should have been something of a riot compared to the serious business of the Microsoft versus Sony rivalry - after all, the DS and Wii have romped it in the past year or more, and show no signs of slowing down, and if anybody was in a position to amaze E3 this year it ought to be Nintendo.

But, like Microsoft and Sony, the Nintendo conference was another performance that, despite keeping briskly to time, failed to really ignite the massed ranks of mostly journalists that had descended on the Kodak Theatre.

Animal Crossing Wii was certainly anticipated, but some brief opinion-canvassing post-conference revealed more questions than answers based on what was shown - although at least, one person commented wryly, it was actual in-game footage.

Wii Sports 2, along with the associated Wii remote attachment, looks destined to add another long-tailed sales hike to Nintendo's portfolio, and Miyamoto-san's lively demonstration of Wii Music certainly lent pace and enjoyment to proceedings.

But somewhat surprisingly the appearance of the hallowed legend himself on-stage was greeted with applause and a few cheers - not the sort of fervent worship you might have expected a couple of years ago - and while each conference had its own little bright spots, the overall mood across the board this year was rather subdued.

Why? Possibly because there really weren't any show-stopping moments. Possibly because everybody in the audience was a little bit older and a little bit more cynical. Possibly because since 2006 the rabid (and loudly cheering) fanboy element has been far more successfully excluded from attending E3.

Whatever the reason, I can't help but wonder if the press conferences have become an unnecessary fixture in their current form, a relic of years gone by when the three sessions were the biggest attention-grabbers in the industry's entire calendar year.

With the change in E3 last year, the rise of publishers' own events, the increasing difficulty in leveraging the big blockbuster titles and the wide refocus on more accessible, less traditional gaming experiences, the logic behind saving all of the big reveals for Los Angeles is questionable. As a result, the rest of the year is dotted with a far greater number of interesting points - but the danger is that the reason for the existence of E3 as a focus for the world's attention will fall further away.

As one senior industry source put it to me, all it would take is for one of the Big Three to pull out of next year's event to push it over the edge, and with confusion surrounding the future of the ESA membership (not to mention uncertainty over the future of the flagship event in Europe as well) it's hard to see quite what the future holds.

Ultimately the shape of events such as E3 will be determined by the shape of the industry as it continues to grow and expand. It's entirely possible that a de-emphasis on centralised set piece announcements is healthy if they're becoming ever more impractical and less reflective of an industry that's learning to be increasingly agile.

One thing's for sure - I for one wish Microsoft hadn't decided to pull the Halo-related Bungie announcement from its conference with just 24 hours to go because of a press leak. It deprived the week of a big cheer, when there seemed to be precious few to go around.

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