E3: Microsoft Press Conference
Now that E3 is over, let’s take some time to look at what came out of it this year, shall we?
This year, the show opened with the Microsoft press conference, and boy was it a non-stop rollercoaster ride of Kinect, sequels, Kinect, Smart Glass, Kinect and Usher. Yes, that Usher.
In the run-up to this year’s E3, I considered approaching Andrew with the idea of doing a liveblog of the various press conferences. Shortly after the conference finished, I tweeted Andrew that this would have been a mistake, as the resulting article would probably have been unpublishable.
After a new trailer for Halo 4, which combined live action and in-game footage, we were subjected to the first of many directors, executives, and developers struggling to appear relaxed and nonchalant while praying their teleprompter wouldn’t break down. Of course, we immediately launched into a reminder of just how awesome Xbox is, having moved from the number 1 console in the US to the number 1 console in the world this year.
The two main things to take away from the press conference are Kinect and Smart Glass. Kinect is the Xbox peripheral that combines motion-sensing and voice-recognition technology. It’s been out for a couple of years now, and while it’s certainly made some waves, it hasn’t quite taken off as well as Microsoft probably expected it to. That’s not to say the system doesn’t have potential, or doesn’t promise great things; it does, it’s just not there yet.
Never let it be said that Microsoft is willing to admit defeat though. They were pimping Kinect hard throughout the conference; I think only Halo 4 came without the mention of Kinect functionality. Everything else was “better with Kinect” or “enhanced with Kinect voice recognition”, and much was made of the “power of Xbox and magic of Kinect.”
In short: Kinect, Kinect, Kinect.
Smart Glass however, I’ll grudgingly admit, has some potential. In short, it’s a way of controlling your Xbox from your Windows smartphone or tablet. At its best, it appears as a way to offer content and information in multiple ways simultaneously. At its worse it looks like an excuse to constantly pause the movie or show you’re watching while your phone or tablet grabs your attention. A few examples were given of it in action, or at least of concept video of it in action.
We saw concept video of how the system might work with Halo 4, bonus lore and background info unlocking as you play. Because we all play Halo for the lore. The other in-game use was more concept video, this time for Madden. We saw a tablet being used as another controller, with the ability to set formations and order plays before executing them in game. The less said about the atrocious early-80s computer beeps and boops that accompanied the Madden video, the better.
The downside of the system as shown was that both of these functions took place outside of the game. They not only required that the game itself be paused, but that the player put down the controller to make use of the system. Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo is of the opinion that the system allows Microsoft to tell users they can have a two-screen experience without buying new technology, but I’m not sure that’s really the case. Smart Glass is only going to work with Windows tablets and smartphones, which means you’re going to have to shell out the cash, because like it or not you’ll need another screen to watch the screen that you’re watching. That’s right, Microsoft heard you like screens, dawg.
Smart Glass won’t just be for gaming however. Microsoft rolled out Game of Thrones to show how it might work with movies or television. The sheer number of characters in Game of Thrones is confusing, apparently, so some viewers may need help to remember who’s who and where in the world they are. Enter Smart Glass to save them from their ignorance. Without actually needing to pause the action this time, Smart Glass could allow you to not only access character bios on the fly, but find out exactly where they are at that moment in the series via a handy on-screen map. The only problem was that you either had to shrink the actual video into the corner of the screen or, you guessed it, pause it and look it up on another device.
The whole Smart Glass sounds like it has a lot in common with Kinect: a great idea, a let-down in practice. I’ve yet to play a game with Kinect functionality that didn’t leave me exasperated and annoyed. Motion sensing remains patchy and unresponsive, voice recognition is patchy at best. The big problem with Smart Glass is that it looks like it will break immersion in whatever form you’re using it, pulling you out of the experience. Whether you’re putting down your joypad and picking up a phone or pausing a movie to look at your tablet, I’m not convinced that the extra information and functionality offered by Smart Glass is worth the complication added by the system. Looking at the notes I was taking during the conference, I’ve got it pegged as “Netflix with bells on.”
Microsoft also seemed inordinately pleased to announce that we’ll finally be able to use Internet Explorer on Xbox with Smart Glass. Just what we’ve all been waiting for. People actually cheered at that announcement. It’s probably just as well I wasn’t there in person.
Xbox Music is also worth mentioning. It was only talked about in passing during the conference, so details are a little slim, but Microsoft is already talking about it being a rival to iTunes. Apparently, “Music is more amazing with Xbox.” It’s easy to be skeptical, but they could be onto a winner here; after all, Zune worked out well for them, didn’t it?
There were, of course, some games announced during the conference. I’ll talk about some of them in detail elsewhere, but I’d like to take a moment to give you a whistlestop tour.
Pretty much all of the games featured were additions to a franchise: Splinter Cell, Madden, FIFA, Fable, Forza, Gears of War, Dance Central, Call of Duty, and Tomb Raider. Highlight of the show, however, belongs to the South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker. The duo were there to reveal the new South Park game, and brought some much needed charisma and genuine humor to the proceedings. It probably helped that they weren’t reading a script with all the grace and ease of a child at his first school play.
Leave it to Trey Parker to be the voice of what we were all thinking: “I’d like to be able to watch this on my television, while hooked into my mobile device, which is being controlled by my tablet device, which is hooked into my oven, all while sitting in the refrigerator.” They got a more genuine reaction with that one joke than I think I saw from the rest of the conference. They certainly got a warmer reception than Usher.
Yes, Usher. He was there promoting both Dance Central 3 (with Kinect functionality!) and his own new single. Launching into one of his trademark dance routines, he demanded that the crowd “get up.” Aye, like that was going to happen. The man puts on a good show, no doubt, but it was fairly out of place, and the crowd clearly didn’t know how to react.
Which probably sums up the show quite well. Smart Glass is nowhere near big enough news to make a real splash, and without a whiff of a new IP or new hardware, Microsoft’s press conference really left people wanting more. It’s expected that big shows like this are all bark and no bite; they’re supposed to grab your attention and leave the explanations for later. But this time round it felt like a misstep.
Not to worry though, there were some genuinely good things to come out of E3 this year. Stay tuned to GFBR’s E3 coverage over the next few days, as I attempt to provide you with a veritable deluge of tasty videogame news.
(All images via Microsoft.)
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