E3 09: Taking a look at the Big 3’s keynote speeches

So now that our E3 coverage is in full swing, and the major press conferences are behind us, it’s time to take a step back and do like we do every year, and take a look at what Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony have presented to us. Each company has paraded themselves in front of us, showing off their wares and vying for our praise and dollars.

So, tonight’s article isn’t about who “won” E3 — you guys got to vote on that — but instead, I want to try and take a critical eye to what happened. There were moments for each company that appealed to my inner hater, as well as my inner fanboy, and I’ll be sure to put both out there, along with a bit of logic, if that’s possible. So I invite you to check your feelings at the door while you read this, and just try to enjoy.

Let’s start with the first presentation we saw: Microsoft. No one can deny the excitement surrounding Microsoft’s press conference. It was impossible to walk away from it not impressed. And really, why not? Microsoft’s show was a star-studded event, parading Paul McCartney, Tony Hawk, Cliffy B, and even Hideo Kojima in front of us. There was something for everyone in terms of upcoming games. I found myself hard-pressed not to check my bank account and see if I could afford buying an Xbox 360.

And Microsoft didn’t stop there. They brought out Project Natal and Milo, along with Steven Spielberg and Peter Molyneux, talking about how this would change the industry. We got word of improved media browsing and other technical improvements, to show us that it isn’t just a game console. Microsoft hit every note just perfectly. And why not? In the end, Microsoft showed their skills as showmen and entertainers.

Microsoft avoided topics like its weakness in genres like RPGs (bringing out FFXIII isn’t enough, I assure you) or branching out of theirimage as targeting the 18-24 year old male — not that the market isn’t extremely profitable. While Project Natal is ambitious, it’s going to take a big leap of faith for developers — and we don’t even know about cost. We’ll just have to see how much cost will be upfront in the camera, and how much will be in the software associated with it.

Microsoft held off on pushing consoles with price cuts and other incentives, which I do appreciate, because now they can finally let some of the SKUs fall out of the market and be done with them. Instead, their approach this year is one of software and entertainment potential of their already strong base, hoping to convert the few without a 360 into buying it, and pumping up their attachment rate otherwise. They now have the opportunity to target non-gamers and families more aggressively because of their position.

One item of note I wanted to point out was how Sony has become the de-facto platform for any multi-platform title. The Beatles: Rock Band certainly isn’t a Microsoft exclusive, but they still got all the fanfare and applause for it. If you noticed at Sony’s press conference, any title that people had raved over at Microsoft’s conference were met with dead silence when Jack Tretton talked about it. It’s a mindset that’s so ingrained in us that I thought it was worth pointing out.

Moving onto the next titan, Nintendo, we’re seeing them go on a path that is starkly different than what we’ve been wanting. They clearly have an idea of what demographic they’re targeting, and what titles will sell. They wouldn’t needlessly parade Women’s Murder Club in front of us. Similarly, they’re continuing down the health-and-wellness track with their vitality monitor and Wii Fit Plus. It’s clearly a profitable market for them, what with Wii Fit hard to find for so long after it came out.

And, at the same time, they acknowledged us, the hardcore market. They did remind us that several titles were coming out aimed towards us (I’m surprised they didn’t mention Tatsunoko vs. Capcom), and made us scream with glee at the showing of Metroid: The Other M. They know how to wipe away all the pain and anguish that we had to sit through.

It’s like an S&M relationship, really. I think a lot of our ire comes from the fact that this is E3, and we as a collective view this as our event, a time when all these companies should be giving us the big titles and announcements. And instead we get one chunk of Nintendo’s strategy. We get announcements that have nothing to do with us, but have to deal with a much greater chunk of Nintendo’s market. We’ll get their other big announcements later on. Perhaps at Tokyo Game Show. Perhaps at some random point in time, even. But there will be other big things for us, so fear not Nintendo fans.

And like Reggie pointed out, third party developers are stepping up their game and are filling the void that Nintendo isn’t. I’m having a hell of a time with Madworld, and I can’t wait for Dead Space. Nintendo is still having trouble sticking their neck out there in the hardcore game market, for whatever reason. That’s why we haven’t seen new franchises being heavily promoted, or even seeing Earthbound on the Virtual Console. There’s a lot of fear there that needs to be cleared up.

Lastly, there’s Sony. I have to applaud them for their attitude. They’ve been in last since the gates opened, and have been trailing all the while. It seems like at every E3, when there are press leaks, the great majority come from Sony. At least they dealt with it with some levity. And despite all of those leaks, they still managed to have an impressive showing.

Now, I know Microsoft advertised that they wouldn’t have facts and figures — as a jab at Sony — but I’m the type of person that actually enjoys seeing those bits of data, to get an idea of how they’re doing, and how they’re trying to spin the numbers. Sony pointing out the number of titles they’ll have this year within the PlayStation family reminds you just how much is at work behind the scenes. So many of the titles that Microsoft puts out have a heavy push behind them, but Sony has those quiet titles sneak in, like Nippon Ichi’s Soul Nomad or Atlus’ Persona 3. We all know what happened with Persona 3, and that’s a story that I’ve seen several times over with titles that are on the PS2, and will likely happen again on the PS3: niche titles get rave reviews and are re-released aimed at a much wider audience. Sony can make that happen.

They really try to make things accessible. Lowering the development costs for the PSP is a surprisingly big one. They’re really making their platforms as accessible as possible, and open things up for titles like Flower and Noby Noby Boy — things that are possible on XNA, but don’t seem to get made. In general, I’ve always gotten the impression that people are willing to take chances with developing with Sony — most likely because of the low-entry point on the PS2.

Anyways, back to their announcements. They did bring out some really strong titles in their exclusives pocket, including FFXIV, God of War III, and Metal Gear Solid: Peace Walker. Stalwarts of Sony, yes, but two of them have been in contention. And then there’s Agent. We don’t have much word on it, but Rockstar is praising it to the moon. Then there’s the motion controller. I really don’t know what to make of it, since it’s still an engineering prototype, but it’s an interesting idea. I’m shelving it for later, because there really wasn’t a fully realized application around it like there is with Project Natal.

Finally, there’s the PSP Go. While we’ve heard about it endlessly, I must say that Sony has colored me impressed with that device. It’s attractive, both design and concept-wise. Sony is making digital distribution the norm, without forcing it as the future. It’s something that’s great for both the collector like me and the digital fiend like Joe Burling. Both of us can be happy.

So, between the big three, there was plenty to be had, but we’re starting to see companies that were competing neck-and-neck with each other start to branch out in new ways. Microsoft is making itself into the everyman console, while Sony is showing the width and breadth of gaming with its library, and Nintendo has its own audience that it’s chasing after, putting itself at odds with its original fanbase. So, what do we make of it? Well, I think the takeaway here is that we need to be thinking of things in that 10-year life cycle. Every company is thinking about it, and we need to be too.

We’re going to be sticking with these platforms for a while to come, and so this year’s E3 has been the fork in the road, where each company ventures into its own neck of the woods. They may cross paths again here and there, but the time for direct comparisons is starting to fade away. It’s all about how the company can learn and innovate from their time alone in the woods.