GamesBeat

Anticipating E3: the video game giants prepare to show their cards

The E3 video game trade show gets under way Monday, and is expected to draw more than 40,000 people with a new grandiose format.

Held at the Los Angeles Convention Center, it will be much more like a Las Vegas extravaganza than the boring, press-focused shows that drew 4,000 or so people last year. And yes, those booth babes (below) will be back, as well as 3,500 journalists.

(Listen to my NPR Weekend Edition interview on E3).

There will be borders that contain the testosterone-laced enthusiasm, partly in recognition that the game industry has grown far beyond the tastes of adolescent boys. In fact, one of the more inrtriguing E3 pitches I got was from fashion company IMG. This year, the booth babes will be appropriately attired or the companies will face fines. And, as Mike Gallagher, head of the Entertainment Software Association told us, booth sizes have been limited to 15,000-square-feet, a measure designed to stop the marketing arms race that led to millions of dollars in costs and the virtual collapse of the show a couple of years ago.

The highlight will be press conferences by Microsoft on Monday and Nintendo and Sony on Tuesday. Other big companies holding press conferences are Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, Konami, and Activision Blizzard. I’ll be at most of them, blogging away until my batteries run out. By the end of the show, I hope to have a better idea about the big business question of the show: will the industry have enough innovative games to pull out of its slowdown in 2009?

The console makers are in the mid-life moment of this generation, which began in 2005 with the launch of the Xbox 360. They have a bunch of options to keep the party going. Cutting prices is one way to generate excitement, especially in a recession. The prices, ranging from $199 to $399, have held up far longer than in previous cycles. But as sales slow and free options multiply on the web, it may be time to pull the trigger.

The other way to generate excitement is to introduce new technology. New consoles are still a long way off. But there could be other ways to juice sales. Microsoft is going to show off its motion-sensing 3-D depth camera which will serve as a peripheral for the Xbox 360. The demos will likely wow the crowd, given the accurate 3DV Systems technology. I’ve also heard that they’re going to be working with another 3-D depth camera maker, Prime Sense.

Sony is also expected to show off its own gesture-control system. Rumors abound that Sony is going to launch a slimmed down version of the PlayStation 3 and maybe come out with a new version of the PlayStation Portable.

Less conspicuous, but still part of the same motion-sensing trend, are third-party motion-sensing peripherals such as GameTrak Freedom (below), which uses ultrasonic sound sensors to track movement. Microsoft will also show off how the Zune HD handheld will be integrated with Xbox Live. All of these moves are attempts to deal with the success of the Nintendo Wii and Apple’s iPhone.

The tried and true way to get sales back on track is launching outstanding games. I can already hear the roar of the fan boy press as the titles get announced on a big screens in plush theaters. Perhaps one of the most anticipated games is Ubisoft’s Avatar, based on the upcoming James Cameron film. The company is also showing off Assassin’s Creed II, the sequel to the smash hit of 2007 with a Da Vinci Code style plot.

All of the companies will be jockeying to be declared the best of the show. Microsoft will have long-awaited titles such as the Halo prequel, entitled Halo 3: ODST, Forza Motorsport 3 and Alan Wake. Sony is expected to give glimpses of games like God of War III, Gran Turismo 5, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and Massive Action Game. The latter lets 256 players fight at once.

Nintendo will likely have some tricks up its sleeve. Rumors abound that it will show a new Legend of Zelda game designed for the Wii. The action-adventure game role made its last appearance in 2006 with the launch of the Wii, and fans are getting antsy for the next installment. Nintendo will also likely show Wii Sports Resort, which made its appearance at last year’s show but still hasn’t shipped. That game exploits the Wii MotionPlus controller, which has more accurate detection of wrist movements.

Among the 16 games that Electronic Arts will show are Brutal Legend, Mass Effect 2, Dante’s Inferno, Dragon Age: Origins, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Battlefield Bad Company 2, and EA Sports Active. EA is releasing the Sims 3 on Monday.

Take-Two Interactive’s 2K Games has a few of the most-anticipated games of the show, including BioShock 2 (pictured above), the sequel to what was in my opinion the most original game of 2007, and Borderlands, a shooting and racing game set in the far future. Activision Blizzard also has the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 game (pictured at top) coming this fall, as well as Tony Hawk Ride, which uses a faux skateboard that takes advantage of the Wii’s motion-sensing platform. I’ve also been impressed with a preview I’ve seen of Singularity, which lets you solve puzzles and take out enemies by warping time.

Sega has eight major games to show, including Alpha Protocol and Bayonetta. Always driving to prove itself to hardcore gamers, Disney will show the racing game Split/Second from the same studio that created last year’s hot racing game, Pure. I’m looking forward to Supreme Commander 2 from Gas Powered Games and Square Enix.

Konami and Kojima Productions are rumored to be working on a new Metal Gear game — something Japanese game designer Hideo Kojima hinted at in March. Also in the secret department is a late-breaking game from Valve, maker of the Half-Life, Portal, and Left4Dead games.

The battle of the bands will continue. Activision Blizzard is making a big bet that we all are closet disc jockeys with its major game, DJ Hero, a spin-off from the Guitar Hero family. Music stars Jay-Z and Eminem are helping to promote that $120 game, which comes with a faux turntable. Meanwhile, MTV and Harmonix are going to show off The Beatles: Rock Band, which marks the first time the Beatles music has been used in a video game.

Nexon of South Korea is promoting Combat Arms, a free-to-play shooter game with a cute feature: the nut shot, where you get extra points for shooting enemies in the nuts. Don’t laugh too much. EA is going to copy this model. Not the nuts, but the free to play business, with online versions of its sports games.

If some of these titles seem familiar, it’s because we’ve seen them before. Here’s my top ten list from last year, and you’ll see that some of these games have taken more than a year to come out. But that’s OK, considering the big emphasis on game quality these days. As long as most of these titles make it out the door this year, I have to believe that the video game industry is going to pull out of its slump this year.


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