Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Sony and Microsoft Keynotes: Two out of E3 Ain’t Bad

E3-logoThe Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, is this week. You may have heard.

It’s tough to find an analogue for E3 in other industries. It’s not an awards ceremony, so toss out the Oscars, etc. It’s not really a celebration of daring new work, so toss out the movie festival circuit. It’s not community-oriented, so toss out your PAXes and your Star Trek cons or what-have-you.

E3 is a commercial. A week-long commercial for what’s coming next in the videogame industry. And because people are actually there and can actually get their hands on the games, it’s sort of like an interactive infomercial.

What would an infomercial be without the peddlers? The suits, the celebrity guests, the enthusiastic extras paid to communicate to the audience just how freakin’ awesome the product on display is.

E3 didn’t officially open until today, yet already a number of companies have delivered their annual keynote addresses. Hit the jump for some reactions to two of the big three: Sony and Microsoft.

Sony – Dust Yourself Off and Get Back on the Horse

As I said last week, Sony was sporting quite the albatross pendant coming into yesterday’s press event. The PlayStation Network outage had garnered Sony a few weeks of bad press as people fretted about stolen credit card numbers followed by a few days of good press when they turned PSN back on and gave away a game or two.

psnCEO of Sony’s American division Jack Tretton didn’t linger on the issue. He thanked brick-and-mortar retailers for shouldering the burden of selling PlayStation games while the PSN Store was down. He thanked the fans for staying fans. And he playfully told the press that they blew the outage out of proportion because they enjoy controversy. Canny spin or odd way to kick off a press conference? You decide.

Tretton then paid lip service to the largest video subscription service in the United States by touting the PlayStation 3 as the preferred platform for Netflix streaming. He cited a study pegging PS3 usage at around 30% of total Netflix streaming traffic. Preaching to the choir aside (my Twitter feed includes a large number of game journos who regularly discuss their Netflix activity), it’s a nice figure for the investors in the audience. As we shift further and further away from traditional business models for video content, being on the lead platform seems like a good idea.

Sony then went into full-on “We got games. You like games, right?” mode, reminding everyone about Uncharted 3, Resistance 3, an HD/3D collection of the God of War PlayStation Portable games, an HD/3D collection of Team ICO’s games, inFamous 2 (which came out today, weird), and Starhawk. New announcements included another entry in the Sly Cooper franchise and an exclusive massive-multiplayer shooter called Dust 514, which will tie into MMO-cum-alternate-universe EVE Online.

Undercutting the game-centric excitement a bit was the myriad of PlayStation Move announcements. I’m sorry, Kobe Bryant can’t get me pumped about an NBA 2k12 (newsflash: the “k” has ceased to be a shortcut) where you point-and-click with the Move to pass the ball around. That feels like a step back. Also, Medieval Moves: Deadmund’s Quest is…a thing. To be precise, it’s an on-rails hack-and-slash exclusive to the Move. Again, that name is Medieval Moves: Deadmund’s Quest.

Sony cares about 3D. I don’t. Enough said there.

In a scene eerily similar to last year’s Portal 2 for PS3 announcement with Valve’s Gabe Newell, Sony then brought out Irrational Games’ Ken Levine to announce PlayStation-specific plans for his upcoming game BioShock Infinite. Courting third-parties like this is crucial for Sony, who lost so much ground early on this generation to Microsoft on those big cross-platform games.

Much like Newell, Levine admitted his previous negative opinions of Sony’s platform (specifically the Move). Also much like Newell, Levine then proceeded to devour his words without bothering to chew. BioShock Infinite will come to the PS3 with Move support and the original BioShock packed in for free. Plus, there will be a BioShock-related game for Sony’s new handheld (Will it be a new Pipe Dream?). Consider Levine part of the born-again Sony faithful.

PlayStation VitaSpeaking of Sony’s new handheld, it has a name: the PlayStation Vita. It’s not the best name, but we live in a world with the Wii and the Xbox 360; Vita is just fine by comparison. Sony president and group CEO Kaz Hirai announced that AT&T would be the exclusive carrier for the portable’s 3G connection. You’d think Sony would be a little less proud of the partnership given how much noise Apple made when they stopped seeing AT&T exclusively.

The Vita contains a lot of tech. Cameras, touchscreens, two analog sticks, 3G, and more. Vita owners can voice chat with each other anytime, anywhere, regardless of what game they’re playing. (Funny that cross-game chat made it to the Vita before the PS3.) They can save certain games on the Cloud and play them on their PS3 later. All for $299 (the Wi-fi only version is $249.)

