E3 is now less than a month away, and Microsoft is scheduled to kick things off with its annual press conference on the morning of Monday, June 4. With E3 being a gaming-focused event and Microsoft having already made it clear there will be no talk of a new platform during it, one might expect there to be a big focus on games for the Xbox 360. As the company has shown previously — last year especially — it’s more than happy to spend its time in the spotlight talking up the kinds of games and features hardcore gamers do not want to hear about at the expensive of core games. Unfortunately for those people, this year’s show is not looking like it will be much different.
The big news during last year’s media briefing was the announcement of Halo 4 and, by extension, a new Halo trilogy. Other gaming highlights included Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary, Minecraft as a 360 exclusive, Kinect voice controls for Mass Effect 3, and Kinect Disneyland Adventures. We also got a look at the new Call of Duty (which would be having its DLC come to 360 first, though this was nothing new), Tomb Raider, Ghost Recon: Future Soldier (and its Kinect functionality, along with a promise of Kinect support in all future Tom Clancy games), and a few other things.
What it came down to was that if you were not a fan of Halo or Kinect, there was not a lot to be excited about in terms of exclusive games for Xbox 360. Kinect was heavily touted throughout and it was clear even then that Kinect Star Wars wasn’t going to become the dream come true many hoped it would. New dashboard and multimedia features were also pushed hard; the ability to watch live television, UFC, and YouTube videos from the console were announced as a part of (another) ‘New Xbox Experience‘ which would introduce voice search with Bing and voice control of the dashboard. Overall, it was a lot of stuff meant for audiences that are not traditionally thought of as being closely associated with the Xbox brand.
The newest episode of Bonus Round features a discussion on what to expect from next month’s press conference, and the consensus was largely that it will be very familiar to those who saw last year’s — a few big games, and a lot of dashboard and multimedia stuff. Ahead of the show, we know of only a small handful of core games likely to be shown, namely Halo 4, the next Forza, and Fable: The Journey. There may be a surprise of some sort and there are sure to be Kinect and casual games (with plenty of overlap), but it’s expected to be more new dashboard features and multimedia options that Microsoft wants to show most.
That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The rumored Microsoft Store offer of a $99 system with a two-year contract has proven to be real, and it’s not your typical gamer Microsoft is targeting with that. It’s often said the system has been a Trojan Horse for the company to get into people’s living room, and at that price it’s attempting to do so while competing with the likes of Apple TV and Google TV. Come next generation, Microsoft is not going back to selling a box that only plays games and DVDs.
“Step back from E3 for a second and just think about what Microsoft wants to do with the next console,” said Wedbush analyst Michael Pachter. “And Adam [Sessler] is exactly right: They want to own the living room, not just for gaming, but for everything. I actually think that’s what all the announcements are going to be, is all about multimedia capability, changes to the dashboard, access to new services. And I think they can start getting people excited about the potential of the next box without talking about it.” He went on to talk about visiting Microsoft soon to get a preview of what’s to come, saying, “They told me, ‘Don’t expect a lot of game stuff; expect a lot of dashboard, interface, multimedia.’”
If and when this represents a significant portion of Microsoft’s E3 presentation, there will be the inevitable backlash where hardcore gamers complain about being catered to too little. As someone who wants to see as many great games as possible come out, I can understand the sentiment, though I can’t blame Microsoft for this direction it’s going in.
There is an argument to be made that Microsoft is shooting itself in the foot with how little it’s focusing on its hardcore gamer base in the last years of the 360′s position as the company’s primary gaming system. If it turns out Microsoft has little more than Halo 4 and some Kinect games — which, let’s face it, core gamers by and large are uninterested in — for exclusives, that may leave a sour taste in the mouths of gamers leading up to the launch of the 360′s successor in late 2013 or early 2014. (Pachter said he expects it in spring 2014.)
Given these are the people who were among the early adopters of the 360 that helped it establish a lead against the PlayStation 3 in the United States, that’s a risky gamble to make, especially if the PlayStation 4 is available months in advance of the so-called Xbox 720. It’s a much different situation, but think back to the way Sega lost all of its momentum with the Saturn well in advance of the Dreamcast’s release. With Saturn being all but dead in 1998 and Dreamcast not being released until 1999, the transition was not smooth and it cost the company dearly. The 360 won’t be discontinued in advance of its successor’s release (and in fact could be transformed into a cheap set top box/casual gaming system after the new system comes along). Hardcore interest in it outside of Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto could, however, be fizzling before then. Halo is not for everyone, nor are the Kinect games Microsoft seems to believe hardcore gamers want to play.
On the other hand, the Xbox 360 has, at least in the U.S., managed to continue outselling the PlayStation 3 despite having fewer exclusive titles aimed at a hardcore demographic. A big part of that is because Call of Duty has been almost established as a first-party game for Microsoft’s platform that also happens to be available on other systems. The company’s $50 million exclusive on Grand Theft Auto IV DLC may not have been worth it, though it would seem its arrangement with Activision has turned out to be a brilliant decision. The deal may come to an end at some point, but as long as Microsoft is willing to pay and Activision is still able to sell DLC to PS3 and PC gamers (and Elite subscriptions to the former group) at a later time, there’s no reason to believe it will in the near future.
It’s not as if Microsoft’s emphasis on multimedia as of late has served it poorly. As a gamer, I don’t care for the way the dashboard almost tucks away its games, yet those of us who use the system for gaming are now in the minority, at least in terms of sheer hours of usage. People are buying the system purely for use as a non-gaming device, a scenario the company would love to find itself in once again with its next platform because of how much larger that potential audience is — and ideally it will do that much earlier in its life, perhaps with a model similar to the $99 360 offer.
There may be some concern it will erode the brand loyalty established over the past ten years, although I think what’s considered to be a “disappointing” E3 showing by hardcore gamer standards is not of major concern to Microsoft. As long as it maintains its exclusivity deal with Call of Duty (and supplements that with Halo, Gears of War, and so on), the casual audience that only picks up a few games a year will presumably continue to stick with Xbox. Gamers may decide to flock to Sony’s console next generation if Microsoft alone decides to say, restrict the use of secondhand games, but unless games are ignored to a much larger extent in the meantime it’s improbable the number of 360 announcements that wow gamers next month will have much of an effect on how things turn out next generation.