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E3 2007: Microsoft

Bryan Boulette

If console manufacturers operated under some sort of cosmic dictum about drawing inspiration from folklore, surely Microsoft's playbook prominently features the tortoise, that plodding yet resolute challenger of the spunky hare. Or at least, that's certainly how it seemed at E3 -- and, in truth, in the lineup to the ho-hum summit as well. No, really. Stick with me. It makes sense.

Microsoft hasn't been particularly flashy or risk-taking of late. They've been downright conservative, actually, in eschewing aggressive pursuit of their two competitors, the Wii and the PS3. They haven't laid out an ambitious, overarching strategy for remaking or revolutionizing the field of gaming; most of their recent moves have been reactive, when they're not being outright passive. The company seems to be taking a slow and steady approach to developing its future in gaming -- allow Sony to self-destruct on its own accord, ignore Nintendo all-but-entirely, and keep doing what you've been doing. Its sales have followed this approach, too: they've remained almost shockingly consistent from month to month, regardless of what else happens in the market or what their lineup changes to.

Given all this, Microsoft's unambitious press briefing at E3 wasn't exactly surprising. Peter Moore heaped on the praise for his holiday lineup (the best in video gaming history, he called it), but was his heart really in it? Moore concocted a funny little rule regarding what he'd show: only games heading for release in the next five months of the year. In other words... mostly stuff we've already seen. A lot. Granted, the new English Lost Odyssey trailer and a demonstration of continued support for the Viva Pinata franchise in the form of Mario Viva Pinata Party both showcased some of the company's offerings outside its normal demographic pigeonhole. So, too, did the announcement of Disney content going up on Xbox Live (shrewd, especially if they promote the hell out of this, which they should) and the new casual-targetting Scene It game and new controller (complete with its very own Win Button).

But mostly this was an event geared towards those who've already got religion. Sorry, Peetah, but when you open up your show with a fan band playing the Halo theme, interrupt the festivities to gloat over a hideous new Halo-themed 360, and end the show with a WETA-produced live action Halo spot followed by a Halo trailer... it's pretty clear where the focus lies. Beyond Halo, we saw a whole lot of racing (a long Project Gotham Racing 4 trailer), a whole lot of shooting (trailers for Call of Duty 4 and a demo of the PC version of Gears of War), and a whole lot of sports (a demo of Madden and a whole lot of comments promoting the holiday lineup by way of its EA Sports catalogue). There were no surprises, no real revelations about a Microsoft that intends to go for the throat of its rivals.

This is a company who went into E3 in a great position: they're still the worldwide market leaders despite Nintendo's fast ascent, and as Moore noted, they've got the North American software market by the short hairs. So I wanted more. I wanted aggression. I wanted to see a Microsoft willing not only to pump up its (entirely deserving of praise) holiday '07 lineup, but unveil a grand and ambitious slate of 2008 titles to show the competition you intend to continue dominating against a mercurial fad and the Hindenburg of gamingdom. Instead, only two new games were announced (Viva Pinata: Party Animals and Scene It). I wanted to see a Microsoft intent not just on matching Sony's paces, but determined to bring them down by announcing an offensive price cut. I wanted to see a Microsoft promoting its first- and second-party assets: let's see more of what Rare's working on, more of Mistwalker's future projects, more of Molyneux's Lionhead, and so on.

That wasn't the Microsoft on display. And so what we got at E3 was the same thing we had been getting in the first half of the year: a company taking things as they come, rolling with the punches, keeping on with what it's doing, slow and steady. They put on a very good show, too, don't get me wrong. Their end of 2007 lineup is great, and they showed lots of games. But it was the sort of show you expect from a company that recognizes its impending second place status, not one poised to voraciously pursue outright victory. It was a good show, but it could've been much more. In short, Peter, it was solid, but just not spectacular.

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