LOS ANGELES--The annual Electronic Entertainment Expo is the most important three days in gaming. But E3 key events actually come before it opens its doors on Wednesday. For years, the so-called "Big Three" game console makers--Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony--have unveiled their latest hardware and software. Like the knights of old, the bitter foes unsheathed their weapons at agreed-upon times as an unspoken courtesy. Microsoft typically held its pre-E3 press event on the Monday night before E3, Sony just hours earlier on that day, and Nintendo early the following morning.
However, in war it's imperative to expect the unexpected.
Several months ago, after Microsoft announced that it would hold its press conference on Monday night as usual, Sony broke with tradition. The Japanese publisher slipped into a 3:00pm slot on the same day as Microsoft's conference, which was scheduled to kick off just hours later. The new timing meant that journalists attending the Sony conference would have to rush to the Microsoft event. And because Microsoft also held its party right after its conference, tipplers at the event would come to Nintendo's conference the next morning with a hangover.
Going into the events, the conventional wisdom said that Microsoft and Sony would be going toe-to-toe. Toward the end of last year, Xbox sales spiked, thanks to the tremendous popularity of Halo 2 and the growing Xbox Live memberships. Sony, which had experienced a slip in the rankings late last year for the first time since its PlayStation debuted, knew that in order to regain dominance of the market, it would have to make a huge impression at E3 and steal as much of the Xbox 360's thunder as it could. The fact that Microsoft announced that its console would be launching this year only raised the stakes for Sony, which had been almost totally silent about its next-generation console plans.
Nintendo, on the other hand, still relies on its rabid fan base--which at times appears to be fading, and at others times seems to be coming out of the walls. Nintendo still rules the portable market and owns some of the most successful franchises in gaming history.
With projections of the next generation of consoles incorporating a variety of entertainment functions, Sony used its multimedia muscle and hosted its press conference at its Sony Pictures Studios in Culver City. Guests and media were treated to a regimented check-in procedure. Several Sony reps sat patiently in booths, with fragments of the alphabet posted above them, like a living encyclopedia of gaming journalists. After finding the rep handling the appropriate attendees' surnames, a flash of an ID was all it took to get an admittance badge.
The waiting area was not for kids on their way to fat camp. Carnival fare was prominently displayed, and included donuts, churros, cocktail weenies wrapped in light croissants, and an assortment of ice cream treats. Sure there were some questionable-looking tacos and various ethnic wraps, but the binge-and-crash nature of E3 calls for mass amounts of sugar and/or Red Bull to be on hand at all times.
Inside the large sound stage, the sights impressed. The space comfortably held a couple thousand people, with plenty of room to spare. The stage was adorned by five large rectangular screens, one giant one as the centerpiece, and four acting as satellites. Each screen, along with center screen's dual-layered border and a large circular screen that hung overhead, gradually changed colors, evoking thoughts of soothing psychedelic screensavers. As the throng filed in, carefully selected down-tempo music played over the booming sound system.
Trouble is, the music played much longer than expected. Though the event was slated to begin at 3pm, over half an hour later the mellow beats were no longer soothing the increasingly anxious audience. While conferences almost always start late, many in the crowd murmured that Sony was deliberately stalling in order to make it harder for those present to make it to Microsoft's event on time.
Finally, around 3:45pm, things got under way. Sony briefly touted its history as a gaming and electronics giant before getting into what everyone wanted to hear about: the PlayStation 3. Many of the presentations were delivered by Sony's top brass straight from Japan, including the recently demoted Sony Computer Entertainment generalissimo Ken Kutaragi and technical officer Masa Chatani. Despite the broken English of many presenters, the sheer magnitude of the PS3's technical specifications impressed even laypeople. Sure, around half the audience probably didn't know the difference between Tara Reid and a teraflop going in--but after the event, they knew it was a big deal.
Sony was clearly trying to out-tech its competitors with demos of the PS3's Cell technology and Unreal Engine 3. But the real flaunting came with the game demos. No one expected so many demos to be ready--nearly a dozen were shown, including EA's Fight Night Round 3, Polyphony's Vision Gran Turismo, Evolution Studios' MotorStorm, Namco's Tekken 6, Ubisoft's Killing Day, and a Warhawk remake. However, by far the biggest surprise was a dazzlingly brutal display of Guerilla's follow-up to Killzone. Billed as a "Halo killer" for the PlayStation 2, the first Killzone crashed and burned with critics--many of the same critics who were soon speculating that its PS3 follow-up could be a Halo 3 killer. But while the fiery carnage was jaw-dropping, doubts remain about how much Killzone 2's final gameplay will resemble its flashy demos.
