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Microsoft @ E3 2011: Five Things We Learned

After the unexpected success of the Kinect Microsoft is a company at ease, and more than willing to disappoint.

1. Xbox Live Is Microsoft’s Greatest Asset

And Microsoft knows it. Those looking for major game announcements or new IP will, for the most part, have been disappointed, but Microsoft’s stellar year has instilled the sort of self-belief that powered Nintendo through a the last few years. Sony is in the process of convincing the world that it can capably operate a global network of consoles; Microsoft is simply showing us how much better Xbox Live can get.

In the autumn, Xbox Live will receive another overhaul in both appearance and interface. The colour palette will be stripped back to green and light grey, on-screen menus will be simplified, Kinect voice-control will be drastically improved, and you’ll be able to search the stores and your hard-drive using Bing. The very name may elicit snickers among the tech-savvy, but the power to find anything on Xbox Live within a couple of gestures or commands is an enviable feature.

As is full integration of YouTube, and all of the content and community features that brings. Microsoft has disappointed in this area before, with Facebook on Xbox Live proving a damp squib relative to its potential. However, along with the announcement of Live TV promising broadcast television, it’s a clear sign of Microsoft’s intention to move beyond games and capture the entire front room. Right now, it’s better placed than Sony or Nintendo to achieve that goal.

2. Kinect Is A Casual Device

Going into the press conference, I saw Kinect as Microsoft’s attempt to capture a more casual audience. Leaving the press conference I felt exactly the same way, though I’m happy to concede that Microsoft seems to be heading in a smart direction. There were inevitable sequels to Kinect’s key franchises – Dance Central and Kinect Sports, both of which did everything that could reasonably be expected of them – but beyond that the emphasis is on harnessing the pull of existing brands.

Kinect Disneyland Adventures

And brands don’t come bigger than Disney, though games do come an awful lot more promising than Disneyland Adventures. Not that quality could possibly stand in the way of mini-game studded tour of a virtual Disneyland from selling millions of units, of course, and the moment that Tim Schaffer took to the stage for Double Fine’s Sesame Street game Once Upon A Monster was eagerly received by a flagging crowd, despite seemingly being targeted at the under-10s.

The biggest disappointment was Kinect Star Wars. I never expected it to be life-changing, but it had the potential to be the Kinect game that united traditional and new Xbox gamers. From the singularly unimpressive demonstration at Microsoft’s press conference, I can’t imagine any core gamer being eager to spend their money on anything that looked so unpleasant to play.

3. Kinect And The Core Will Remain Uneasy Allies

In terms of pure commercial viability, games like Kinect Star Wars and Disneyland Adventures transcend criticism. Their target audiences have bought poor products before and they have the capacity to do so again, but traditional gamers are more concerned with quality. In that respect, Microsoft fell short of expectations: Crytek’s Ryse failed to stir anything approaching excitement within me, and Fable: Kingdoms, while promising, is a 2012 project from a studio known for flying too close to the sun.

Kinect Fun Labs

The announcement that Kinect will feature in EA’s key sports franchises – Madden, Tiger Woods, FIFA, and one other – was more encouraging. Indeed, third-party companies seem to be looking at Kinect as a way of augmenting the core experience rather than replacing it, which seems to be the perfect compromise. Ghost Recon: Future Soldier will ship with a feature called “Gunsmith”, for example, which allows player to build and customise their own weapons in first-person using Kinect.

The major takeaway for the core audience was Kinect Funlabs. Announced by Microsoft’s Kudo Tsunoda – who is painfully self-aware of how laid-back he appears – it is an immediate addition to Xbox Live that will serve as a hub for Kinect design ideas and experiments. I assume this content will mainly come from developers, but it’s clearly inspired by the amazing Kinect hacks that sprung up on YouTube just after its launch. This could be fun and progressive in equal measure, and might be a place where traditional and new gamers can find common ground.

4. Right Now, Kinect Is All About Voice Control

The Kinect games library might not be as radically improved as its critics hoped, but voice command is one thing that Kinect does well right here and right now. Navigating the new-look Xbox Live using speech looked fast, intuitive, and a legitimately superior alternative to doing the same thing with a control pad.

Mass Effect 3

However, that didn’t hold a candle to Bioware’s demonstration of voice-recognition in Mass Effect 3. The ability to conduct conversations and bark commands and your squad-mates in the heat of battle will not only remove the need for imperfect pop-up menus, it will also make you feel even more like a galaxy-saving badass – and if that’s the point of Mass Effect, then it should also be the point of any Kinect integration.

5. Where Are The Games?

Microsoft’s presentation wasn’t short on impressive non-Kinect games, but it’s worth noting how few of them were developed by Microsoft or even exclusive to its console. Modern Warfare 3 and Tomb Raider took up a significant chunk of the proceedings, and both looked strong (particularly Tomb Raider), yet the former is linked to Xbox only by a DLC deal, and the latter doesn’t even have that.

Forza 4

Forza 4 looked predictably amazing, and provided more examples of Kinect being used to subtly complement the core gameplay; The HD remake of Halo is a welcome announcement, even if we did all know it was coming; Gears Of War 3 is shaping up to be a suitably muscular and unreconstructed finish to the trilogy, complete with armoured suits and Ice-T voice-overs; and Minecraft will be a welcome addition to Xbox Live.

The problem is that all of these are known quantities – games the members of the audience had either heard, saw or actually played prior to Microsoft’s press conference. Even the one legitimately huge announcement, Halo 4, didn’t feel like much of a surprise. 343 Industries have been beavering away for a long time on something, and it was never likely to be anything else. I look forward to the new trilogy, but on this occasion I really can wait. 

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