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E3 2006, or How Everything Changed in Three Short Days

Bryan Boulette

Below is my wrapup of the events of E3, written immediately after the expo's conclusion.

It is important to recognize one thing: this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo did not go well for Sony. But it wasn't just that the annual trade show, which is the biggest in the gaming industry, went poorly. Things went magnificently, spectacularly badly for the consumer electronics giant.

Going into the next-gen console race, Sony, which has clearly dominated the market for the past five years, had not only the position of greatest strength, but also the most to lose. With Sony holding about a 66% marketshare and Nintendo and Microsoft each holding about 17%, Sony had a decisive advantage. The company's market strength had earned it the necessitated support of most major third party developers. The gaming public had voraciously embraced the PS2 and was poised to do likewise with the PS3. And while Microsoft's Xbox 360 had come on strongly in North America and Europe and Nintendo's Wii console was pushing an innovative new interface and online service, the race was clearly Sony's to lose.

Over the course of the past four days, though, the entire composition of the next-gen console race has shifted dramatically. Never before have four days seen so radical and immediate a shakeup in what might happen within the industry. These shifts usually happen gradually and subtly. Not so this year.

It all began with Sony's pre-E3 press conference. The revelation of the PS3's pricepoint, 200$ more than the Xbox 360, was astounding news that was met with an intensely negative reaction. While the industry and consumers had expected an expensive console due to the advanced multimedia technology being crammed into it, 600$ (or 500$ for a gimped version with non-upgradable hardware differences), strained credulity. It was a high base price to ask most consumers to pay, and most seemed annoyed, to say the least, at even being asked. Let's be clear: the PS2's success rode not just on its compelling software library, but also on its appeal as a mass-market machine. 600$, though, is far from a mass-market price. But then the conference continued. Sony soon unveiled a gyroscopic motion-sensitive controller, timed perfectly to coincide with the Wii's freehand remote control. The controller's functionality was limited compared to Wii's in that it could sense only tilt and turn movement rather than a full range of motion and pointing capabilities, and it sacrificed rumble features to achieve even that.

This development was met not with the angry hostility of the exhorbitant pricepoint, but rather with ridicule and derision. The gyroscopic dual-shock, which supplanted Sony's previously panned Batarang controller, was perceived widely by attendees and media as blatant copying by Sony. This was not a strong and confident market leader putting forth a compelling vision of the future of gaming; it was a desperate manuever seeking to mimic the innovations of an underdog competitor.

The ridiculously high price and copycat controller could have both been ignored, or at least seen their damage minimized, if either of Sony's competitors stumbled. All eyes were first on Nintendo, whose conference was up first on the following morning, to see if the dark horse in the race really could present a compelling lineup of games based around its risky new path of restrained graphical increases in favor of an untried control method. The hype for Wii had been building prior to E3 as Nintendo had kept its cards close. Still, almost no one expected a lineup as strong as that the company actually revealed. Beyond the next-generation iterations of Smash Bros., Mario, Metroid, Fire Emblem, and Zelda, Nintendo also showed off an interesting new IP from the company's latest second-party addition, Monolith Software, and a fun action game from the company's beefed-up American studio. Also on display were innovative sports and music compilation games. Major third party showings included Ubisoft's exclusive Red Steel and Wii-centric Rayman 4, new games in Sega's Sonic and Super Monkey Ball series, a Trauma Center game from Atlus, and most notably, a launch-day Dragon Quest spinoff from Square Enix, certain to be a huge hit in Japan. In all, 27 games were revealed as playable on the show floor -- a number which dwarfed the PS3's offerings.

