LOS ANGELES - As part of its first appearance as a console manufacturer at the annual Electronic Entertainment Exposition (E3), Microsoft held its pre-E3 press conference this morning to unveil the pricing, network strategy, launch date, and software plans for its upcoming Xbox video game console. The Xbox will be launched in North America on November 8, 2001, with a retail price of $299 and 15 to 20 launch titles. Between 600,000 to 800,000 units will be available at launch, with 1 to 1.5 million units available by the holidays. The system will be released in Japan in the fall, but the price and exact date were not announced. The focus of the press conference was clearly on software, not the actual hardware. In a coy semantic maneuver, presenters spoke of the wonders of the Xbox as exemplified by the software we were seeing in action, instead of in terms of tech-heavy hardware specifications. Microsoft will produce 30-35 percent of the content for the system, and it is working with about 200 third-party developers to give the Xbox "the breadth to cover all the major genres." Microsoft's "chief Xbox officer," Robbie Bach, said the company will offer games of all types to all ages and added, "We're not going to focus on just the kid titles, like Nintendo does." About 80 games are currently in development, with about 40 of those coming from third-party developers.
Jumping to the subject of Microsoft's online plans for the Xbox, Bach likened online gaming's potential to change the gaming industry to what MTV did for the music industry in the '80s and added, "Online has to be easy. Fast, secure, and easy for people to get connected." He continued by reinforcing that consumers will not have to buy anything extra--it's all there in the box. Bach mentioned three types of innovations the Xbox will bring to online games. For the first, he used online basketball games as an example. In them, he explained, you won't just play offense or defense; you'll play as individual players in individual positions--even the ref.
Another promise of online content fell into the episodic content realm. Bach described such concepts as unique (the idea that the game should really never end), but we have seen similar innovation in current online titles already on the market.
The third area of online innovation is voice communication. Bach announced a peripheral called the Xbox Communicator, which will let gamers truly "communicate" when playing games. He added that the Xbox is not about e-mail and text, but about voice.
The Xbox will ship with an Ethernet adapter that will allow for broadband online gaming and a 10GB hard drive for downloading new levels, characters, and more. Microsoft did not offer a jazzy name for its Xbox network yet, but Bach revealed that more than 25 major industry partners have agreed to join the Xbox's online structure. These companies include Sega, Activision, Eidos, Infogrames, and THQ, among others.
Sega president Peter Moore took the stage and further clarified the company's support of the Xbox, talking about Sega as a proud pioneer of online console gaming. He pointed out that exactly one year ago today, he was on stage showing the Dreamcast's online plans, and today, they are taking it to the next level with an adversary turned good friend, Microsoft. Moore didn't comment further on Gun Valkyrie, Jet Grind Radio Future, and Panzer Dragoon, which were announced at the spring Tokyo Game Show, but instead focused on Sega Sports and Sega's plans for four online sports titles this year in the NFL, NBA, World Series Baseball, and NCAA franchises, all with new features and online advancements. These games will be available in the fall, but the network play features will not be available until the 2K3 editions. Moore ended by addressing whether online play is a critical part of the industry's advancement. "You bet your ass," he concluded. Sega also announced that it is currently developing House of the Dead 3 and Crazy Taxi Next, both of which will be premiering on the Xbox.
Bach also announced that Microsoft, Steven Spielberg, and Warner have an exclusive console development agreement, and the first product of this relationship will be based on the upcoming Spielberg film, AI. Bach continued by pointing out that Microsoft is also the exclusive developer and publisher of Bruce Lee games, as well as a partner with TDK for games based on the Shrek movie.
Next Bach introduced the managing director and head of R&D for Capcom, Yoshiki Okamoto. Okamoto talked about how "the powerful Xbox" will let Capcom developers "make their dreams come true." He continued by saying that they will be able to "emphasize characters in a game as in a movie." Capcom will deliver three games exclusive to Xbox "soon." This list includes a redesigned version of Onimusha for the Xbox, Dino Crisis 3, and Brainbox, a robot simulator game using a "large controller."
Oddworld Inhabitants' Lorne Lanning started the Xbox address, speaking of Oddworld Inhabitants' inception in the 32-bit PlayStation era, the company's hopeful future with the Xbox, and Oddworld's ability to move into its true vision with the new system. Lanning delivered a demo of Munch's Oddysee running on the Xbox. He spoke of the company's vision for the series and all the features and treatments they wanted their games to have. "To do this, it meant a lot more horsepower," he explained. "The Xbox provided the memory to make more interesting things happen." Lanning said Oddworld Inhabitants were in a serious depression over not being able to make this happen. "But then the Xbox came along," he said.
The game demo brings the traditional 2D platform series to an entire new dimension, which many fans of the series have been waiting for. Bach then took the stage after Lorne, announcing the Xbox's release date and details. He then quickly jumped back into the software presentation.
The second game to demo was Bungie's Halo. A single-player mission was shown, wherein you fight as a Marine against an alien force known as the Covenant. The battle scenario shown took place as a manual combat display on a beach. Eidos' Mad Dash Adventure Racing was shown next. It's a combat racing game offering single-player and four-player multiplayer play.
The next speaker was EA's Louis Castle. He began by speaking about the EA Sports products, such as Madden, that will find their way to the Xbox. He then presented to the audience the company's new epic adventure game, Pirates of Skull Cove, and spoke of how the Xbox gave the game's developers the tools they needed to create this epic world with the greatest detail possible through cell shadowing and other graphical features.
Tomonobu Itagaki next presented Dead or Alive 3. The demo was shown was in real time, not rendered sequences, so what was shown was an example of the quality of graphical environments featured in the actual game. Itagaki ended with, "Please look forward to being able to play Dead or Alive 3 on your own."
Bach ended the press conference by telling the audience about the 80 games being shown at E3, some behind closed doors and many on the show floor for journalists and showgoers to see and play. Of the online games mentioned, Microsoft will have Halo, NASCAR Heat Network, and Tony Hawk 2X running at its booth. We'll have more later on the Xbox and all the games mentioned in this story.