Not much that was unexpected happened at E3 this year. The big announcements were expected to be: A) more details from Microsofts on the Xbox Live console online gaming service; B) price cuts on game console hardware, and; C) the first detailed looks at The Sims! Online and Star Wars Galaxies. Thats pretty much what we received, making for a somewhat sedate trade conference this year.
Not that we didnt get the thunderous decibel levels and blinding visual effects weve come to expect. There was everything except flaming swans and disco balls and, for all I know, there was a booth that had those and which I just happened to miss. As usual, the South Hall of the Los Angeles Convention Center was where the big companies had their booths, taking up enormous amounts of space and trying to attract reporters and retail buyers with strobe lights, thundering bass beats and, of course, the inevitable booth babes. There were as many or more of them this year as last year; they were seemingly everywhere. The costumes were more inventive and tended to show a whole lot more cleavage and leg than in past years.
The whole concept of booth babes bothers me. It doesnt bother me because Im a woman and I have some inflated feminist notion about how these poor ladies are being objectified to influence impressionable and easily manipulated men not that most of you guys arent a sucker for big boobage and a pretty face. From the available evidence, most of you would agree to have your pay tithed for ten years just to be touched by a booth babe, as was evidenced by the massive numbers of you that lined up to have your picture taken with a costumed fem. Thats why publishers have them in the first place. This kind of manipulation works, or companies wouldnt waste the money.
As usual, I spoke to as many booth babes as I could, to get a read about how they felt about the job. As usual, this was how they felt about it: it was just another job and a pretty easy one at that. Put an arm around an insecure, pasty-faced gamer, smile pretty for the camera and then send him on his way with another smile. Repeat for three days, collect paycheck and then go back to auditioning for as many acting and modeling jobs as the talent agency can schedule. The biggest hurdle for most of them was not dying of boredom at hearing the same witty lines over and over again. The four inch high heels are murder on the feet, but most of the guys are nice, some of them are arrogant jerks and a few try to cop a little feel on the ol buttocks; all part of being an aspiring actress in Hollywood. That sounds a bit tawdry but, if anything, the booth babes objectify men as much or more; you are all so much faceless meat to them, warm bodies that the contract requires them to be polite to in order to collect a paycheck. Want to know what most of them were thinking about while they were having their picture taken with some sweaty, overweight game geek? When does the boat show come to town? One has to wonder who is really getting the short end of the philosophical stick here.
No, my objections really have nothing to do with grand, philosophical concepts about objectification; if the booth babes dont have a problem with that, who am I to complain? Rather, my objections are based on that elusive concept known as quality. Heres a thought: If you need a pretty woman to influence a good opinion about your product, maybe you ought to think about building games that stand out not on cup size, but on the game-play merits? Nuff said.
Now that Im through preaching, Ill get off the soap box and move on to other subjects:
Xbox Live: This service is expected to show up in the Fall of 2002. Microsoft plans to sell a retail unit for $49.95 US that will allow one years access to the service and contain the MS Communicator headset to allow voice chats while gaming. Only a few games were announced for the launch, included NFL Fever 2003, Mech Assault and Unreal Championship. MS claims there will be 50 games active on the service by the end of next year. No word was forthcoming on how the publishers or developers will get paid for their products, if at all. My friends in the industry told me a number of royalty schemes have been bandied about, but they had no firm word on how they were supposed to make a buck of Xbox Live. There were also some mumblings about allowing Microsoft to control access to the customer; that is seen as a good deal for MS and a bad deal for the publishers.
These may be probably are two reasons why some publishers, including behemoth Electronic Arts, have no plans to support Xbox Live right now. It is all very well to toss around numbers and talk about how online play increases retail sales; publishers want a piece of the subscription action or some guarantees on how much additional money theyll make. However, the good news for the service is that there will be a version of Sonys Star Wars Galaxies on Xbox Live at some point. This is a huge coup; SWG is expected to be one of the two biggest online game launches in history, along with The Sims! Online.
All in all, Microsoft is trying to jump out in front of Sony and Nintendo on this and capture market share before they get their acts together. They do have to sell a whole lot more Xbox units before the service is going to be a leader long-term, however.
