E3 Review: Prepare To Be Amazed this Holiday Season

E3 is the conference to go to if you are into gaming. Computer games, console games, even phone games are here, and the show is all about demos and entertainment. No place else in the world can you try out not-yet-released titles, see characters and equipment that only exist in the virtual gaming world and watch live shows of costumed entertainers doing everything from singing and dancing, to showcasing their expertise with a burning hula hoop.

The noise alone will drive you to distraction as you are surrounded by people playing games with the sound turned way up who have no consideration for the people walking down the aisles being pummeled by pounding music scores.

At E3 the game programmer is king, and many are famous, their names inspiring awe for their titles much like a tier-one actor does for a feature film. If I wanted to be a programmer as well as feel like a super star, this would probably be my industry of choice.

E3 isn’t without its dangers, however: With the number of women walking around in brief gaming costumes I’ll probably end up wearing a neck brace for a week. And, although I’m kind of embarrassed to say this, my favorite prop was the car from the new Batman movie. Kind of a cross between a Hummer and a Lamborghini and not a pretty baby, the thing actually works, and if I could have figured out a way to drive it I’m sure that would have been a life-changing event.

Xbox Dominated

In what was clearly the largest hall, Microsoft and the Xbox dominated. They were in the room with the A-list of graphics companies and game designers with a massive presence unmatched by Sony or Nintendo. With the advantage of a presenting a game system that will actually be on the market this year, the crowds were massive and the excitement was almost overwhelming.

What was particularly interesting was that Sony and Nintendo were in a smaller part of the center and located across from each other. While I was there the Nintendo fans started a cheer and expected the Sony fans to counter with a Sony cheer. The Sony folks only managed to look stunned, apparently still recovering from the Xbox launch..

What was also interesting was that if you started with the Xbox and walked through the event, you quickly got the feeling that Xbox was positioned as the next big thing while Sony and Nintendo were in the “has-been” room. This feeling was increased when you went into the final room and found Atari showcased. It really felt like you were seeing the now ex-market leaders migrating to less important rooms. If this was intentional on Microsoft’s part, it was brilliant, if lucky. Well, no one ever said Microsoft wasn’t lucky.

I couldn’t help but thinking that if the company managed to get to this level of quality with Windows, customers would be much happier and much of the animosity that surrounds Microsoft would evaporate over time.

In Nintendo’s case, the company’s strategy is sound: Don’t move directly against the bigger players but, instead, move where they are not. Being as late as they are will be problem but not so much as it will be for Sony. Not only is Sony late, but estimates have them losing as much as US$300 on every system sold. That’s $3 billion for 10 million units sold and goes directly to the bottom line. That’s a government-level loss and it’s really scary.

Software Winner

If Microsoft was the hardware winner, the software winner was much more difficult to discern. Each of the big players had stunning shows. One of the most impressive was Electronic Arts, an old hand at this; they had a 360-degree screen showing a number of impressive titles with powerful scores and great audio (which is hard in a big event). I stood enthralled as I watched the videos. However, for me it is truly all about the titles, and while EA’s were very well done, none felt like they really covered any new ground.

The title that jumped out at me was Destination Games’ “Tabula Rasa,” a combination of a first-person shooter, a role-playing game, and a massive multi-player online game. It seemed to blend the advantages of each into a new category that should achieve a larger audience than titles focused on only one of the types. I tend to prefer companies that really push the envelope and this title jumped out as one that did that powerfully.

I’m kind of biased about NCSoft, as they distribute for Cryptic Studios, maker of the game that really got me back into gaming, “City of Heroes.” There is a new derivative coming in that family called “City of Villains” and I was able to explore a number of its features.

Biggest Loser

The show’s big loser? Nokia, like a rocket. This was actually kind of sad. While there were lines backed up behind the Xbox, NCSoft, and virtually every station in the general vicinity of the Netscape NGage section, Nokia’s large booth remained nearly empty and the emcee was constantly trying to give away games to people who simply didn’t want them.

The announcement went something like, “Hey raise your hand if you want a game, ok? First person I see gets a game. Sir, you won a game. Come back — don’t you want a free game? Everyone wants a free game, doesn’t anyone want a free game?”

He was actually scaring people away from the booth by giving away free stuff while other booths had long lines of people waiting merely for t-shirts.

On the software side, for me, the loser was the “Jaws” game where you play the shark and earn points by graphically eating swimmers, jet ski riders, and dolphins. I don’t know what type of children would like to play that game, but my hope is they don’t live in my neighborhood.

Brands To Remember

Both ATI and nVidia were prevalent at the show, and while I think the nVidia SLI platform was most widely used, ATI’s tie to the new Xbox was clearly getting ATI a lot of positive attention.

The two PC hardware companies that did the best job were AlienWare, which seemed to be everywhere with its special “Star Wars” silk-screened PC (it was “Star Wars” week anyway), and Dell with its XPS tower, which seemed to be running a huge number of the visible demonstrations. It is kind of weird to think of Dell and AlienWare in the same market but, so far, Dell is the only major company to step up to really going after this incredibly influential segment.

Stealth Power Hitter

Ageia, the folks that make the Physics Engine, which is showing every sign of being the next big thing in gaming, seemed to be showing up on every major title in every major booth.

The game developers seem to be incredibly excited about this technology, which promises a much higher level of realism as it emulates the cutting-edge capabilities in the new Microsoft and Sony platforms. Ageia is clearly the little company to watch right now. They certainly have my interest.

Overall, for me, attending E3 is like being a kid in a candy store without the indigestion, though I am noticing a slight ringing in my ears. Frankly, it was worth it.

Rob Enderle, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is the Principal Analyst for the Enderle Group, a consultancy that focuses on personal technology products and trends.

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