Sony had also done the near-impossible: keep the highly coveted PS3 almost totally secret for years. This stood in stark contrast to Microsoft's efforts to keep details about the 360 quiet, which were about as effective as trying to bail water with a colander. Of course, that's assuming that the Xbox 360 spec leaks were indeed unintentional, and not another viral marketing campaign.
The fact that nearly nothing was known about the PlayStation 3 gave its unveiling added force. That force was felt hardest at Microsoft's unveiling Monday night, which also began later than expected (undoubtedly to assure that journalists from the Sony conference made it). To call it an unveiling would be incorrect, since the console had been shown to the world the previous week via a rather anticlimactic television special on May 12.
The MTV special and its "hip" atmosphere was a perfect window into Microsoft's strategy: mass marketing. It wants everyone to know about the 360, so that when it comes out this holiday season ahead of its competitors, it'll sell. And with a television special on MTV featuring alterna-pop artists The Killers and Snow Patrol, Microsoft is clearly trying to recruit the "cool" young crowd in hopes that everyone else follows.
So where does a company billing a product as the next pop-culture icon hold a press conference in Los Angeles? The Shrine Auditorium, home of the Academy Awards, of course. But those arriving got anything but the red carpet treatment.
Entrance into Microsoft's press conference was, in short, a disaster. In lengthier terms, it was like Thanksgiving holiday airline travel on "free airfare day." To say that the lines were long would be a misnomer. Lines are a series of carefully placed connected dots--these "lines" were an amorphous blob, with extremities jutting all over. More than one attendee noted "if their console is anything like this setup, they [Microsoft] are in trouble."
Once in the auditorium, guests were treated to a fantastic stage set. The stage was circular, continuing the 360-degree-design motif that first emerged at Microsoft corporate vice president and Chief XNA architect J Allard's GDC keynote. The circular stage, pitched forward like a spinning plate stuck in suspended animation, dominated the center of the auditorium, with the customary huge television screen behind it.
In contrast to Sony's almost meditative preshow atmosphere, Microsoft chose a MTV-like setting. Speakers blared high-energy drum 'n' bass tunes, and lights spewed out various phrases such as "fame, meet infamy," "hurt those close to you," and "there's always someone better than you; be that someone." Camera crews even roamed the audience, displaying images of visitors on the JumboTron.
The effect apparently worked, as the whooping and hollering during prize announcements evidenced (although one had to wonder about the TRL-like crowd strategically placed behind the hosts). The overall feeling of the show was much more pep rally than business meeting, with special guests like Microsoft bigwigs Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer parodying two slackers talking about the 360 while waiting in line to see the upcoming Star Wars movie via video, and Oakland Raiders tackle Robert Gallery delivering EA's library of Xbox 360 titles.
The Xbox's holy trinity of personnel--Allard, chief Xbox officer Robbie Bach, and worldwide Xbox marketing VP Peter Moore--took playful jabs at each other (Allard even poked fun at Gates) throughout the event, keeping the air jovial. But when it came down to talking about business, the brass was all…well, business. Confident, they forewent any talk of processor numbers or teraflops, and kept it strictly to market strategy.
Microsoft has always made it clear that they want the Xbox 360 to appeal to the hardcore and casual gamer alike. And with its well-outlined demonstrations of Xbox Live, the system's cornerstone and the industry's most well-planned online service to date, Microsoft's plan is obvious: advertise the machine as a multimedia-monger.
That said, the night's "big news" wasn't that big at all. Namely, it was that Microsoft had once again enlisted another major Japanese developer, Square Enix, to support the Xbox. But Square Enix's first game for the new console isn't new at all--it was the massively multiplayer role-playing game Final Fantasy XI. While the news will bring cheer to the hearts of Xbox 360 buyers, PlayStation 2 and PC owners have literally been there and done that.
Once the presentation ended, Microsoft decided it was time to party like a rock star...by trotting out some rock stars in the form of the Killers (again) and the Chemical Brothers. Camera crews also roamed the crowd, asking attendees what they thought of the Xbox 360. But while some raved about the machine, a few fanboys were definitely in the mix. Shouted one into the camera, "I think Sony's gonna kick Microsoft's ass!"