Console Price Cuts: Speaking of sales numbers, Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo all cut the price of their game console hardware, Sony and MS to $199 US, Nintendo to $149 US. With the Nintendo GameCube and Microsoft Xbox running neck-and-neck in sales numbers at about 4 million each, behind the 30 million PlayStation 2 sales worldwide, life is about to get interesting for the guys responsible for informing Wall Street analysts of the profit and loss statements.
Since Microsoft expects to spend $1 billion on Xbox Live and go in the hole to the tune of over $2 billion US on Xbox hardware and has over $38 billion cash in the bank, they arent sweating it too much. The real key is whether they can sell enough units to make Xbox Live a going concern and whether the Sony/AOL online console alliance and Nintendos still amorphous online plans will make a dent in front-runner Microsofts land grab.
The real story lies elsewhere, however. Getting the console into the living room is only the first step; after that, getting consumers to buy games is the important figure, because thats how the console makers actually make their money. Depending on the territory, Microsoft says the Xbox is selling between 1.6 and 3.8 units per box, which appears to be only slightly higher than the PS 2 and GameCube. Whether Xbox Live can spur more sales, as it appears to have an exclusive on online console gaming through the end of the year and into part of the next (no, Im not counting the Dreamcast, it is out of the race), remains to be seen.
It seems particularly silly to me that Sony and Nintendo havent reacted faster or in a more organized fashion, however. With its huge reserves of cash, Microsoft can build an audience over time and become the solid leader
if the competition gives them that time. It appears that they will do so. Sony, in particular, may be thinking the 30 million PlayStation 2 owners worldwide are a captive audience they can tap when they are ready or convince to upgrade to an online capable PlayStation 3 in a couple years.
I wouldnt be so sanguine. In this market, the first-mover advantage is liable to be the deciding factor for years. The competition is letting Microsoft have that advantage; it could be a mistake that will haunt Sony and Nintendo for a long time.
The Sims! Online and Star Wars Galaxies: As predicted, these two upcoming subscription-based games received much attention at the show. Electronic Arts was handing out snazzy laminated access passes to get a sneak peak of TSO. It wasnt too difficult to get a pass; EA is pretty excited by TSO and wanted lots of folks to take a look. The passes were more for crowd control than anything else. Most of the people I talked to came away from the demo convinced that TSO is going to be a one million subscriber game within a year after it launches. That launch is currently scheduled for late 2002. Considering that the whole Sims! line has sold over 12 million units in three years and that veteran online game executive Gordon Walton is the executive producer for TSO, one million subscribers wouldnt surprise me at all.
Meanwhile, Sony Online preferred to try to create some mystique by having its booth blocked out by black curtains and guarding the access to the Galaxies demo with a couple truly intimidating men in suits, complete with sunglasses and Secret Service-style radio earpieces. If you werent on the list at the reception desk, you couldnt get in to take a peek. What started out as a clever marketing scheme may have backfired. I heard plenty of rude and sarcastic comments at Sonys expense about the way they handled this, especially since it was apparently fairly easy to get a look at the game in the LucasArts booth and Computer Gaming World just published a 12 page article on Galaxies that revealed many of the unique features of the game.
On the other hand, everyone agreed that some of the design elements of Galaxies persistent world are going to break new ground. Heres one example: Instead of receiving growth on a skill by using it, which is the way almost all persistent world games function now, in Galaxies a player will get skill credit when someone else uses something that player created. The better stuff you turn out, the more people using the stuff and the more skill credit you get. This concept is so beautifully elegant that I expect most persistent worlds to use it in the future. No doubt the concept will require some twinking to tune it, but we can live with that. Now players who want to be craftsman and have a real effect on the world will be able to see just how well they are doing, in the finest way possible: Automatic feedback from other players. Hats off to the whole Galaxies design team on this one. A few more interesting concepts like this and persistent worlds will become very interesting to play for a wider range of people, not just the hard core enthusiasts.
I have more E3 notes to go through and write about, especially about other major online games shown on the floor and the interesting activity that was going on in Kentia Hall, which is usually the slum of the show. Thatll have to wait for the next column, however.