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E3 Analysis: This Year, Microsoft Lived Up To Its Own Hype
E3 Analysis: This Year, Microsoft Lived Up To Its Own Hype Exclusive
June 1, 2009 | By Leigh Alexander

June 1, 2009 | By Leigh Alexander
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

[Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander reflects from Los Angeles on the major takeaways of Microsoft's E3 briefing -- why the company's real killer reveal will see the least buzz, and what announcements like Project Natal and MGS Rising could mean for the industry.]

When it comes to presentations, Microsoft hasn't exactly got a reputation for austerity, so it was fitting that the company's press event (also covered in liveblog form by Gamasutra for the raw announcements) should be the one to kick off the "new" E3.

The enormous packed amphitheater awash in drifting green light patterns, flecked with gold strobe and decked out with enormous display screens, throbbing power-pop and strange honeycombed stage architecture was exactly what you'd expect from a company that feels like it's number one at the event of the year.

E3 press conferences are usually well-choreographed, hype-heavy events; one can expect a few nice-looking trailers, a few surprises, and perhaps one or two real kickers -- like last year, when the company announced it had finally broken Square Enix's Final Fantasy PlayStation exclusivity for the thirteenth installment, at least in the U.S.

This year, it's been easy to dismiss Microsoft's promises that it would "completely transform how people think about home entertainment" as more of the company's usual aggressive bravado. But the company's E3 media briefing wasn't just talk.

Microsoft brought it. Formidably.


Early on in the conference, the company brought the Beatles on stage -- Paul and Ringo, the Beatles -- to thunderous cheers, joined by Yoko Ono and Olivia Harrison, to lend their support for Rock Band: Beatles, whose cheerful opening cinematic saw its first debut at the event.

"Who'd ever thought we'd end up as androids?" McCartney joked. "We look great," said Starr.

That moment of genuine joy was further warmed by the announcement that proceeds from Xbox 360-exclusive downloadable track 'All You Need Is Love' will all go to Doctors Without Borders.

The Stuff You Expected

Other than that, a cameo from skating legend Tony Hawk, the exclusivity of a surprisingly creative-looking Splinter Cell: Conviction, the impressive vividity of Modern Warfare 2, the revelation of a new Halo in Reach were all the sort of things you might expect.

Microsoft's vaunted entry into the racing space with Forza Motorsport 3 -- complete with shiny red Audi on stage, fog machine, and promises of "the definitive racing game for our generation," and "the best looking racing game on any console" of course -- was flashy, but a logical move.

Incidentally, that the company that owns the Windows OS made it through an entire two-hour presentation without once mentioning the PC platform is strange, but not too surprising, either.

The Obvious Coup

"But we're not done yet," Xbox senior VP Don Mattrick said. "It seems we're missing one crucial piece of the puzzle."

Enter Hideo Kojima.

Last year, the announcement of FFXIII for Xbox 360 in the U.S. was Microsoft's best card. This year's defection of a formerly PlayStation-associated franchise was not the biggest announcement -- in fact, it was something like one more stone in an avalanche of eyebrow-raisers for Microsoft this year.

The news that the forthcoming Metal Gear Solid Rising will come to Xbox 360 represents Microsoft robbing its rival of one of its few remaining third-party exclusive franchises, and certainly its most desirable one. The company didn't need Metal Gear to give a dominating presentation -- but it had it anyway.

The Quiet Triumph

Microsoft's real killer reveal will likely receive the least amount of press and buzz from the hardcore gaming community -- Xbox Live's integration with Facebook and Twitter.

Xbox Live users will be able to invite their friends on the service to become their Facebook friends, and vice versa. In the near future, starting with Tiger Woods PGA Tour 09, gamers will be able to post screenshots of favorite gaming moments to to their Facebook pages for all their friends to see.

This means Xbox Live as a community will be exposed in a huge way to Facebook's massive 200 million userbase -- not only will the Xbox Live network effectively join the webbing of an existing mainstream social network, but it's likely that Facebook users will be pulled in. The company gains free marketing at the same time it provides a much-needed service to its users. Brilliant.

