Microsoft's E3 would probably be best characterised as solid if unspectacular – it walked an interesting line between appeasing (existing) hardcore and (putative) casual Xbox 360 owners, showcasing some pretty exciting games (including, surprisingly, several efforts from Square-Enix including Final Fantasy XIII, which was supposed to be a PS3 exclusive) and a radical overhaul for Xbox Live, doing away with the ugly, hated "blades" in favour of cuddly avatars.
It also copped a bit of flak for perceived plagiarism, with a karaoke game, Lips, which is suspiciously like SingStar and those Mii-like avatars and Home-like avatar-based XBL front-end.
The view from the UK
We managed to catch up with Stephen McGill, the company's UK head of gaming and entertainment, in search of a UK perspective – E3 press conferences are infamous for concentrating on the US at the expense of the rest of the world.
First off, in the personal opinion of McGill (a thoroughly lovable chap, even if he is Microsoft through and through), what were the highlights of his company's E3 press conference?
"Naturally, the announcement of Final Fantasy XIII was a fantastic signal that together with the likes of Fable 2, Gears Of War 2, Halo Wars and so on that Xbox 360 is undeniably the home of the best blockbuster games. But the biggest stand-out has to be the new Xbox experience – making it easy for friends and family to have fun together, and especially the new Xbox Live Primetime services such as 1 vs 100."
1 vs 100 – a quiz-show style game played over Xbox Live, developed in conjunction with TV company Endemol and generally something which should blur the boundaries between videogames and TV – is indeed intriguing, but far too few details emerged for us to visualize what it will be like and whether it will be compelling or gimmicky.
The new installments of Microsoft's established in-house franchises will also be very welcome among the Xbox faithful, too – but a spanner was thrown into the works by Bungie, which revealed it was ready to showcase what it has been working on post-Halo 3, but Microsoft pulled the plug on its presentation at the last minute. Action-adventure effort Alan Wake, too, was conspicuous by it absence. Perhaps those games will get their chance at the Games Convention in Leipzig.
And we would be more inclined to see the banishment of the clunky old Xbox Dashboard, a hangover from the original Xbox which even pervaded Xbox Live, as long overdue, rather than an exciting new selling point.
McGill, at least, is able to give some details of when the revamp will hit the UK: "We'll be launching the new Xbox experience, including the cool new personal avatars and other great features such as 1 vs 100, later this autumn in a free update."
Which is likely to be well before Sony's (admittedly more ambitious) PlayStation Home.
60GB 360 is US only
Microsoft also announced a 60Gb version of the Xbox 360, but McGill reveals that: "The 60Gb edition that has been announced is for the US only. The US have therefore announced a saving of $50 off the 20Gb version while supplies last, ahead of the launch of their 60gb version in early August."
So basically, don't expect any Xbox 360 price-cuts over here in the near future. Shame…
McGill is right, though, when he talks about the capture of Final Fantasy XIII as exciting – Square-Enix has been super-tight with Sony for years, and the company went even further by announcing three new Xbox 360-exclusive RPGs, The Last Remnant, Infinite Undiscovery and Star Ocean. Something of a surprise given the Xbox 360's extreme unpopularity in Japan. How did that deal come about?
Sadly, McGill is rather coy: "While we're unable to go into the specifics of the deal, we're very excited to see Square Enix's titles coming to Xbox 360 and in particular FFXIII. Seeing such an amazing franchise, known as a PlayStation franchise, now finding a new home on Xbox 360 has certainly sent waves of excitement around the industry and gamers alike."
Hmm: sounds suspiciously to us like Microsoft may have stolen an old (now abandoned) Sony policy and paid Square-Enix for platform exclusivity (although, admittedly, The Last Remnant will come out on PS3 some time after it launches on Xbox 360).
Microsoft acts casual
For a while now, Microsoft has courted a more casual gaming clientele, perhaps after seeing the success of the Wii. Pundits haven't taken those efforts particularly seriously but talking to McGill, it's clear Microsoft does, saying one of the company's main goals at E3 was to:
"Show how we're broadening our audiences with a fabulous line up of games and entertainment services. Games like LIPS, You're In the Movies, Guitar Hero 4 and 1 vs 100 show Xbox 360 has something for everyone."
Another Microsoft headline-grabber was the announcement of a deal with Netflix that will generate a library of 10,000 movies for Xbox 360 owners to download.
McGill confirms that that deal applies to the US only, but adds: "We're committed to bringing new content, whether it's movies or TV, to the UK Xbox Live Marketplace and working on those kinds of deals. In fact we announced a new partnership with MGM for the UK where we'll be offering their new movies on our Xbox LIVE marketplace service, starting this week, and we'll continue to add new partners and new content."
Accusations of copying
And what of the accusations from Nintendo and Sony fanboys that Microsoft has been stealing their clothes with the new avatar system and Lips?
McGill points out that Microsoft was the first company to get consoles online in a practical manner: "Xbox Live has always been a fantastic social network, and we've introduced the idea of personalization through Gamercards, Gamertags, themes and Gamerpics. Avatars are another example of how we're representing a social experience on a great social network.
"And how you can customize them will offer some pretty unique opportunities. Likewise, while we didn't invite the idea of games playing musical instruments or singing games, I think we have some interesting innovations that will offer fresh and exciting experiences."
360 motion control
Perhaps revealingly, McGill declined to answer two of our questions – one of which was prompted by Don Mattrick's bold statement that the Xbox 360 would outsell the Wii and The PS3 globally.
Would this be true in Europe, we asked, bearing in mind that the US is very much the Xbox 360's heartland and is, of course, the games industry's biggest market. Perhaps McGill was wise not to commit to a bold statement on that score, given the diversity of the European market.
And he kept his counsel regarding the absence from E3 of a much-rumoured Wii-style controller for the Xbox 360, which suggests to us that this is something which will be left to third-party peripheral manufacturers – a sensible move, as it will allow Microsoft to sidestep yet more plagiarism allegations.
Overall, while Microsoft may not have induced gasps of wonder among the crowd at its E3 press conference, it still has a line-up of games which should keep its loyal punters happy this Christmas, and it is clearly putting things in place which will allow it to ramp up its push to attract more casual gamers – who, perhaps, have bonded with their Wiis and are now thinking about seeking a more sophisticated gaming experience.
As ever, the company is chugging along, doing its own thing and seems to be in pretty good shape.