E3 2005: Microsoft on the edge

Whereas Nintendo flat out dumfounded most of the gaming community, Microsoft is taking the biggest risk. Though financially they can afford to, trying to ignore the die-hard gamer while putting the focus on the mainstream, non-gaming consumer is gutsy. They've made an insane claim that they plan their console to reach one billion (yes, billion) people.

It's how they plan to do this, with both system features and games that put them in a shaky position. They're pushing Hi-Definition, claiming it will be a revolution in video games. Each game will support 720p at a bare minimum. That's great (even though some current gen Xbox games are already doing this, and almost all run in 480p), but HDTV has hardly been the big seller here in the US. In other countries, penetration is even lower, especially in Europe.

They claim they'll reach a non-gaming demographic in a variety of ways. In their press conference, they explain how they'll attract "Velocitygirl," a non-gamer, to their new console. She'll buy the system to video chat with friends, design t-shirts to sell in the Xbox Live Marketplace, and even sell custom designed skate parks. There's so much wrong with this, it's hard to pinpoint where to begin.

First, how is Velocitygirl going to become aware of these features if she's not a gamer? Why would Velocitygirl buy a $300+ video game system to do this? Why does she need something like this in the first place? As Kevin Pereira put it on G4TV, "I don't want to buy a skate park designed by Velocitygirl." Who would? What would Velocitygirl know about designing levels?

Then you have the media center, as Microsoft isn't just aiming at putting a video game system in your home, they want to own everything connected to it. While the demonstration went over smoothly (switching seamlessly between gameplay, Live, and a HD broadcast), how much of that systems power is being dedicated to such features? They already needed a PR boost, making the claim the games were running at only 1/3 of the consoles power after people complained about the frame rate issues during video montages. Is this because the games are too early, or because the system really is lagging behind the Playstation 3?

The next big step is online tournaments with prizes up to $1 million. They claim advertisers will flock to get their brands in the game to showcase their wares to the millions of gamers watching the final race online. During a high stakes race with a mammoth prize like that, what happens when someone loses their connection or suffers from lag? Losing through no fault of your own, especially with a prize like that, is going to cause problems for Microsoft. Oh, and it's not particularly entertaining to watch other people play video games on your game console. It's one thing to watch Arena or become a spectator at Quakecon, but when you have a stack of games waiting to be played right next to you, are you really going to stop to watch someone else?

Of course, all of these online features require a broadband connection in some form. That alienates some gamers from anything involving the features Microsoft is touting. The simple fact that their conference spent over a half-hour explaining all the media center and online capabilities also makes you wonder just how focused they are on the games. Microsoft seems intent on alienating the die-hard gamer, and that could be the kiss of death.

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