On top of that, Nintendo reiterated its seriousness about defending its handheld turf from Sony's continuing intrusion. With the promise of 100 new games on the DS this year and announcements of new games such as Starfox, Yoshi's Island 2, Diddy Kong Racing, Mario vs. Donkey Kong 2, Donkey Kong: King of Swing 2, Kirby, Elite Beat Agents, Chibi Robo, and Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam DS -- all playable and set for a 2006 release along with previously announced games in series like Final Fantasy, Mana, Dragon Quest, Castlevania, MegaMan, Tomb Raider, Mario, Legend of Zelda, and Boktai -- Nintendo was hitting back against the PSP hard. The company heavily promoted its sleek new DS Lite, with all playable games at the Nintendo booth on the soon-to-be-released system revision, and they made concurrent Japanese announcements of Jump Superstars 2 and the next dual-versioned entries in the main Pokemon line, Diamond and Pearl. It was the sort of lineup primed to damage the PSP's success in North America and with it tarnish the Sony brand name a bit before the release of the two companies' next home consoles.

Though Nintendo's Wii was unquestionably the star of the show, Microsoft soon followed the Kyoto regiment with a solid lineup of their own. A strong lineup of software was put forth, with a particularly heavy potential for appealing to the North American market. Perhaps the most notable part of the unveiling was the revelation that Grand Theft Auto IV, a key element of reaching the casual mainstream gameplaying audience in the states, would not at any point be a PS3 exclusive. In fact, it would even come with Xbox 360 exclusive content, lending credence to the idea that the Microsoft edition would be the definitive version of the game.

The bad news continued coming for Sony. PlayStation creator Ken Kutaragi's statement that the PS3 was "probably too cheap" was insulting. But it was when Microsoft Vice President Peter Moore called a virtual ceasefire with Nintendo that it became clear just how much things had changed during the course of the unfolding conferences. "Tell me why you would buy a 600$ PS3? People are going to buy two (machines.) They're going to buy an Xbox and they're going to buy a Wii for the price of one PS3." Moore added that Wii was "a competitively priced product" and "innovative new designs and great intellectual property like Mario, Zelda and Metroid." It was not just a matter of viewing Nintendo and Microsoft as non-competitors; Moore viewed it as a prime Microsoft strategy to actively promote the Wii, to engage in cooperative marketing that would see the two consoles grow stronger together at Sony's expense. It was unheard of.

The negative response to the PS3 throughout the rest of the expo was palpable. While in attendance, I constantly overheard bad words and price-griping from random attendees, most of whom blurted out, sans any prompting, just how angry they were and how much their interest had shifted to the Xbox 360 and the Wii as a consequence. They showed it, too -- while the Wii's lines reached upward of five hours each day, despite a huge number of demo kiosks within their booth, the PS3 seldom had more than a five minute wait. Industry negativity was also on display. Ubisoft Montreal director Clint Hocking complained, "How much more 'me too' can [Sony] be?" before noting that their emphasis on high-definition so early wastes resources and money when very few players will even be able to take avantage of the inclusion. Meanwhile, god-gaming pioneer Will Wright remarked, "Six hundred bucks; that is a lot of money. I'm rooting for Nintendo." And Square Enix spared words and spoke with actions; the biggest Japanese third party showed off an even split of games for the next-gen consoles, two for the PS3 and two for the Wii. Both Wii titles were stated as launch window games, while the company could promise no release timeframe for the PS3 offerings. This was in marked contrast to their whole-hearted Sony support of the current console generation.

Sony has not yet lost the next-gen race. The PS3 may still prove a decisive victor and take the lead in marketshare against its two competing consoles. But the odds of that happening sharply dropped in just a few days, and the entire next-gen race has changed to a wide open status. Sony may soon find American consumers, put off by the PS3's high price, flocking to the Xbox 360; Sony may also see the Japanese embrace the Wii just as they have the DS, with the two system's sharing a similar gameplay and marketing design and philosophy, a philosophy which has propelled the DS into becoming the fastest-selling system in Japanese history in reaching out to a broader range of consumers. The results may be a degree of parity in next-gen's console market share. But parity, while good for consumers, is among the worst possible outcomes for Sony. It's tough to go from 66% to 33% on a loss-leading machine. The race was Sony's to lose, and this E3, they may just have mapped out how to do it.

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