Microsoft’s 2006 E3 press conference: Enter the Dragon

When Microsoft Xbox 360 executive Peter Moore stood on the stage at Shrine Auditorium last year and presented his spiel about how software will drive the video game industry in the next generation, most of us – myself included – passed his posturing off as dismissible marketing jargon.

Bless you, Mr. Moore, for backing up your words.

Anyone who has ever picked up a video game controller knows console specs are worthless if the software doesn’t make you want to play the game. Sony must have realized this after the cold press reaction to their press conference yesterday. The vast majority of gamers aren’t relying on how many Cell processors are under the hood, if a Blu-ray Disc drive is included or if cars are 1080p instead of 1080i to make their buying decisions. If no one gets genuinely excited about what your games offer, gamers won’t want to shell out mounds of cash to buy your new machine. Especially when Xbox 360 is already on the market with a rapidly growing software selection, a cheaper price and a huge head start in the online gaming space.

Mr. Moore wasted no time driving home his software message to the press at this year’s E3 2006 Microsoft press conference in Mann’s Chinese Theater. He immediately bombarded us with a brand new “Gears of War” trailer and subsequent real-time demo of the first level by Epic developer stud Cliff “CliffyB” Bleszinski before even taking the stage. After this full-on-drool experience of cover fighting at its finest (sans some frame-rate issues which there’s still plenty of time for Epic to work out), my memories of Sony’s debacle the night before were already erased. I can’t imagine a more ideal way to pull us in and get us excited. For Microsoft, the stranglehold on running away with this year’s E3 buzz was just getting warmed up to the warming sound of roaring applause.

Moore’s confidence was backed up not by Powerpoint presentations and units shipped numbers ala Sony, but by modern Flash-like graphics and units sold numbers. Believe it or not, those sold numbers are rapidly approaching 5 million units. Moore hopes to have 10 million Xbox 360’s in consumer’s hands before Nintendo’s Wii or Sony Playstation ever hits a store shelf. That’s a lot of potential buddies to hook up with on Xbox Live, even if he comes up a hair short on this ambitious goal.

One of the most anticipated announcements turned out to be Microsoft’s lone disappointment this afternoon. Early this morning confirmed the HD-DVD drive accessory would be unveiled today. The introduction revealed a unit reminiscent of a disk drive about 2/3’s the size of an Xbox 360. This beast of a box will only act as a pass-through device for the audio and video information on an HD-DVD, leaving no opportunity for HDMI or 5.1 analog-audio out options. Due sometime this holiday season with a yet-to-be-determined price point, this HD-DVD “lite” route won’t sit well with ManRoom A/V enthusiasts but should tide over Joe Six-Pack looking for a quick HD-DVD fix.

The first of several surprise announcements came from the mouth of none other than Mr. Bill Gates. Flash photography, warned against before the conference began, filled the theater as Microsoft’s dragon entered Mann’s Chinese Theater to unveil Xbox Live Anywhere. This new level of Xbox Live aims to offer seamless integration of a single Gamertag across Xbox Live, Windows Vista and ” the clincher ” cell phones. Some mockup demonstrations showed the ability to play FASA Studio’s (MechAssault) new Xbox 360 and Windows Vista exclusive game “Shadowrun” seamlessly between a PC and Xbox 360. The cell phone comes into play to view buddy lists, check messages and play Xbox Live Arcade games. Viewing your Friends List will show exactly which device they’re currently playing on: Xbox 360, Windows Vista or a cell phone. For me, the lone tidbit in this announcement I could see using regularly is integrating a Live Friends List into my PC desktop.

”Some guys do rubber ducks. Some guys do tattoos.” ” Peter Moore

Peter has his moments and this stab at Sony belongs in his greatest hits collection. With the “Halo 2” launch date still tattooed on his right arm, he rolled up his left sleeve to reveal “Grand Theft Auto IV” with an October 16, 2007 release date. More to the point of putting another nail in Sony’s coffin, the game will include exclusive episodic content for Xbox 360 available via Xbox Live.

As you can see, Microsoft has quality software that we genuinely want to play in the pipeline. In addition to “Gears of War” this Fall, “Shadowrun” in January and “Grand Theft Auto IV” next Fall, Peter also announced “Alan Wake” will be exclusive to Xbox 360 and Windows Vista, “Forza Motorsport 2” is not only in development but will be out this holiday season with a wireless steering wheel, “Pro Evolution Soccer” is on the way from Konami and Lionhead is well underway on “Fable 2.” That’s in addition to “Mass Effect,” “Lost Planet” and a host of third party titles. In total, there will be 160 Xbox 360 games available by year’s end. Unlike the Playstation 3 lineup, I want to play instead of pass on most of them.

Nothing gets Microsoft fanboys more excited than their precious Halo series and Mr. Gates and Moore didn’t disappoint. The press conference closed with in-game footage from Halo 3 (as I predicted earlier) and a 2007 release window. The teaser didn’t show much other than Master Chief overlooking a massive Covenant army on what appears to be Earth but was enough for thunderous applause to fill Mann’s Chinese Theater and fear to fill the hearts of Sony and Nintendo executives.

We drank from the chocolate Stanley Cup

At the after-conference party a Microsoft PR representative enthusiastically proclaimed, “Sony did us a huge favor” in response to Sony’s press conference yesterday. After previewing Microsoft’s impressive lineup of second-generation Xbox 360 games, I’d say Microsoft returned the favor by sticking a pistol in Sony’s mouth and pulling the trigger.

– Dan Bradley

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