Yesterday was Microsoft’s big day at E3 in Los Angeles. E3, or the Electronic Entertainment Expo, is a yearly convention and trade show primarily for the gaming industry. I say “primarily” because the lines continue to blur in the gaming, entertainment and media world. The conference itself has had it’s ups and downs the last several years in terms of popularity and attendance, as the organizers made drastic changes to the “rules” of the convention. Despite the changes, and rampant rumors that E3 was doomed, many gaming publishers and developers hold off on releasing news of upcoming products for the fanfare of this expo.
Microsoft entered the console gaming industry as an enormous underdog with their XBox console back in 2001. At the time, Sony’s PlayStation 2 was fully entrenched, the Nintendo GameCube and the waning Sega DreamCast consoles were still selling as well. Definitely not an easy road of entry. Some good games, and their new XBox Live service helped boost sales for the mostly PC-software-based company.
In 2005 Microsoft released the XBox 360 console. It was completely redesigned from the ground up, which essentially what every console release, from every manufacturer, has been. Only this time, Microsoft changed the paradigm of consoles. This console came out of the box with all the standard fare: better graphics, faster processor, the ability to play new games (duh), some compatibility with previous-generation games, and Internet connectivity. What was new, in the console realm, was a hard drive built in to save games, plus consumers had the ability to upgrade the hard drive to a larger one. Never before had consoles been upgradeable on the storage end (most of them just had cartridge slots only). Microsoft now had the ability to expand on their base console in ways we, as consumers, were only able to if you owned a PC. They have been able to completely redesign the XBox 360 operating system, integrated the console into your home network (allowing for music and picture sharing), and they recognized the shift in how consumers can use the 360… as a home entertainment medium, and not just for gaming. Last year they partnered with the online DVD renting company, Netflix, to provide streaming movies right through the 360. Previously, people could watch DVDs, but now they can conveniently stream movies as well.
Changing gears a bit, to the Internet-only world… it’s no news that social media has become extremely popular not only with the tech-savvy, young or geek crowd. Social media sites and services like MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Friendfeed, and hundreds of others, have become the most popular “hangouts” on the net. News agencies, superstar celebrities, corporations and even the middle-aged non-geek, are all over these sites. I’m not going to get into these specifically, but gamers use these services to organize planned meetups, the games they’ll play, and when. Microsoft has seen this trend and worked to integrate this social aspect not only into the game (which the game developers have done already, and what Microsoft did in a previous operating system update), but into the before-game aspect. How? Well Microsoft announced yesterday that they will be integrating the two most popular social media entities, Facebook and Twitter, into their system.
Most gamers would dismiss this as crap and rebel against it if they can, but I see it a bit differently. I’ve tried, a number of times, to organize just a few of us to play on the 360 on a Friday night. All of us have full-time jobs, are either married or living with our better half, and some of us have kids… it’s not easy. I’ve used email, phone calls and text messages all to organize a couple of hours of game time. Normally, my console gaming is completely separate from my PC. The way I have my home setup is pretty sweet, as my computer is right behind the TV that I play my 360 on, so I just have to swing my chair around. For most, the console is in the living room, and the computer is not. Even if you have a laptop, it still doesn’t matter, they are on two separate devices. I’m either on the PC, or I’m on my 360. I’m usually not going to take the time to stop playing, log into whatever on my PC to see who’s online and who might be interested in playing, I just want to play.
With this social media integration, gamers will be able to not only easily communicate with those that you wish to play with, but also let others know that you are gaming, and playing a specific game. If your buddy Johnny Bravo was checking the latest drama or taking a test on what Golden Girl he’s most like on Facebook, he can also see that you’re playing Left 4 Dead, and feel the urge to squash some zombies with extreme force. Where good ol’ Johnny may not have been wanting to play earlier, now he’s all over it, thanks to your update on Facebook via the 360. I see more of the advantage of that “alert system” than anything else. Just like not stopping to go on my PC, I’m also not going to stop playing to go on the 360 version of Twitter or Facebook and have a conversation. Typing things out without an actual keyboard interface is painful, and a waste of time. So if the implementation is done right, it could make it much easier for us gamers to get the word out, to organize it, and get your friends into it.
Microsoft also announced a number of games yesterday, but I won’t go too far into them, although Left 4 Dead 2 makes me want to speed up time until it comes out. I do have to say it must have been quite a, umm, moment, when both Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr came out and talked about The Beatles: Rock Band. As my seven year old daughter loves the Beatles, it’s a must buy. Oh yeah, there were also a couple of flagship Halo games coming out as well, as well as Metal Gear Solid Rising.
One of the most innovative announcements was the direct result of how the Nintendo Wii changed game controlling. It’s called Project Natal, and it is a full body motion controller, facial recognition, voice recognition, and you can control games and other areas of the 360 with motions… that means NO controller. Sounds like an amazing technology, but I question whether it’s mature enough to really work. I guess we’ll see, as it is compatible with all existing 360’s, and Microsoft will be selling it with all new ones.
Another minor announcement, well minor to me because I probably won’t use it, is the partnership with the music site, Last.fm. Microsoft Live Gold members will have the ability to play music from Last.fm at no additional charge. That Netflix deal from last year also gets a full 1080p resolution upgrade, with the ability to add movies to your queue within the 360. Did I say earlier that the lines continue to blur in the gaming, entertainment and media world? Microsoft, at least their XBox division, is the one with the giant pink eraser, no longer in the corner of the room.