Every year, during E3, one main subject steals the limelight. Last year it was console hardware and the marketing wizzards were out in full force to convince us which upcoming console would carry the best graphics or have the best features. This year the focus is on what is really important, content. The way things have worked out in the Console Wars, Microsoft is the one company which has to prove the most and in true Microsoft style they have come out with their guns blazing.
With the company already losing US$120 on every XBox sold, they announced a further US$2 billion commitment, which translates to a further US$40-50 per console in connection with online gaming.
At the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) Microsoft previewed some of the 200 games that will be available worldwide this holiday season for the Xbox video game system. Showing its vision for the future of the industry, the company also detailed its plans for Xbox Live, the first online console gaming service fully dedicated to fast-action, always-connected broadband gaming experiences.
Microsoft said they initially expect 10 percent of XBox users to subscribe to the online service. Considering Microsoft expects o sell 3.5 million to 4 million Xbox units by June 30, it is not a small number.
This announcement of the online service was Microsoft's answer to Sony for beating them on the price cuts, since Sony first reduced the price of its PS2 to US$199 beating Microsoft, who also made the same reduction to the XBox, by two days.
The war between next generation console manufacturers has created one of the few tech markets which is showing steady growth. In the U.S. alone, sales of video game software and hardware topped $9 billion in 2001. The stakes are very high and the battle for content is on.
Microsoft announced that they will have 200 software titles available during the summer while 300 titles are under development. Most importantly, at least 50 of these titles are scheduled to be online games and be available by the end of 2003. So Microsoft is serious about online games but what will the service offer?
J Allard, general manager of the Xbox platform, detailed Microsoft's plans to lead the way in online gaming with Xbox Live. Leveraging the Xbox system's built-in hard drive and Ethernet port to facilitate online play right out of the box, Xbox Live is a game universe where gamers can find their friends easily; where they can talk to other players through the Xbox Communicator headset; where gamers can download new statistics, levels and characters to their Xbox hard drive; and where game players have fun together. The standard Xbox Live game features that work across all Xbox Live multiplayer games include the following:
Gamertag is a player's unique online ID for all games across the global gaming service.
This feature allows gamers to find friends online and invite them to a game no matter which Xbox Live game they're playing.
Voice communication is integrated with all Xbox Live multiplayer games, enabling voice interaction with teammates and opponent. Key elements of this feature exclusive to Xbox include voice-masking, global muting and parental control.
QuickMatch is the ability to enter a multiplay experience with a single button click, and OptiMatch, an Xbox Live exclusive, helps players select games and opponents based on similar skill levels.
High-speed content downloads to the Xbox hard disk
Only Xbox offers console gamers the ability to download and permanently store both free and for-a-fee content, including new levels, characters, missions and statistics.
Online capabilities will change video games in more profound ways than 3-D technology has so far, Allard said. We built Xbox Live to allow game creators to focus purely on making the next great games. As the artists create, Xbox Live will do the heavy lifting where cross-game services, technology, customer service and billing are concerned.
Xbox Live launches in North America, Europe, and Japan this fall and begins its steady rollout this summer with a consumer beta program in North America. Allard said Xbox Live will support five Xbox Live exclusive games this year, including Unreal Championship (Infogrames) as well as MechAssault, Whacked!, NFL Fever 2003 and Midtown Madness 3 (Microsoft Games Studio). By the end of 2003, at least 50 Xbox Live-enabled games are scheduled to be available worldwide.
At launch, U.S. consumers can purchase a starter kit for $49.95. For the estimated retail price of a single game, the consumer receives a year's subscription to Xbox Live, an Xbox Communicator that plugs into the Xbox controller and facilitates all voice communication with other players, and ReVolt a fun, online racing game from Acclaim Entertainment. Pricing and specific offers in regions outside of North America will be announced locally at a later date.
As the grand finale to the Xbox Live unveiling, Allard announced a lineup of games in the works for the future of the service, including Star Wars Galaxies (LucasArts Entertainment), Counterstrike (Valve Software for Microsoft Games Studios), and future versions of Xbox original blockbusters such as Halo, RalliSport Challenge, Amped and Project Gotham Racing.
It is almost certain that the mention of so many games has wet your appetite. Here is a brief description of some of those games as provided by Microsoft at E3.
The Online Selection
Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic
LucasArts Entertainment Company presents a deep, engaging story-/character-driven role-playing game (RPG) set long before the Galactic Empire. The era, unexplored in any previous Star Wars game, is dominated by an enduring conflict between the Jedi and the Sith. Developed in conjunction with BioWare Corp., the game will feature customizable male or female heroes and evolving playable characters, as well as dynamic lightsaber combat.
Brute Force (Microsoft Game Studios)
Brute Force is an action-packed sci-fi squad-based shooter that lets gamers experience the intensity of a shooter game with the cunning strategies of team-based tactical combat.
Panzer Dragoon ORTA (SEGA of America, Inc.)
The game empowers gamers to take command of a powerful dragon and experience intense aerial combat in the most visually breathtaking game on Xbox.
NFL Fever 2003
Microsoft Game Studios continues the award-winning football game series for Xbox. Easy to pick up and start playing, NFL Fever 2003 delivers all the action and excitement of the National Football League, allowing gamers to create, play and control their ultimate NFL team.
Unreal Championship (Infogrames)
The all time classic has been re-built from the ground up by Digital Extremes, part of the team responsible for Unreal and Unreal Tournament, Unreal Championship. The latest addition to the Unreal universe will provide console gamers with an adrenaline-packed, first-person action experience designed specifically for Xbox and the Xbox controller.
Two Special Games
After showcasing many of the 200 games that will be on the market by the end of the year, Ed Fries, vice president of Xbox game content at Microsoft, previewed two future Xbox games that demonstrate the ambition shown by Xbox game designers:
Ninja Gaiden (Tecmo, Inc.)
Ninja Gaiden was announced as an Xbox exclusive game. Created by legendary game designer Tomonobu Itagaki and his team at Team Ninja in Japan, Ryu Hayabusa returns as the famous, deadly Ninja assassin in the new Ninja Gaiden, coming in the spring of 2003. This neo-classic adventure will feature extraordinary new worlds, deadly new weapons, Hollywood-style movies, and interactive 3-D environments, creating the most action-packed adventure of all time.
Project Ego (Microsoft Game Studios)
Project Ego is Peter Molyneux's ground-breaking, role-playing adventure game in which players' actions determine their skills, appearance and morality. Gamers can create their life story from childhood to death. They can grow from an inexperienced child into the most powerful being in the world. Players can choose the path of righteousness or dedicate their lives to evil.
Is that enough for you? Well tough, a lot more will be coming up soon so keep your eyes peeled.