Sony’s thrown down the gauntlet at Nintendo. At $249 price point, the Vita can compete directly with Nintendo’s 3DS, which isn’t selling up to early projections. Assuming there’s an audience for a high-tech handheld that isn’t a phone (Sony already has a PlayStation phone, in case hadn’t heard), the Vita has a rich future ahead of it. That’s a big assumption to make, however, in an age of smartphones and tablets.

Sony showed some savvy this year. Big games were given proper billing. Tech was pushed, but not overpriced. Another big-name third-party developer was brought into the fold. The Move was mentioned, but not belabored. After a rough few months, Sony looks to be in good shape.

Microsoft – KINECT KINECT KINECT KINECT HALO

Microsoft blew out all the stops for Kinect last year. As part of their big name reveal, they hired Cirque du Soleil performers to confuse a lot of audience members by making them wear light-up ponchos and watch fake families play fake sports. Then a little girl played with a virtual tiger named Skittles and a series of equally painful tech demos followed.

A year and nearly ten million units later, Microsoft’s still struggling to fit Kinect into its overall mission. Wisely, they waited before diving headlong into Kinect-specific news.

kinect530msoffAs if to preemptively compensate for over thirty minutes of Kinect talk, Microsoft led off with Modern Warfare 3, the newest Call of Duty game from Infinity Ward (who had help from Sledgehammer Games). After the trailer ended, Infinity Ward spokesperson Robert Bowling took the stage alongside Sledgehammer co-found Glen Schofield. Schofield used the words “big” and “epic” and “ever” to describe MW3. Call of Duty in a nutshell, folks.

The announcement of a new Tomb Raider title was followed by a slew of Kinect announcements disguised as third-party game announcements. Four EA sports titles will include Kinect support this year. Because sports simulations are the perfect venue for imprecise movement controls.

Mass Effect 3 proved another Trojan horse. Players will be able to use Kinect’s voice recognition to activate dialogue and combat options. I don’t want this. If I thought this level of “accessibility” would help sell copies of Mass Effect 3 and support its developer BioWare, I wouldn’t say a word. But. Microsoft just dedicated the majority of their presser to reselling us on Kinect. It’s potential impact on ME3 sales is minimal. If this was the cause for the delay, I take back (most of) what I said.

“All future titles in the Tom Clancy franchise will leverage Kinect,” said Ubisoft’s Yves Guillemot after a Ghost Recon: Future Soldier demo. Somewhere, Rob is crying, “Didn’t you guys learn anything from EndWar?”

Microsoft VP Marc Whitten then unveiled the new Xbox dashboard. It’s fully voice- and Kinect-enabled. There’s YouTube and Bing. Live television arrives this fall. A UFC app will let you watch ultimate fighting, too. Xbox: Doing More Things You Don’t Need It To Do. No word on pricing for any of the live TV stuff, either.

Gears of Wars 3 exists. Microsoft is excited to sell you a copy. Forza 4, too.

They are also excited to sell you Kinect games if you’re willing to buy them: Star Wars Kinect, Kinect Sports: Season 2, Minecraft, Dance Central 2, Fable: The Journey (an on-rails magic shooter in the Fable universe), Tim Schafer’s cute-looking Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster, Disneyland Adventures…

Wait, go back a few lines. That’s right: Minecraft. The not-so-little-anymore indie game that could will come to consoles exclusively on the Xbox 360 with Kinect support. Minecraft’s creator Notch said via Twitter that the 360 team was separate from his core group at Mojang, so don’t expect this to tie neatly into your Minecraft profile or anything. This was easily the biggest surprise of the hour.

Kinect Fun Labs, goofy name aside, is Microsoft admitting that screwing around with Kinect tech is easily the biggest appeal of the hardware. Various Fun Labs programs will allow detailed finger-tracking, Avatar creation through Kinect, and scanning of real-world objects to create virtual equivalents. Everyone who used ChatRoulette for inappropriate mischief: Microsoft just opened a new playground for you.masterchief

Microsoft tried to wake up those yawning through the Kinect presentations with a double-shot of Halo. Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary is the long-awaited HD remake of the first game to star everyone’s favorite Master of Chiefs. The keynote closed with a teaser for Halo 4, which is being developed by 343 Industries, not Halo creators Bungie Studios.

Though it by all accounts lacked the awkward of last year’s conference, Microsoft’s keynote feels like a high-budget direct-to-DVD sequel. It had everything you expected: Halo, Gears of War, third-party name-dropping, and loads of Kinect. Not great, but not bad, either – except that Mass Effect 3 Kinect stuff. That sounds ridiculous.

Big thanks to the Internet for covering this thing live so I could write about it. Our E3 coverage will continue thanks to the intrepid Andrew Pankin, who is attending on our behalf. Check back throughout the week for our reactions to Nintendo’s speech and other madness from E3!