If the video game world were following its normal cycle, console makers would be revealing details of their next generation systems in less than two weeks. This cycle is anything but normal, though – and so at this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), game makers will instead chart a new path.
Rather than introducing new systems, Microsoft and Sony will both introduce motion sensor controllers that are intended to both attract a new audience to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 – and extend the lifespan of those systems by at least another three years. Nintendo, which is still seeing great success with the Wii, will focus instead on once again innovating the portable world.
Independent video-game publishers, meanwhile, hope to energize their top franchises to boost sales, after a disappointing 2009.
Here’s a look at what to expect from some of the industry’s big players:
Microsoft: The motion sensor, currently code-named “Project Natal,” will have its debut three days before E3’s official kickoff, with an opulent coming-out party that will feature a performance by Cirque du Soleil. The retail name of the system, its full functionality (both gaming- and non-gaming) and several titles that will utilize it will be unveiled. The retail price might remain under wraps a bit longer, though, as ‘Natal’ isn’t expected to go on sale until late this year.
Microsoft will also likely further broaden the Xbox 360’s non-gaming functionality, introducing a new general entertainment partner as it has the past two years (when Netflix (NFLX) and Last.fm were integrated into the system). Hulu.com has been rumored as a contender, but there are several hurdles that would need to be cleared (though this would be a good opportunity for the television- and film-streaming service to introduce a pay model for).
Gamewise, “Halo: Reach” will be in the spotlight – as it’s expected to be Microsoft’s biggest title this holiday season. And “Gears of War III” – next year’s tentpole – will have plenty of exposure as well.
A New Sony Portable? ...
Sony: Beyond the Move controller, Sony may finally follow through on plans to introduce a paid premium service for its PlayStation Network online portal. This would be on top of the existing free service, with added benefits, though exactly what those will be is still unclear.
Wall Street is also watching to see if rumors of a new portable gaming device prove to be true. Whispers indicate Sony will unveil the PSP 2 at the show – a true sequel to their handheld system, as opposed to last year’s PSP Go, which offered changes to the existing hardware and was generally considered a sales disappointment. With the growing strength of Apple in the handheld gaming space, Sony will need to radically shake up its PSP product line if it hopes to remain competitive.
Finally, expect Sony to give 3D a little lip service, announcing a U.S. launch date for a system update that will let the PS3 play games in stereoscopic 3D, along with backward compatibility for several existing titles and some downloadable new ones specifically designed for 3D. It will turn heads, but without a 3D-capable television, which have only gone on sale in the last few months, it won’t impact many players.
Nintendo: Nintendo typically has the biggest surprises of the show, but many of those have already leaked out. The biggest is the forthcoming release of the 3DS, a handheld gaming system that shows games in stereoscopic 3D without the need for special glasses. It’s a virtual certainty the company will have the system playable at the show – and many expect Nintendo to announce a launch date of this holiday.
The company will also give more details on the Vitality Sensor it briefly announced last year. Like “Wii Fit,” this peripheral seems an odd fit for a gaming machine at first glance, given its purpose is to relax players, rather than excite and engage them. But Nintendo has proven itself quite adept at making seemingly incompatible peripherals big sellers.
Another “Zelda” title will be unveiled at the show as well – and fans might hear a bit more about the next installment in the “Pikmin” franchise as well.
New Games from Publishers ...
Activision Blizzard : With 2010 shaping up to be a strong year for the industry’s largest third-party publisher, expect to see plenty of details about the next “Call of Duty” game – due this fall. Titles from the Blizzard side of the house – including “Starcraft 2” and the upcoming “World of Warcraft” expansion – won’t be on display, though, as the company will unveil those at a separate event later this year.
EA: The reboot of the “Medal of Honor” franchise will be one of EA’s chief focuses this year. It is, at present, the company’s most important game of 2010. While no one expects it to hit the sales numbers of Activision’s “Modern Warfare 2” last year, investors are hoping for a very solid hit. Look, too, for more details on “Star Wars: The Old Republic,” the massively multiplayer online game that won’t be out until at least mid-2011, if only to keep stoking fan interest.
THQ: THQ and Dreamworks will announce a partnership at the show this year, which is likely more than a simply licensing deal. THQ may well join the number of publishers creating 3D games, given Dreamworks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg’s enthusiasm for the technology. The company will also give a progress report on several games key to its ongoing turnaround, including “Homefront,” a first person shooter in which Americans must retake their country after a North Korean occupation. The game may be a dark horse this year in the action genre, which could impact sales of both “Call of Duty” and “Medal of Honor”.