LOS ANGELES--Just a few hundred yards from Nintendo's E3 2006 press conference, which was held at the Kodak Theatre, home of the Academy Awards, sits Graumann's Chinese Theater. The Hollywood landmark is the site of Microsoft's own press briefing, the last of the so-called "big three" at this year's E3.
Attendees of Nintendo's event were herded over to the venue by several dozen temp workers holding large banners. On the banners were close-up photos of numerous hip, young people of various ethnicities, all of whom are apparently just wild about the Xbox 360, judging by the broad smiles on their faces and come-hither look in their eyes.
Far less welcoming was the small army of security personnel. Looking like a group of agents who were let go from the Secret Service because their appearance screamed "ARMED GUARD IN $400 SUIT," the security guards politely admonished anyone who dared tarry more than a few seconds in front of the entrance. "Are you going inside, sir?" one asked a journalist desperately trying to suck down one last cigarette before the conference. "You need to go inside, sir, right now, sir."
Once inside, attendees were set upon by a row of ushers, who briskly guided them to their seats. Though some reports said the event wouldn't start until 1 p.m., the place was jam-packed by 11:18 a.m., as journalists poured in, eager to witness the final piece of this year's next-gen console puzzle fall into place.
11:21: Booming but nasal voice tells audience that the show will start in 10 minutes. Blaring big-beat techno resumes playing.
11:26: A big screen at the front of the theater is displaying the Xbox Live GamerTags of conference attendees.
11:28: A curtain goes back on the left-hand side, revealing a series of recessed green alcoves, each with a 360 inside, behind a podium.
11:30: Scheduled start time reached, but dozens of attendees still mill about the hall, waving to each other. Some look very disoriented, while others just looked tired.
11:32: Even with the carefully selected techno-rock soundtrack inducing premature hearing loss in the first three rows, the sound of laptop keys clacking is clearly audible.
11:33: Game journalists in the audience exchange handshakes, waves, nods, and the occasional hostile stare.
11:33: Still more stragglers arriving. Apparently they got lost on the 200-foot section of Hollywood Boulevard lined with Microsoft banners.
11:34: One nervous usher waits patiently as a burly man well over 6 feet tall talks obliviously on his cell phone in the middle of the aisle.
11:35: A contingent of huge bodyguards in suits walks down the far left aisle of the theater. Could Gates be here?
11:36: Another reminder of the ban on photography. More flashes.
11:37: Another wave of attendees mills in. Apparently they were on a standby list, which Microsoft has opened up in order to fill all the seats.
11:38: "Ladies and gentlemen, take your seats, the show is about to begin," says the voice from the speakers. Sounds like a weird mix of Rick Moranis and Charlton Heston.
11:39: The huge screen in the front swirls with various gamer tags and the music dies.
11:40: SHOW BEGINS.
11:41: Gears of War trailer. It's a spectacular battle with a giant spider-like creature crushing people. Locust troopers rip apart humans. Insane firefight, blood and fire everywhere. No date given.
11:42: Cliffy B takes the stage to show off the first level of Gears; the mission has two human troopers trying to escape a hostile area. Cut to underground bunker, troopers then go up a stairwell to a ruined city for an airlift, but Locust troops everywhere.
11:43: Shotgun blast obliterates a Locust--blood EVERYWHERE. A close-up shotgun blast splatters another locus, and the lead trooper now in firefight in hall, bullets flying everywhere, frame rate slipping a tad. Another close-up shotgun blast rips a Locust apart. His severed arm plops onto a large stone.
11:45: Heat effects blur fire from the guns in Gears of War. It's these details and its visceral combat that evoke Halo. Close combat melee moves, shotguns to the face, and bullets, bullets, bullets are the plan to make this a hit with the kids.
