You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Microsoft's press conference was the first of E3 2012, putting it in an advantageous position to set the bar by which other conferences would be measured. And although Microsoft faltered at times, the strong opening of its show generated a great deal of excitement around games that Xbox owners care about. And when they drifted from games, it was to showcase technology that might end up having a significant impact on how people use their smartphones, tablets, and Xboxes in the long term. It was this combination of core gaming appeal and significant consumer-focused advancements that put Microsoft at the head of the pack in a year of underwhelming pressers.
Microsoft started the show with a showstopper: a revealing gameplay demo for Halo 4 that gave us lots of reasons to be excited about the new game. It presented Halo 4 as more than a new sequel in an established franchise; it made the game look like something of a fresh start for the series, with a setting and enemies that are wildly different from those that Master Chief has faced in the past.
After that rousing opening, Don Mattrick came out and spouted some typical market-speak about game lineups, entertainment partners, and, of course, the power of the Kinect. This could have brought the show to a screeching halt, but instead, he kept it short, the lights went down again, and the still-lingering momentum generated by the Halo demo carried over into another surprising showing, this one for Splinter Cell: Blacklist. By front-loading their conference with this one-two punch of action that appeals to the core gaming crowd, Microsoft generated enough excitement to carry us through the dull but necessary talk of new video partners, games with Kinect features, and the like.
And as my colleague Tom Mc Shea has pointed out, Microsoft's handling of the Kinect was much smarter this year than it has been in the past. Rather than demonstrations of motion controls crammed into games where they didn't make sense, what we saw this year was mostly sensible voice options, like the ability to call audibles in Madden 13. When motion controls were demoed, as for the downloadable game Wreckateer, they made sense; that game is built from the ground up to take advantage of the Kinect and to fit well with the device's control limitations.
Then, there was SmartGlass. Some may balk at the amount of time Microsoft devoted to something whose gaming-related applications seem lacking, but it was an unexpected demonstration of some useful technology that speaks volumes about how Microsoft's philosophy differs from those of its competitors. It's a fact of modern life: smartphones and tablets aren't going anywhere, and Microsoft doesn't make the most of them. Rather than ignoring this fact or trying to fight it, MS is capitalizing on it, fusing these ubiquitous technologies to your entertainment experiences with Xbox.
The ability to start watching a show or film on a smart device and then continue it on your television sounds like a natural progression--the sort of development that, in a few years, we might take for granted and wonder how we ever did without it. And with shows like Game of Thrones that have complex geography or intricate plotlines, the supplemental information SmartGlass gives you easy access to can definitely enrich your understanding and enjoyment. Nothing in Nintendo's conference or Sony's conference took a wider view of the entertainment landscape quite like this, presenting something that could have a significant impact on how we use the things we use every day.
From that point on, Microsoft kept things moving along nicely, with plenty of stuff that people who play games are interested in, including a fast-paced action sequence from Tomb Raider and a fantastic trailer for South Park: The Stick of Truth. (Trey Parker and Matt Stone brought some much-needed levity to what had been a thoroughly stuffy conference up to that point.) Ultimately, Microsoft's presser struck a smart balance between things we know we want (New Halo!) and things we don't know we want, but that we may find essential in the near future.'