War of words proves the highlight of E3 video-games summit

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      For a while, it looked like the E3 Media and Business Summit—an annual event bringing together members of the video-game industry—was going to be a complete bust. The first two days of press briefings by major players Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony were a bit underwhelming.

      E3 2008: What wasn’t said

      This year’s E3 was significant as much for what wasn’t said as what was. Leading up to the trade show and summit, there were plenty of rumours about possible announcements from the Big Three. Microsoft and Sony were going to announce Wii-like controllers for their Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 platforms. Nope. Nintendo was going to reveal a thinner DS handheld. Didn’t happen.

      The past three years have conditioned the gaming fan to expect such announcements, even though the industry is entering the midlife stage of the “next-generation” consoles. The Big Three don’t want to keep reinventing hardware; they want to sell the hardware and controllers they’ve already got on the shelves. Expectations can lead to big disappointments.

      Which is why the best press event in Los Angeles this year wasn’t even one that was staged by one of the Big Three. The Electronic Arts briefing was devoid of numbers, statistics, and claims of dominance. EA’s big surprise was John Carmack, cofounder and programmer at id Software, a new partner for the company. Carmack promised that id, the game developer that made first-person shooters popular, will be reinventing the genre with its new game Rage.

      The biggest omission at this year’s E3 was the decision by Microsoft to cut an announcement of a new title from Halo developer Bungie Studios. Neither Don Mattrick nor Bungie reps are saying why.

      Microsoft started the week off on July 14 with a bombshell announcement at the Los Angeles Convention Center. The day before, the company had announced storage boosts and price cuts for its Xbox 360 gaming platform. The 20-gigabyte model will be replaced with a 60-gigabyte unit, and the price of the discontinued model will drop from $349 to $299. At the briefing, Don Mattrick, Microsoft’s senior vice president for interactive entertainment business, took the stage and proclaimed that the Xbox 360 will win the video-game console war.

      Well, more accurately, he said, “I’m willing to declare here today that Xbox 360 will sell more consoles worldwide this generation than PS3.” A bold statement, significant almost as much for the fact that he made no mention of Nintendo’s Wii, which remains the front-runner in the sales race. Microsoft has fewer exclusive games to offer than it did last fall, but Gears of War 2 and Fable II are both highly anticipated.

      On July 15, Sony Computer Entertainment America CEO Jack Tretton insisted that “any conversation about 2008 should begin with the big story of the year.” He was referring to Blu-ray Disc’s defeat of HD DVD in the high-definition-DVD format war, and it was a subtle suggestion that Sony and its Blu-ray–spinning PS3 shouldn’t be counted out. History, Tretton claimed, suggests that the best games on a console aren’t released until three to five years into its life cycle. It was his way of establishing that the PS3 has yet to hit its stride.

      To encourage sales, Sony announced that the 40-gigabyte PS3 is being replaced with an 80-gigabyte model for the same price—$399. In the coming months, exclusive releases for PlayStation platforms will include Resistance 2, LittleBigPlanet, SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs Confrontation, and Killzone 2 for the PS3; and Resistance: Retribution and Loco Roco 2 for the PSP.

      Sandwiched between Microsoft and Sony was Nintendo, which squandered an opportunity to take the high road. Instead, company president Satoru Iwata spent a good portion of his presentation complaining that the competition is copying Nintendo.

      Even if Microsoft and Sony are working on Wii-like controllers, even if the new Xbox 360 avatars resemble Nintendo’s Miis, sending the industry back to the school-yard bike racks in a spat over who stole your idea is unseemly. As Sony Computer Entertainment Canada spokesperson Matt Levitan told the Straight in an interview at E3, Xbox games Scene It? Lights, Camera, Action and Lips are similar to PlayStation games. “We have Buzz, but we didn’t invent the quiz show. We didn’t invent karaoke, but we have SingStar.”

      Revealing the new Wii MotionPlus—an attachment that makes the Wii Remote more accurate—and Wii Music, which aims to be a music game that anyone can play and enjoy, wasn’t enough to salvage the Nintendo briefing. No, it was two solid days of seeing great games that redeemed this year’s E3. Next week, a look at some of the best.