11:46: Grenade blast takes out last of the Locusts, then the troopers emerge into open. Another firefight. More blood. Frame rate totally chugging at this point, but it's definitely real-time. Lead human trooper--Marcus--slaughters the last of the Locusts. Blood jets everywhere when he sticks his chainsaw bayonet into a Locust and rips him in half.
11:47: The ruined city of the game is in shambles. Enemies are relentless, as the oafish soldiers can take bullets with the best of them. The action is intense. This is the first level. I repeat, this is the first level. Marcus can shoot blindly from behind cover, as he spends most of his time moving from cover spot to cover spot. The AI looks fabulous.
11:48: A message over the troops' radios warns of movement below ground. Whole earth shakes, concrete snaps like peanut brittle, and a HUGE spider Locust comes out. Trailer ends with no release date. Cliffy B cedes the stage to Microsoft Corporate Vice President Peter Moore, who talks about "the most powerful next-generation experience...with the most spectacular games ever."
11:49: Moore talks organizational changes, says games are driving Microsoft's entire agenda. "Your lifestyle always takes center stage," he tells the crowd. He says the Xbox 360 generated more interest than anticipated. Jokes that 360 shortages were not due to consoles being hidden in Area 51. Few laugh.
11:50: At the end of May, Microsoft will have sold more than 5 million 360s, says Moore. He says the goal is to catch up to iPod in cultural significance. He gives more stats, notes three of top 10 March games were Xbox 360.
11:52: Moore says three pillars are "your lifestyle, your games, and your friends." Says 360 isn't a hub, it's a "gateway to all kinds of HD entertainment." Moore moves onto Xbox Live. Says it is the "one true unified gamespace." Friends lists, matchmaking--6 million members by next E3.
11:54: He says current attach rate for XBL is 57 percent, adds that Xbox Arcade is the secret to the success. Announces series of new games: Pac-Man, Contra, Galaga, Frogger, Sonic, Defender, Street Fighter II, Time Pilot, Ultimate Mortal Kombat 3, Rally-X, Dig Dug, Ms. Pac-Man, PaperBoy, and Root Beer Tapper.
11:56: Namco, Konami, Sega, and Midway are all on board the Xbox Live Arcade train. All arcade classics will have updated HD graphics, some will have online multiplayer. "With Xbox Live Arcade, we're doing for games what Sundance does for movies," says Moore. "We provide up-and-coming talent with a venue to show their skills." He adds that Lumines Live will be coming to the system, causing a stir in the audience.
11:58: Moore announces a deal with Warner Bros. Music to put music videos--Madonna shown as an example--in the background of Lumines Live.
11:57: Moore moves on to the "next wave of Xbox 360 games." As Jamiroquai's "Feels Just Like it Should" blares in the foreground, we see trailers for: Lost Planet, Table Tennis, Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway, Mass Effect, NHL 2K7, F.E.A.R., Too Human, Viva Piñata, MotoGP 06, Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-earth II, Sonic, Madden NFL 07, World Series of Poker, Saint's Row, WWE SmackDown!, Stranglehold, Enchanted Arms, Test Drive Unlimited, NCAA Football 07, Dead Rising, Dance Dance Revolution Universe, Prey, Superman Returns, NBA 2K7, Crackdown, Ninety-Nine Nights, and Gears of War.
12:01: Xbox 360 logo comes up to applause. Moore says by the holidays, there will be more than 160 Xbox 360 games.
12:02: Moore formally announces Fable 2, runs trailer showing sinister woods and a lady in a hat with one of those paper fortune-teller things from grade school. The Fable 2 logo comes up, so it seems the name is now official. It ends with an amazing montage of fire and shadow, and the Xbox 360 logo comes up to enthusiastic applause.
12:04: Moore thanks Molyneux, who's sitting in the front row. Molyneux smiles, but doesn’t get up. (Weighed down by pockets full of money, perhaps?)