And if that's not enough, the company's also partnering with super-sticky, explosive web app Twitter -- by integrating Xbox Live seamlessly with both of these powerful mainstream social networking platforms, Microsoft is proving that the Xbox 360 can be one, too.

And, Of Course, Natal

Strange that they should pronounce their gesture-based control project Na-TAL, because the company's clearly birthing something major here.

Although at the event Stephen Spielberg called video game controllers "a barrier separating video game players from everyone else," it's likely there's a significant portion of the gaming audience that isn't ready to put down their controllers yet -- or ever.

Project Natal, then, is significant more for what it means to "everyone else." Though it's hard not to share Peter Molyneux's palpable excitement for the lifelike interaction the technology can enable, the concept of a television display that recognizes and greets you when you walk by, that allows users to control downloadable film menus by waving a finger in the air, are even more significant for the impact they could have on modern entertainment.

Microsoft's Winning

Between the social networking integration and the revelation of what could feasibly become a home entertainment mainstay, Microsoft's E3 presentation was so strong not so much because of its video games -- although there were no weak reveals there, to say the least -- but because it's obviously planned ahead to position itself as an integrated entertainment hub in all the ways its competition has only attempted to.

For once, the company lived up to its own hype. And as a legion of dazed media and industry folk filed slowly and quietly out of the amphitheater, one question could be heard on everyone's lips, murmured into cell phones and in curbside chatter in the lines to the shuttles.

It sounded hushed, funereal, sympathetic:

"What can Sony do now?"

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Robert Usarek
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Notice the absence of any dates for Natal. Heck, notice the absence of any real name. Which means that its most likely more than a year out. That far out means it may never actually make it to the 360.

Peter Park
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This press conference is largely a massive hype-driving event, and in that view, MS has delievered--Even if Natal is more than a year away. The prospective of dramatically changing the way we game, along with working demo, is surely a striking stuff.

I was starting to regret my choice of Xbox360 as my console, but after the conference, I feel very content, knowing that my console has a bright future.

Robert Usarek
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The point isn't that its far away, it that its far away enough not to make the 360 lifetime.

As to social networking, not sure its the big thing. Its one thing to use a phone to check or th shirk work and keep updated. Its another to purposely turn on advice with poor keyboard input to check and update text.

Joshua Sterns
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Dates or no dates this press conference got me thinking about the future of gaming. I hope that Sony and Nintendo have something equally inspiring.

gren ideer
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The Natal "vision" video is just that, a hopeful vision of what the technology can become. The tech isn't good enough yet to do what they want it to do, and it will take a while (at least 2 years) for that to happen.

I thought Microsoft had a weak event as far as big reveals were concerned, but they had a solid showing of titles. Aging Alan Wake visuals still had a cool light mechanic and a release date. The Halo game has low res textures unfortunately. The crappy interface for facebook and twitter don't excite me but the cross marketing will be a good thing for them.

Overall I think either of the other two big events can beat this one.

Richard Cody
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I think it was a very solid show. I mean you can't help but realize they're feeding the old core gamers more of the old rich manure they love (I like some of it too).

But Natal does have that potential. I thought EyeToy was capable of that type of thing but it's so clearly a great step into gaming simplicity. Good move. I'm picky but I might snag one early.

Facebook and Twitter are solid add-ons. The article is right that they're massive for Microsoft and more of just a really decent convenience for the users.

Christopher Plummer
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The Natal with no demo at E3 is such a fraud. I'm glad imaginations were stimulated by what won't be, I just don't understand why everyone is willing to suspend disbelief for Microsoft when there's already an EyeToy and Voice Recognition available. Remember this: ?

I thought the conference was pretty weak - The only meaningful parts for me were in the Quiet Triumph section - but in all fairness I sold my 360 because franchises like Halo, Forza, and Crackdown don't do much for me.

Rayco Santana
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Christopher Plummer: Natal its nothing like EYEtoy, Natal detects 3D movements in real time, the eyetoy its just a regular camera with a motion sensor, the EYEtoy can neither detect 3D movement or 3D shapes like Natal does...

