At E3, entertainment is the name of the game

Console manufacturers want you to know there's more to games than first-person shooters and role-playing adventures.
Written by Caroline McCarthy, Contributor
SANTA MONICA, Calif.--The major game-console makers at this year's E3 Media and Business Summit had a similar message: it's not gaming, it's entertainment.

Of course, the three companies--Microsoft, Nintendo, and Sony--were all eager to highlight their successes and differentiate themselves from their rivals. Nintendo is at the top of the heap this year after the wild and serendipitous rise of its Wii console, a status exemplified by Nintendo America President and CEO Reggie Fils-Aime's onstage declaration, "My name is Reggie, and I'm happy."

But beyond that, the "Big 3" at E3 were all about the "E" word. All three presentations stressed a common goal of establishing video games as a form of entertainment that's unquestionably on a par with television or film. As a result--despite the fact that the revamped E3 is smaller, quieter and more exclusive than its massive predecessor--there was nothing low key about the console companies' presentations. With massive video screens, surround sound and fancy lighting, the atmosphere had the feel of a movie premiere. Game previews, with their emphasis on action and storyline, were virtually indistinguishable from film trailers.

The exception was Nintendo, which spent nearly as much time running third-party clips about the Wii and the DS Lite--from news reports to YouTube videos to The Colbert Report and South Park--as it did showing off new games. It's notable, because not only does the Wii have the cultural impact factor and the potential for visual-friendly imagery of people swinging "Wiimotes" like tennis rackets or bowling balls, but it also has the disadvantage of lower-end graphics that just aren't as eye-catching on a big screen as the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3.

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"Looking back, E3 here in 2007 may well be seen as a coming-out party for an entire industry," Nintendo's Fils-Aime said in his speech, "the moment that it became finally clear that video games would take their place alongside TV, music and movies as a staple of leisure entertainment."

Peter Moore, Microsoft's corporate vice president of interactive entertainment, highlighted statistics from PricewaterhouseCoopers that predicted the gaming industry would surpass the music industry in the amount of cash raked in this year.

Additionally, focusing on the entertainment factor was one thing that the companies could use to get the attendees excited. It was a bit of a catch-22 for the console manufacturers: the "new E3" was supposed to cut down on the glitz factor, but at the same time, it was clear that the likes of Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo needed to use some smoke and mirrors (literally) to mask the fact that there weren't going to be a whole lot of shocking moments.

The vast majority of games had already been announced and many had been previously demonstrated, and hardware announcements were minor. Sony made some improvements to its PlayStation Portable, trimming down its size, improving its video quality and battery life, and touting the Darth Vader-emblazoned Star Wars edition; Microsoft unveiled a new Halo 3-themed Xbox 360 and a special new controller for casual games like Scene-It; and Nintendo introduced some new Wii accessories like a zapper gun, an exercise balance board, and a steering wheel.

It probably won't be clear until the end of the week whether the eye-catching game trailers and lavish demonstrations like Microsoft's smoke-machine-laden debut of the Rock Band will have been enough to keep jaded press members and analysts at bay, but Microsoft executive Peter Moore's "rendition" of the Hives' Main Offender on the new music game certainly elicited some laughs.

Gaming can be social
Aside from entertainment, the three press events shared two more-common buzzwords: connectivity and versatility. The companies highlighted their individual online hubs--Microsoft's Xbox Live, Sony's PlayStation Network and Nintendo's Wii Virtual Console--as responsible for breaking video gaming out of its solitary shell and making it a legitimately social experience. Sony spent a significant amount of time highlighting the "Home" virtual world associated with the PlayStation 3, with Sony Computer Entertainment America president and CEO Jack Tretton using his Home avatar rather than a physical appearance to greet the audience (though he did walk onstage several minutes later). Nintendo announced a new "channel" for the Wii completely devoted to players' "Mii" avatars, which have become a phenomenon themselves.

Microsoft doesn't have any kind of formal social network associated with the Xbox 360, but the company instead touted the sheer volume of its Xbox Live network. "This is the largest community connected to the television," said Jeff Bell, Microsoft's corporate vice president of global marketing. "Last year at E3 we said that Xbox Live would grow to 6 million members by now," he said, noting that it proceeded to hit 7 million. "We've added a new member every eight seconds. This community continues to grow, and before next year's E3, we're forecasting that we will cross the 10 million member mark."

Then there's versatility. All three companies cited examples of how their consoles can be used as living room media centers rather than just gaming devices: Sony showed off the American Idol-like game SingStar, coming to U.S. markets for the first time on the PlayStation 3, and repeatedly emphasized the Blu-ray player built into the console. Nintendo, following in the success of its Wii Sports game suite, demonstrated Wii Fit, which deviates even more from the gaming norm by using the console for aerobics, yoga and even posture improvement games. Microsoft catered more to the couch potato demographic with its announcement that select movies from Disney will be available for purchase through its Xbox Live Marketplace download service, and hyped its new version of the popular movie trivia game Scene-It, previously available only as a DVD game.

There was still plenty of catering toward the hard-core audience, especially at Microsoft's Halo-heavy event. But it was clear that expanding the consoles' functionality to encompass everything like movies, karaoke and even fitness has been a hot priority for all three companies since their launch. The video game industry obviously does want to achieve the privileged status--and it's getting there--of being considered alongside movies and television as a mainstay of entertainment, art and culture.

But there's also the simple drive to maximize profit. The more versatile a pricey video game console is, more consumers, particularly those who don't consider themselves "gamers" in the traditional sense," will be more likely to consider forking over the cash for one.

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