OPINION: Microsoft’s E3 press conference

There’s someone getting a monumental telling off tonight. Were it not for a colossal balls up at Xbox.com earlier that resulted in the early reveal of Halo 4, tonight’s press conference would have finished on a majestic whoop-fest.

That’s not to say that it didn’t climax pleasingly. Despite being devoid of personality and emotion, the Master Chief has become one of gaming’s most iconic success, and the confirmation of a brand new trilogy in the Halo series will be music to the ears of millions.

And before we get carried away with rantings about the mass market, we can’t ignore the fact that there was plenty to choose from for the hardcore gamer here tonight.

Gears of War 3 is so cool that Ice T even came on stage to play it with Cliffy B. That’s one way of looking at it, anyway. Another way would be to say that Tracy and Cliff went up on stage and pretended to be big burley men.

Either way, very hardcore.

There was also some wonderful news for hardcore Kinect owners with news that Mass Effect 3 and Ghost Recon (and in fact all future Tom Clancy titles) will support the device going forwards.

EA Sports also pledged four Kinect-compatible titles this year, including – amazingly – the FIFA series. How that will work I can’t wait to find out.

Minecraft on Kinect is an amazing prospect, both critically and commercially. And while it’s hard to say that the demo for the Kinect-centric first-person Fable: The Journey was entirely convincing, with Peter Molyneux at the helm you have to at least give it the benefit of the doubt for the time being.

But the most notable part of tonight’s briefing was undoubtedly the closing 30 minutes.

There was a moment – a part of the Kinect Labs demo – where a lady scanned in a blue cuddly toy into the game, with an animated version then coming to life. I can’t have been the only one to have noticed that it was pure Nintendo. Pure, 2008 era Nintendo. The games, the on-stage appearances, the props, the mass-market. All it needed was Cammie Dunaway to come on stage, smile and say nice things about families and curtains.

Never has there been a more startling demonstration of the rapid and monumental shift in focus in the modern games industry than this.

Just a few years back Microsoft was categorised by Master Chief, by Gears of War. By avid gamers queuing up to buy games at midnight and all-night gaming sessions on Xbox Live with lots of blokes calling each other fags.

Oh, how things change.

Microsoft’s ambitions here are now very clear. I won’t be overly dramatic. The hardcore gamer is still very much part of the equation. Microsoft has no intention of abandoning its heartland. But those same gamers are going to have to be convinced that it’s OK that their beloved console is now also targeting a far different market.

Microsoft’s lofty ambitions to make Xbox 360 a home’s multimedia hub, controlled by Kinect, are genuinely exciting (and let’s hope licensing wrangling doesn’t mean we’re deprived of the full vision here in the UK).

And with Kinect it has successfully tapped into the market once dominated by Nintendo’s Wii. How far it can penetrate this sector remains to be seen, but when Microsoft puts its mind to something it doesn’t often fail (unless it’s on a mobile phone, of course).

Dance Central 2 looks fantastic, as does Kinect Sports Season 2. And it’s a rare delight when a platform holder can announce that a new product is available right now, as is the case with Kinect Labs.

If I put on my business hat I walk away from tonight’s presentation a satisfied man. Microsoft has a great core line-up and some wonderful mass-market opportunities. But if I take that hat off I sense danger.

The hardcore gamer, while a marginalised sector in the modern market, is a volatile beast. It will fight to the death to defend you one minute, then the next it will cast you aside and defect to your competitor without a moment’s hesitation. And it’s still absolutely fundamental to the Xbox 360 offer.

There’s no logical reason why core gamers should be concerned by MIcrosoft’s widening of its net. But then logic doesn’t always dictate how things will pan out and how consumers will react.

Microsoft’s gamble here is that it can convince its core market to stick true while some of its attentions stray elsewhere. And it is a gamble, particularly considering the impressive first party line-up that will be unveiled by Sony later tonight.

And you never know, Nintendo might come out gunning for the hardcore again tomorrow. And you’ll be the first to find out on MCVuk.com.

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