12:05: Moore announces Forza Motorsport 2. A trailer goes up--insanely intense race featuring a BMW gives way to conceptual art montage, then fades back to race. Car driving shifts to exposed view showing disassembled engine, then back to race. Super-close-up of wheel well inside crash shows red-hot brake pad buckling. Forza 2 logo comes up.
12:06: Moore cites Forza's GameRankings score of 93 percent--then announces game will come out in this fall. And then announces first wireless steering wheel and...
12:07: Xbox 360 Camera, Xbox Vision, announced. Xbox Vision will have interoperability with World Series of Poker, allowing players to watch each other.
12:08: Moore introduces Sakaguchi as he talks up the importance of Japan. Rolls trailer. Shows kid piloting spaceship over battlefield crawling with cartoony robots--think Iron Giant gone bad. Blue Dragon logo comes up. Thunderous applause breaks out.
12:10: Blue Dragon available in Japan this year, says Moore. Announces new title for next Tecmo game--now officially Dead or Alive Xtreme 2. Says trailer will be available later this month.
12:11: Moore moves on to Tom Clancy games, gives Ubisoft props. Trailer for Double Agent comes up, shows Sam Fisher losing his job to go "deep undercover," shooting a thug in an alleyway, then parachuting into an Arctic base. A guard walks by, and Fisher comes up out of a snowdrift and slits his throat. Red liquid jets over fine white powder. Guy saying "I am Sam Fisher" is NOT Michael Ironside. Release date confirmed--this September.
12:13: Moore turns subject to Viva Piñata. Many in the audience snicker. MGS designer Jim Veevaert gets onstage to talk about game. Says the concept originated at Rare. Says goal is to tend to a little plot of land, which will attract wild, free-roaming piñatas. Bashing those piñatas with bats to harvest their candy entrails is apparently not part of the game.
12:18: However, according to Veevaert, buying and selling piñatas on Marketplace is part of the game. Players will be able to trade said piñatas and buy customization features. Shows the "scary" piñata, a red "Macaroon." Players can breed their piñatas by successfully completing a "romance dance" minigame that causes the piñatas to asexually reproduce. Those hoping for hot piñata-on-piñata action are visibly disappointed.
12:18: Moore moves subject to Xbox Live Marketplace--18 million downloads so far. As of today, more than 1,000 pieces of "downloadable content" are available. Moore says publishers like Marketplace, since it changes the way people buy and play the game. He also says Fight Night Round 3 demo led to a fivefold increase in preorders of the game. He mentions content partners: Epic Records, Paramount, 20th Century Fox, Lionsgate.
12:20: Moore announces first TV show on XBL Marketplace, the Gears of War experience, will be available tomorrow.
12:21: Moore whips out Xbox 360 HD-DVD peripheral--it looks like a mini-Xbox 360 with a black front. The name is "Xbox 360 Player" and it will be available this holiday season.
12:22: "Major announcement about one of greatest franchises of all time." Says it's so exciting that he has to take his shirt off. Shows Halo 2 tattoo on one arm--GRAND THEFT AUTO IV tattoo on the other arm.
12:25: "Microsoft and Rockstar have entered into an exclusive deal to provide episodic content via Xbox Live Marketplace," says Moore. Grand Theft Auto IV will be updated with regular fresh content, more details later. Crowd is stunned, gasps all around.
12:25: Subject turns to PC gaming, Crytek developer gets onstage to show off "Windows exclusive" Crysis.
12:30: Demo of Crysis: Soldier goes into darkened room, comes out to night sky filled with smoke and fire. A HUGE metal walker--think the War of the Worlds tripods on steroids--is laying waste to the landscape. It is surrounded by smaller walkers who attack the human soldiers. Humans hammer away at a big walker with rocket launchers. It eventually goes down in flames.
12:31: Moore says Crysis will run on Windows XP and Windows Vista, contrary to some reports.
12:31: Demo footage from games: Crysis, Age of Conan. Slick graphic shows orange tree and tagline "evolved." Moore talks up Vista, says it has "more options for games than ever before."
