Monday, 18 August 2008

Feature: Microsoft Loses E3

With all the glitz and glamour stripped away from the once overblown event that was E3, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the bash was no longer gaming’s primary industry event. But despite the lack of booth babes of old and an invitation only attendance, E3 remains a beacon for those involved in the console trade and continues to be the hub for information on upcoming releases and high profile unveilings. Sporting a new business like approach from years of poorly handled indifference, E3 has grown up and refocused from showy presentations of yesteryear to the battle of modern gaming’s big 3. Under this spotlight came an interesting battle of market consolidation as the major players entered into next generation middle age.
With Nintendo’s bargain priced Wii now comprehensively stealing the limelight of a media once typified by narrow demographics, it came as little surprise that the Japanese giants showing was subdued. This could be in part attributed to a medium still commentated upon by hardcore gaming types, or Nintendo’s seeming awareness that it’s casual gaming market will have absolutely no interest in the goings on at a gaming expo in the US. Instead Nintendo seemed more than happy to see the traditional hardcore gaming platforms of Microsoft and Sony duke it out whilst witnessing, with some pomposity, the formers attempt to engage with their own market.
Indeed a casual gaming ethos was the market shift Microsoft were keen to harangue at E3 under a barrage of industry criticism related to their poorly future proofed software catalogue. With Nintendo setting a new bench mark in consumer trends, Microsoft’s one dimensional approach to software had finally begun to draw the ire of their luminaries in a year when the Xbox lurched from one failure to another. Firstly the death of the HD-DVD format cast the blu-ray playing PS3 into the role of front room media hub, once the thrown of the old Xbox, whilst damaging media coverage over Microsoft’s combustible head-start hardware did little to slow Sony’s price cut PS3’s making giant in-roads into Microsoft’s dwindling market share.
Nevertheless casual gaming applications appeared to be the issue Microsoft was most keen to address at E3 2008 in their now idiosyncratically blinkered fashion, unveiling a blitzkrieg of half-baked additions devoid of imagination whilst avoiding mention of such things as external Blu-Ray drives or increased hardware reliability. More succinctly, Microsoft’s key note announcements boiled down to a mandatory update of the now familiar dashboard to integrate the, Wii-Mii-esque, Avatars. In itself an innocent enough announcement, the mid cycle dashboard update appears to be Microsoft’s attempt to introduce itself to a new casual market whilst seemingly forgetting that its current primary user base is not family or child centric. Whilst supporting their dashboard revamp with a raft of other casual applications such as the SingStar clone Lips and Buzz influenced Scene It? follow up, Microsoft’s updated and streamlined dashboard interface appears to underline a company trying to force itself upon a casual market in the face of alienating it’s traditional audience.
As Microsoft wheeled out coloured controllers and other such hardware “updates,” in a feverish attempt to attract the John Doe gamer, you could feel an intense sense of embarrassment overcoming the crowd. With their ham fisted attempts at creating a casual gaming market juxtaposed to a presentation devoid of any major software announcements, these having previously been leaked, the show was further punctuated by a seemingly endless list of major no shows. Alan Wake, Just Cause 2 and Splinter Cell: Conviction to name just a few titles that failed to feature on Microsoft’s behalf.
The big hardware announcement from the Microsoft camp came in the form of a 60GB 360, the introduction of which would see the older 20GB pro units drop to $300 stateside. With memory upgrades the new yearly must have accessory and price reductions an industry staple in fading generations, Sony trumped Microsoft’s upgrade with the unveiling of an 80GB PS3. Whilst one could accuse Sony of considerable one-upmanship, particularly as most gamers will now be settled with their next generation consoles three years into the cycle, the shirt and tie overshadowing limited Microsoft’s big announcements to rip-off casualware, coloured controllers and leaked software unveilings.
On the contrary, old hands Sony knew how to throw an E3 presentation. With both the Xbox and PS3 seemingly admitting defeat to the Wii, the onus was on a streamlined itinerary set about besting Microsoft’s machine. Sony went about this by presenting better hardware updates, fresh and exciting game trailers and utilizing their new found next generation confidence to demonstrate a diverse portfolio of their own creation.
Still Microsoft seemed to be buoyant following its E3 ’08, perhaps confident that its refreshed approach to casual gaming will help consolidate its position in the industry. The reality seems colder, at least to Xbox gamers who are less than happy with the devolved lack of sophistication the new dashboard seems to usher in. Gone will be gamerpics, plate themes and text based dashboards, in their place will be a relatively bland background and iPod influenced slide graphic interface which will help grandstand the Avatar revolution. As a microcosm the design choice seems to demonstrate Microsoft’s desperation to tap into a market with previously tried and tested ideas. Whilst the iPod syncing for Lips offers some salvation, Microsoft are painfully short on recognizing the kind of brand loyalty demonstrated by PlayStation gamers whilst ignoring the marketing push Nintendo have supported their machine with.
Aside from a desperate need to shape up its presenting skills at major industry conventions, there is a feeling that Microsoft would do well to concentrate on its successes. Whilst many would criticize the 360’s male racers and shooters image, its 18+ games catalogue is well linked to considerable gaming trends and established hardcore gaming whilst its ability to stable major exclusives has been second-to-none. In the meantime, Microsoft could create a developmental wing to diversify its casual output with unique, brand specific ideas amid the realization that its overriding public image will not attract a vast casual gaming crowd.
This is unlikely however, having invested a great deal of finance into it’s new casual gaming stance, minus any kind of market research or self realization, forlorn Xbox fanatics can expect to see Microsoft plough this very furrow for some time to come. This of course raises questions over the direction Microsoft may choose to follow in the next generation. Whilst their current casual gaming push will most likely fall flat on its face it demonstrates, in a half hearted way, Microsoft looking to confirm their long term place in the home console market. With Nintendo dangling a considerable carrot over future software development with numbers to support their bluster, will this interest in casual gaming fronted by the Avatars, develop into Microsoft’s renewed family friendly image? History dictates that Microsoft have never been slow to follow a buck and their timing of their product overhaul, at least in respect of the dashboard and gamerpics, suggests Microsoft are testing the waters for furthered family entertainment.
Where this will leave the current atypical 360 gamer is questionable. The 360 has on most levels become the hardcore gamer’s console. With Nintendo extremely unlikely to cater for the traditional gaming market in future hardware and Sony likely to make their home hub consoles all encompassing, Microsoft’s cutesy E3 announcements looks set to endanger the traditional consumer with the market structure set in stone by the Wii.

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