Shane Hendrickson
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Natal is an intriguing distraction from normal games. Nothing more. I am really interested to see where they can take it, but Leigh is right: I have no plans to give up my controller. I applaud innovation and hope the Microsoft can really make something out of this, but I really don't think it's a very big deal to us 'core' gamers. MS had some great looking game footage (for games we already knew about) though so I think they put on a fairly solid presentation.

Dan Robinson
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Last year a company called 3DV demoed a motion sensing camera product at CES, gaining lots of praise. Reuters reported in February that the company was purchased by Microsoft. Just today the parent company of 3DV announced it had completed the sale of all of its assets to a third party.

This camera is real. The only question I have is will it be ready for the holiday 2009 shopping season?

Tom Newman
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Natal is something Microsoft has been talking about way before they even got into the video game business. Bill Gates has always said that the future of computing may not need any analog user interface, your computer will recognize you, and you will be able to talk to it. This goes way beyond what current camera/mic "toys" currently can do, and will change the face of computing and gaming. This is just the seed, but that is important.

Joel Bennett
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Wait, Alan Wake has a release date?! When did that happen?!

Craig Hamilton
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Fan boys amaze me. You have no idea when/if Natal will come out. You say at least 2 years? You are clueless. Stop acting like Microsoft has your number on speed dial. Development kits for Natal were shipped already. Every article that I have read about the MS conference has been a good one. I enjoy all the systems and the unique aspects that they each have to offer. I don't want to hear your one sided dribble, whoever it supports.

Like others have said, at the very least Natal is an important stride in the direction of 3D/motion recognition, even if it doesn't make it to this generation. Yet, what if it does? We are seeing another wonderful addition to the gaming world.

Brighton gardiner
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The biggest pitfall of the Vision Camera was the lack of developer support. There just was no real reason to own a vision Camera. So I'm sure we will see Natal come out on the market when there are some games to back it. Then you will see developers work at targeting and expanding that sub-user base.

Don't call it vaporware when its just been announced.

Paul Lazenby
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Wow, is everyone in our industry this jaded?

Seriously, i think we need to look at what this really is: A really cool tech demo of something that has a lot of potential if and when it comes out in its current form. And if it doesn't, then it will be in another way.

More varied tech is a win/win for the consumer, regardless of who develops it.

@ Dan Robinson - Yeah, absolutely right. Did no one else remember this?

Dan Robinson
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As far as vaporware...

The guys at the Nerdworld blog at tried the system out at Microsoft on a 360 running Burnout off the shelf. Quote:

"...playing Burnout with no controller, just holding up your empty hands like a steering wheel and pushing your foot forward to accelerate, that is an intense experience. And this is just straight Burnout code, in no way optimized or adapted for Natal. When people start dedicating teams to writing for Natal, very interesting things will happen..."

Complete post:

Evan Combs
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It might just be me, but from what I saw it seemed like they could have this out and on the market within a year if they wanted. Really the only thing that would delay the release would be not having any games that took advantage of it. I'm sure it isn't perfectly ready, and they don't have all the features working perfectly. What they showed though wasn't technology that was brand new. Really it was just taking existing technologies, putting it all together into one device, improving on the technologies, and writing the software required to make these technologies applicable for games.

Also as someone brought up earlier, I would imagine it would have a separate CPU included since the 360 wasn't designed with this idea in mind.

michael meginley
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Evan, yes it will have a seperate cpu.

Microsoft says the Natal sensor combines an RGB camera, a depth sensor, a multi-array microphone, and a "custom processor running proprietary software."

Kurt Elkins
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I hate to say this but we developed this in a small company in the late 80's for use with an AI system. This thing had to retain what it saw to "learn" which meant it burned through a scsi drive array. I can easily see this thing coming out by spring and I am truly amazed that a unit like this hasn't been brought to market before this.

Olivier B. Deland
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Project Natal is overhyped. Who said I wanted to move when I play? I want mind control.

Tawna Evans
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I'm a gamer that plays games on Facebook. Getting people to play Xbox live with from existing Facebook friends seems appealing. This tempts me to buy an Xbox 360. However, the notion of paying a monthly XBox fee to do so keeps me hesitant to do so. For now, I stick with enjoying the free online games I play on Facebook.