NEWS - Tuesday, May 11, 2004

Microsoft Xbox E3 Press Conference

As I strolled into the Shrine Auditorium for Microsoft's annual E3 press conference, the anticipation in the room was palpable. What would we be seeing? Are they going to announce Xbox 2? Are these drinks free? Everyone seemed very excited, and as I took my seat in the back of the room, I couldn't help but feel like I was part of something special. Unlike last year, when the three headed beast of J Allard, Robbie Bach, and Ed Fries opened the event, this year only Allard came out. He started right in, explaining that Microsoft was putting more and more of its considerable weight behind the Xbox every year. Everything that they want to do in the future depends on the quality of their software, games and otherwise. This software acts as a sort of catalyst for the growth of the Xbox and their user base. Xbox Live is the biggest component of this growth, and Allard said that the reason Xbox Live is the number one online console gaming service is simple. When they started to plan their online efforts, they went directly to gamers to find out exactly what they wanted. With this, the lights dimmed, and the first video of the night began. You're Fired! The video opened with some shaky, reality show style camera work showing the New York City skyline. The name of the program we were about to watch was "The Novice", modeled after the hit show "The Apprentice" with Donald Trump. We were introduced to the members of the cast, which was divided into two teams. The Xbox team consisted of J, Peter Moore, and Robbie, and the PS2 team was made up of impersonators of some high profile Sony executives, including "Ken", "Andrew", and "Kaz." This drew a lot of laughs from the audience. I think a lot of people were a bit surprised that Microsoft would be so bold in dissing their biggest competition, but it worked very well. When The Donald walked into the boardroom, the crowd went nuts. He proceeded to sit down and tell the teams the rules of the game. Each team was required to set up the ultimate online gaming service, and the winner would get the privilege of making an MMORPG based of the life of the inimitable Mr. Trump. The Xbox team was then shown talking to people on the street, listening to their input and taking notes. Meanwhile, the PS2 was sitting around on their couches, talking about how the keys to building an online community were issuing press releases and selling network adapters. Of course, while they were talking, Ken was playing Xbox. Back in the boardroom, the teams were judged on their results. With nearly 1 million subscribers in 24 countries, Xbox Live was the clear winner, although Microsoft poked a little fun at themselves, as Trump lambasted them for not having any decent online sports titles. The PS2 team was deemed the losers, and they got the customary Trump sendoff. "You're all fired," Trump said, with a wave of his hand. As the PS2 team left to building to catch a cab, a figure quickly hopped in front of them to steal it. As he turned around, the crowd roared. Bill Gates has done it again! There's Always Something to do on Live Allard then proceeded to show off some of the new functionalities of Xbox Live. The new 3.0 service, which was implemented a few weeks ago, allow players to see which friends are online and what they are all playing. He decided to see what his friend "Jenny" was doing when he noticed that he had a message from her. He went into the new voicemail inbox, and sure enough, there was a message from ex-MTV bimbette Jenny McCarthy! After listening to the message, J said he wanted to see what she was doing. All of a sudden, there was a video of Jenny talking into a Live headset. At first I thought it was just a video message, but it was actually a live video chat. I was floored. Another window opened, and there was Peter Moore, getting a tattoo. The three chatted for a few minutes, and J explained that, starting in the fall, Xbox Live will support video chat for up to 5 friends at once. Pretty cool stuff, if you ask me. He then went on to talk about the new casual game service. Players will be able to download games-on-demand, and Microsoft has already partnered with Atari, Namco, Tecmo, and a host of others to offer old school games like Galaxian and Dig Dug, as well as board or card games, puzzle games, and popular web-based games. These games are for the player who just wants a quick fix, or a blast from the past. It wasn't really explained how the service will work, or how much it will cost, but it seems like an interesting way to bring new content to gamers. Smash 'em Up Now it was time to talk about the XNA development platform that Microsoft announced at GDC in March. One of the signature demos was of a sports car smashing into a wall at over 200 mph and shattering into hundreds of pieces, all in real time. Allard explained that they got hundreds