12:33: Moore talks about more "dual releases like Elder Scrolls IV" for Xbox 360 and PC, and cues up trailer for Shadowrun. The trailer shows a lot of combat with elves and orcs with assault weapons fighting magic-using humans in burnt-out city.
12:36: Release date--next January, "right alongside Windows Vista." Trailer shown for second Vista/360 dual release, Alan Wake. Microsoft publishing now, apparently.
12:38: Alan Wake clip shows sun setting on town, Alan Wake running around in darkness. Moore confirms game will be published by Microsoft, exclusively for Windows and Xbox 360. Bill Gates takes stage! He's here to present the future of gaming...
12:39: Gates talks about how he loves playing Xbox Live Arcade games with his kids. Then he starts talking about big-picture things, about how games will be extended to all platforms--PC, mobile, Xbox 360 ... Something major seems in the offing.
12:40: Gates says Microsoft's goal is to make "gaming appeal to people of all ages" and expand the market.
12:41: Gates predicts that Xbox 360 will have a 10 million-unit head start on its competitors, then talks up Live--how that buddy list facilitates community. He says that when you include mobile phone users, the potential gamer population is 1 billion.
12:44: Gates announces new platform--"Live Anywhere." Will be part of Windows Vista--will have one user interface, one identity, one friends list, one message center, one marketplace. Same as Xbox Live 360, same interface, embedded in Windows.
12:45: Gates talks up mobile phone gaming, says there's a "lot of opportunity."
12:48: Gates says Live Anywhere will extend to mobile phones but is vague on specifics. He claims that Microsoft is the only company in the world capable of such an undertaking.
12:51: Scot Henson, director of platform strategy for Xbox and Windows, takes the stage to show off Live Anywhere. Starts up game of Shadowrun, connects with friends list--which shows whether his friends are on a PC, Xbox 360, or mobile phone. He sends a message to Major Nelson, who is working on a Vista PC. On the right-hand side is his friends list, just like in Xbox 360--GamerTag is on there, too. Henson says achievements on any platform will add to one single gamer score, and the GamerTag will be the same, too.
12:53: Live Anywhere will have the same reputation anywhere, says Henson. He then pulls out a Motorola Q cell phone with Windows Mobile. The phone has the Xbox Arcade games he downloaded on his Xbox 360 on his phone. He plays a game of Zuma. Then he plays a music video he downloaded onto his Xbox 360 on his phone. The phone menu also has a movie option for "X-Men."
12:54: I get the official Rockstar Games announcement of Grand Theft Auto IV in my e-mail--it says that the game will be released simultaneously on Xbox 360 and PS3. Moore said it was coming to 360 first. What the...?
12:55: Moore gets on stage and gives recap. Says games will all be playable, then Gates says, "Hey Peter, let's play these people a snippet of a game they might like to see..." Crowd goes wild, trailer comes up. Halo theme plays, scene of a war-torn wasteland. Long figure can be seen through the smoke. MASTER CHIEF WALKS OUT. Cortana appears in weird static-y overlays, talking about the end of the world. Humankind, we have a problem...
12:59: Camera pans over to show GIGANTIC Covenant dropship in sky ... not one, dozens of them. Sky now swarming with banshees over giant crater that is actually a giant Forerunner gateway--the gateway lights up, screen goes white, HALO 3 LOGO APPEARS.
1:00: Crowd goes ballistic. Lights come up and the conference is over.
1:01: Crowd gets up to leave, but weird audio recording comes over PA. Female voice asks "Master Chief to pick up white courtesy phone," and urges people not to feed any "grunts they might encounter." Then she says "The Locust horde has a scheduled attack at 3 p.m. in this venue." Some laughter can be heard from the throng.
1:02: CONFERENCE ENDS.
For another angle on the Microsoft press conference, check out Senior Editor Jeff Gerstmann's live blog.