Well, that didn’t quite work.
I had assumed that the existence of Microsoft’s family friendly Cirque du Soleil spectacular last night to launch its controller-free Kinect peripheral (yes, the rumours it was called “Wave” were wrong), would mean that tonight’s event would cater much more for the core gamer, but aside from the first third of the show, it too was aimed squarely at the casual demographic. Recent Nintendo conferences have done this and gone down incredibly badly with the core community as a result (indeed, its 2008 event was widely seen as the worst press conference in E3 history), and so it seems like a very odd decision on Microsoft’s part to make exactly the same mistake.
The conference started well enough, with live demos of Call of Duty: Black Ops and Gears of War 3, the first reveal of Halo Reach’s campaign mode, and interesting trailers for the likes of Metal Gear Solid: Rising, a new Xbox 360 exclusive project with Crytek currently called Codename: Kingdoms (colons are all the rage at the mo) and Peter Molyneux’s Fable III. Microsoft’s Phil Spencer announced that all the games being shown from the time of the Crytek reveal were Xbox 360 exclusives, though many will have left the conference thinking this more of a confession than a call to arms.
The majority of the ninety minute show consisted of live demonstrations of various Kinect games. Given that the main appeal of playing with Kinect is how your body is in the game and used to control the action, it should surely have dawned on the show’s organisers at some point that watching someone else do this isn’t anything like as much fun as doing it yourself, particularly as many of the games shown were very simplistic. The demo of Kinect Sports, for example, featured two people competing in a race by running on the spot and jumping to clear hurdles. It looked shallow, and the banter between the players was painful.
Indeed, abysmal scripting served to turn this part of the conference into the worst school play on record, making Keanu Reeves look like Brando in his prime. A particular lowlight was a video call between Microsoft employee “Laura” and her twin sister. While the tech involved was excellent (particularly the part where the Kinect camera tracked their movements), the conversation between the two of them was about as natural as Jordan’s funbags. Family dinners at their place must be like an interactive version of The Stepford Wives.
Much of the software lineup was true minigame hell, as if the Wii had taught Microsoft everything and nothing. There were bright spots, however. The interactive pet game Kinectimals from Rare was the cutest thing ever seen in the whole history of the world ever, Yourshape: Fitness Evolved was a scarily futuristic Wii Fit that seemed to be channelling Minority Report pretty impressively, and the crowd-pleasing Just Dance from Rock Band developers Harmonix looks suspiciously like it’s going to sell bazillions, even to hilariously uncoordinated people like me. Let’s all make sure we have massive rooms to play these games in, eh?
There was a mild concession to the core audience near the end, with a new Forza experience which used head tracking to enhance immersion, and offered a blatantly-pre-recorded-while-pretending-to-be-live demo of what amounted to hardcore car porn. Using Kinect you can walk around vehicles, focus on various parts of them to get pre-canned animations with snazzy statistics and info about engines, wheels and such-like, and even climb into the supercars and look around a bit. Whether this is a whole new game or an add-on to Forza 3 isn’t yet clear, but it’s not out until next year and the showroom element seemed more than a little gimmicky.
There was an amazing bribe to the assembled audience when the new model of the Xbox 360 was revealed – smaller, with built-in WiFi, a 250GB hard drive, capable of powering Kinect via USB (the older models will need to use a power supply), much quieter, and costing the same as the existing 120GB version. The reason for the show’s venue being a bit smaller than last year became clear when it was revealed not only that the new 360 is being shipped to retailers from today, but also that everyone attending the conference was going to be given one upon leaving the auditorium. This unsurprisingly drew the biggest cheer of a show that resembled Tumbleweed City after several of the Kinect demos, and Microsoft will no doubt hope that this giveaway will salvage it some decent press.
Last year’s conference saw appearances by the likes of Paul McCartney and Steven Spielberg, which made this year’s painfully scripted demos from whooping Microsoft employees appear low-rent in comparison. Not only is Microsoft courting the Wii’s audience – and it should remember that it was core gamers who first gave the Nintendo console the momentum to succeed – but it has also copied that company’s bad conference habits. In 2009 the Microsoft show consisted of one amazing game reveal after another, and it easily “won” the competition between the big three hardware manufacturers. Based on this conference, though, what should have been an equally good ninety minutes given all the amazing software set to be released before the end of the year, was something of a poorly paced damb squib, and while the audience at the venue will leave happy with their new Xboxes, the viewers at home will likely think that Sony and Nintendo don’t have much to do tomorrow to beat tonight’s misstep.