of calls about the demo, so they wanted to show it off again. The car hit the wall at various angles and speeds, and it tore apart differently each time. J then explained that he had a surprise for us. In the six weeks since that demo was first shown, the team at Psuedo Interactive had made a little addition. Instead of one car hitting a wall, we were treated to the sight of two cars hitting each other. After the cars hit, the flipped and smashed against the walls, with debris flying everywhere. Allard then rotated the camera around to show that everything was being done in real time. This, he said, is the type of power that XNA can give to developers. But What About the Games? Next on stage was Peter Moore, the VP of Worldwide Marketing and Publishing. He told us that Microsoft's aim isn't to please gamers, it's to blow them away, to show them something they've never seen before. He asked what game was on everyone's mind. Of course, the hall was filled with screams of "Halo 2!!" I think I might have been screaming the loudest. To everyone's delight, the Halo 2 logo came up on the giant screen. We were introduced to two producers from Bungie, and they loaded up a demo. I can honestly say that it was one of the most heartwarming things I have ever seen. Everything I could have hoped for was there. Dual weapons, destructible vehicles, playable Covenant, even homing rockets. It was beautiful, but not as beautiful as what came next. Moore said that he had been out for dinner with some of the sales people a few weeks ago, and mentioned that he had a release date set. The sales team laughed it off, and said they'd believe it when they saw it tattooed on him. Well, sure enough, Moore lifted his sleeve, and there it was in dark, black, and hopefully permanent lettering: November 9th. And yes, Moore joked, that is in the year 2004. Put it on your calendar folks. He then mentioned a massive TV and print marketing campaign, but I couldn't hear over the blood rushing to my trigger finger. We were then shown a few other major titles that will be coming out exclusively on Xbox. DOA Ultimate is going to be the first 3D fighting game to be online, and it looks breathtaking. Characters fought in a variety of environments, including snow covered mountains and tropical beaches. One of my favorite levels was on the plains of Africa. You can toss your opponent into an elephant and it will react by rearing up and trumpeting. Don't worry fanboys, it looks like the mammophysics are back, too. Doom 3 looked very nice as well. Scary and bloody, it's sure to be a big hit. Take a look at Sal's preview for more information. I was very impressed by Jade Empire, too. Created by the guys at BioWare, it's an action RPG of epic proportions, as you go on a quest for vengeance against the people who destroyed your village. In the Game, Finally! Last but not least was Robbie Bach, who spoke about the Xbox gradually becoming a force in the game industry. Four years ago they entered the game, they've been playing it for a while, and now they're ready to change the game. He mentioned that Xbox Live is about to break the one million subscriber mark in just under three years, and that it took AOL and HBO over 5 years to do the same. This statistic really impressed me for some reason. This market is really in its infancy, and there's nowhere to go but up. He continued to speak about the new markets they are planning to move into, and what it would take to become a success in places like Eastern Europe and Latin America. All of a sudden, a familiar, booming voice filled the room, drowning out Bach. I know that voice, I thought to myself. It was the EA Sports guy! At last, the publisher of the world's greatest sports games (sorry Sega) is going to be supporting Xbox Live. The curtain rose, and out stepped some of the greatest athletes of our time. Faulk. Okafor. Anthony. Naslund. Fitzgerald. Donovan. Every title in the EA Sport canon was represented by an athlete. The biggest surprise of all also got the biggest ovation. Muhammad Ali, the greatest boxer of all time, stepped forward and gave a little wave as the crowd went nuts. Starting this summer with the release of NCAA Football 2005, EA games will finally be able to be played against friends on Xbox Live. All of the sports titles will be supported, as well as a few other games. Goldeneye 2, Burnout 3, TimeSplitters: Future Perfect, and Battlefield: Modern Combat will also get the royal treatment from Xbox. This looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and hopefully it will be one that makes both of these great companies stronger. After the athletes left the stage, Bach stepped back up to thank everyone for coming. As we streamed out of the room, I couldn't stop thinking about talking trash on Madden 2005 for Xbox Live. It's going to be a looong couple of months.

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