E3 2005: War of the Consoles ... Almost

by Stephen Cawood

If you find that the lines to the men's room are longer than the women's, and the cell network is so overloaded that you can't make a call, you may have found yourself at the Electronic Entertainment Expo. The massive Los Angeles Convention Center hosts the annual conference. E3 is the world's largest video game trade show, which means that a lot of networking and deal brokering take place under the L.A. sun. However, E3 is also the first chance for the average gamer to get a sneak peek at the video games currently in development. In fact, in a hardcore gamer's world, the flashy and elaborate E3 exhibits are tantamount to a springtime Christmas morning.

Upon entering the main hall, this year's attendees walked right into a spectacular exhibit from Electronic Arts. The main feature of the exhibit was a large round room. Inside, attendees looked above their heads to find themselves surrounded by a 360-degree screen. The enormous display ran an impressive loop of EA demos, and the wraparound screen created a truly immersive effect. Looking one way, an attendee would see the back of a car speeding through traffic; turning around, she would see the line of police cars chasing the runaway vehicle. The screen put the attendee in the middle of the gaming action, and that is the point of E3.

Of course, E3 also puts gamers in close proximity to Hollywood. With the recent release of the last Star Wars film, it's a safe bet that E3 attendees had movies on their minds. If they didn't before they walked into E3, they certainly do now. The lineup of this year's new games reads like Sony Pictures' multipage film ad in this week's issue of Variety magazine. With companies such as Sony leveraging their film brands, it is not surprising that movie franchises are dominating the gaming industry. This year's games based on movies include titles such as Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, The Warriors, Taxi Driver, The Godfather, King Kong, Scarface, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, and Black Hawk Down: Delta Force.

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In addition to the cross-pollination of movies and games, another obvious E3 trend is the mobile gaming business. What used to be a niche in the gaming space has become a mainstream focus of the conference. Whether it's Zoo Tycoon 2 on your phone or Grand Theft Auto on your PlayStation Portable (PSP), mobile games have matured into a business in their own right. In fact, the only video game that will be available for the upcoming blockbuster movie War of the Worlds will be Ubisoft's mobile game. As further evidence of the pervasiveness of mobile gaming, there were opportunities for attendees to use their mobile gaming devices to download special conference content. Nintendo offered a Nintendo DS download station where attendees could download demos for Submarine and table hockey games to their Nintendo DS devices. At the G4 TV booth, people had the chance to download demos to their PSP.

While the trends towards movie-based games and mobile gaming are interesting, this year's E3 was principally touted as the beginning of the next generation of video game consoles. For the first time, gamers expected all three major console makers to reveal the latest versions of their respective technologies. It should have been the most dramatic clash of the titans to date. Unfortunately, only one console showed up for the battle.

The three new consoles are the Nintendo Revolution, the Xbox 360, and the Sony PlayStation 3 (PS3). However, those who could tear themselves away from EA's 360-degree screen found that only one console was within their reach. While E3 attendees could play a number of games on the Xbox 360, the Sony PS3 was shielded within a glass display case, and the Nintendo Revolution was completely absent.

Although E3 attendees were certainly disappointed by the lack of a showdown, their discontent was somewhat abated by the fact that information was revealed about each of the three new consoles. Sony was the first of the big hitters to host their E3 press conference. At this meeting, Sony revealed the Sony PlayStation 3. Boasting a powerful NVidia RSX graphics processor and the new Cell CPU, the PS3 specifications may add up to the most powerful gaming platform ever built. However, the PS3 and the Xbox 360 use different architectures, so numbers aren't necessarily the best means of comparison. Until the PS3 is actually playable, gamers will have to wonder how well the Sony specs will translate into game play.

While Sony used their limelight to focus on what's inside of their box, Microsoft used their E3 press conference to go outside of the box. In response to Sony's PS3 specifications, Microsoft spokespeople were quick to argue that the winner in the console space will be the system that provides the most immersive overall experience--not the system that looks more powerful on paper.

The Xbox 360 was actually the first next-generation console revealed to the public. Microsoft literally took the console out of the bag during a pre-E3 marketing-brochure-style presentation on MTV. Elijah Wood hosted the TV show and the uber-hot band The Killers provided a live performance. Although gamers were more interested in hearing about the new console than they were in the concert, they had to wait until E3 before they could learn many of the important details of the Xbox 360 system. For example, once the conference began, Xbox fans were relieved to learn that the Xbox 360 will be backwards -compatible with current Xbox titles.

At E3, a few of the next-generation Xbox 360 games were playable. These included Call of Duty 2 and Need for Speed: Most Wanted. These games were impressive enough to get attendees excited about the Xbox 360, even though the games are not yet fully developed. In fact, most attendees were unaware that the demo games weren't using all three of the Xbox 360's PowerPC processing cores.

In addition to the next-generation gaming experience, the Xbox 360 talking points focused heavily on the new online features of the console. These features include the Xbox Live Arcade, which lets gamers download games at home, and the Live Marketplace. The Live Marketplace will give Xbox 360 users the chance to share their custom-gaming creations with other gamers. For example, someone might want to share his or her custom-tuned car so that other racers can use the vehicle in a racing game.

Sony clearly won the war of the slick marketing banners with enormous "Welcome Change" signs around the L.A. Convention Center. However, the best marketing ploy at this year's show was Xbox-360-branded bags, conveniently placed inside of the entrance doors. Conference goers expecting to collect swag were quick to pick up the free bags. Everywhere you looked, you saw attendees toting Xbox 360 ads.

As for the third titan, the big disappointment at this year's E3 was the absence of the Nintendo Revolution console. While Microsoft and Sony were busy pushing their new technology, the Nintendo big screens still advertised the GameCube; the only Revolution system at E3 was a prototype. Nintendo's rationale for its secrecy is that it doesn't want its innovative ideas to be poached by the competition. Nintendo garnered some cheers when it announced that the Revolution will feature backwards compatibility with the entire Nintendo catalog, but without a working Revolution machine in the building, Nintendo's biggest success at E3 2005 was the release of the Game Boy Micro. This tiny new gaming device is attracting a lot of attention.

With the Xbox 360 available to touch and play, the buzz at this year's conference centered on the new Microsoft platform. However, Microsoft is not walking away from E3 with a unanimous decision. Nintendo has yet to fight a battle and Sony has succeeded in planting a question in gamers' minds: do I buy an Xbox 360 or wait for the potentially more powerful Sony PS3? Sony won the battle of the banner and Microsoft won the battle of the buzz, but the war isn't over--it hasn't even begun.

Stephen Cawood is a former employee of Microsoft Corporation. Since leaving Microsoft, he has been writing full-time and has worked on a number of titles including The Unauthorized Halo 2 Battle Guide, Halo 2 Hacks (O'Reilly), and The Black Art of Halo Mods.

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