The next morning, the hundreds-strong mass of game journalists, industry analysts, and frothing nerds once again gathered to see Nintendo write the final chapter of the E3 big-three showdown. After waiting over a half hour, the company finally let the increasingly restless throng into a fifth-floor theater at the Highland Complex on Hollywood Boulevard. Once loose, the crowd overran a modest breakfast buffet before packing the hall. So many jammed the venue the announcer beseeched the crowd--twice--to clear the aisles or the fire marshal would not allow the event to proceed.
Nintendo's press conference had the challenging task of upstaging both Microsoft and Sony. The company knew it had to counter with a next-gen announcement of its own, or concede.
Nintendo sure came out swinging, with Reggie Fils-Aime, chief marketing officer of Nintendo, talking tough and president Satoru Iwata making heavily accented "Who's your daddy?" jokes. They touted Nintendo's record--some two billion games sold--and the fact it still controls 90 percent of the handheld market. They played up Nintendo's strong commitment to gameplay, and how, for all their "talk about numbers" and performance, Microsoft and Sony could never capture the "heart of a gamer." The crowd cheered the executives on with a fervor more akin to a religious revival than an industry event.
It's a good thing that Nintendo fans are believers, because they'll have to take most of Nintendo's next-gen console on faith. With little fanfare and much applause, Iwata whipped out a nonfunctional prototype of the Revolution. He did not offer any tech demos or divulge any specifications, and he did not show the unit's controller, which some rumors say is where the true "revolution" lies. "Please allow me to keep this part of the Revolution a mystery," Iwata asked the adoring throng.
However, Iwata drew thunderous applause for what he did reveal about the Revolution. After years of forgoing online capability, Iwata did promise that the system would go online, namely, it will have a free online service like Xbox Live, built-in Wi-Fi, and wireless controllers, and it will arrive next year.
He said several games were in development for the device, including Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles and Dragon Quest. A brief Metroid Prime 3 trailer was shown as well, and the crowd went berserk when Iwata said that "new versions of Zelda and Mario" would be released for the platform--as well as an online version of Super Smash Bros.--at launch. But the biggest applause came when Iwata announced that any user of the Revolution services would be able to download classic games from Nintendo's enormous library, a draw that will surely attract old-school gamers that are now in the prime 18-to-34 demographic.
However, that was just talk, and with little to show in terms of next-gen hardware and technology, Nintendo decided to gain attention by sneaking in the back door. By essentially letting Sony and Microsoft draw all the console attention this year, Nintendo focused on its bread and butter: handhelds. The announcement of the DS's online capabilities and the introduction of the Game Boy Micro were both big pluses for the company, who otherwise would have been the odd man out.
Coming into this year's E3, Nintendo knew it was the underdog, and more importantly, knew that others thought it was the underdog. The company's speakers did the right thing by speaking confidently and assuring their hardcore fan base that Nintendo wasn't going anywhere.
And the winner is...
Both Sony and Nintendo have been the top dog in the console gaming industry. Now, thanks to Halo 2, Microsoft now has become the clear second-place console manufacturer, owning around 25 percent of the market, according to analysts. It's likely that each company will be able to claim victories down the road, retaining parity in this ever-changing battle for dominance. But fanboys shouldn't worry about their favorite. When companies compete by delivering big blows back and forth, these great offerings--such as the tech-heavy PlayStation 3, community-friendly Xbox 360, the portable freedom of Nintendo's handhelds, and the Revolution wild card--don't mark victories for the companies that seek them; they mark victories for the gamers.
That said, when laid out side by side, there was only one winner of the war of the E3 2005 press conferences: Sony. Even the most rabid Nintendan or Microsoftie had to admire its plan of attack, taken directly from Sun Tzu's playbook. "One who is skilled at making the enemy move does so by creating a situation, according to which the enemy will act," said the Chinese philosopher-general. "He entices the enemy with something he is certain to want. He keeps the enemy on the move by holding out bait and then attacks him with picked troops." Having drawn out Microsoft to act first to try to capture the multibillion-dollar next-gen console market, Sony countered masterfully with a dazzling and totally unexpected display of game technology. Now it's up to Nintendo to strike back.