A smaller, thinner and quieter Xbox was unveiled Monday by Microsoft. The game console has a 250-gigabyte hard drive as well as built in Wi-Fi, and will sell for the same price as the current Xbox 360 Elite model — $299. The new model should be in stores by the end of this week. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
The announcement came as part of Microsoft’s press conference this morning in advance of the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles. E3 is the gaming industry’s biggest and flashiest trade show and gets started officially Tuesday with press conferences from Nintendo and Sony, who are also expected to have some surprises in store for gamers.
The Xbox 360 redesign comes on the heels of a Sunday night event showcasing Microsoft’s forthcoming motion-control device. Previously dubbed Project Natal, Microsoft said today that the motion-control system is officially called Kinect and will launch Nov. 4 with 15 games.
Kinect lets people interact with not only their Xbox 360 and their Xbox games, but also with movies, music and live video chat by using only body movements and voice commands. Microsoft did not announce how much the peripheral will cost.
“We believe interactive entertainment is the greatest form of all entertainment, and it should be open and approachable to as many people as possible,” said Don Mattrick, senior vice president for the Interactive Entertainment Business at Microsoft. “It is this belief that led us to remove the last barrier between you and the entertainment you love. By making you the controller, we will transform how you and your friends experience games and entertainment.”
Game executives from Microsoft along with third-party developers and publishers showed off a variety of largely casual games that will be played with the use of Kinect — from a pet-simulation game called "Kinectimals" to an Ubisoft-published fitness game called "Your Shape Fitness Evolved" and a Harmonix-published dance game called "Dance Central."
But Microsoft also sought to remind hardcore gamers — gamers who have expressed reservations if not downright derision for motion controls — that they were still a top priority.
Microsoft started the event showing off game footage from blockbuster shooter franchises including "Halo: Reach," "Gears of War 3" and "Call of Duty: Black Ops" to big cheers from the audience. None of these games, however, appeared to make any use of Kinect.
Not Kinecting with the core
Games analyst Scott Steinberg, founder of Game Exec Magazine and Game Industry TV, said that while Microsoft may have reached out to core gamers by showing off their big gun titles, they made “a vital strategic mistake” by not showing off any big core games that make use of Kinect.
“It’s hard to get excited when they haven’t even begun to make a case for hardcore or triple A games,” he said after the press conference. “Essentially what we’ve seen is mini-game collections and simple applications. They didn’t even show something as simple as holding a gun in a first-person shooter, which is one of if not the most popular genres out there.”
And while Microsoft did show off a “Star Wars” light saber battle game, Steinberg felt it probably didn’t do much to impress avid players, who would be likely to notice that the game appeared to plays on rails.
Indeed, while the full-body controls were intriguing to watch in motion on stage, much of the Kinect games that Microsoft showed off were distinctly reminicent of well-known Wii games. The package of games called "Kinect Sports" in particular felt a lot like "Wii Sports."
When it comes to Kinect’s future success, Steinberg said, “I think there’s a key component missing here in that there is no single killer app that stands out on the gaming side — that must-have title that absolutely demands that the hardware get into millions of homes.”
At the same time, he acknowledged that the technology is new and that it will take developers and publishers time to figure out how to put it to use in truly impressive ways.
“Right now you’re seeing early and primitive uses of the technology,” he said. “I expect we’ll see bigger and better things.”
Despite some of his concerns, Steinberg said he was very impressed with the way that Kinect can be used to interact with entertainment beyond games. During various demonstrations, Microsoft employees on Monday showed how Kinect users could simply wave their hands and point fingers to select music to listen to, to select and fast-forward movies they're watching and to select friends to chat with online.
Jesse Divnich, a video game analyst with EEDAR, also was impressed.
“Microsoft Kinect will mark a significant change in how consumers use their Xbox 360, not just for traditional gaming, but how consumers interact with all forms of entertainment,” he said. “Kinect is Microsoft’s answer to creating a true multi-media experience the whole family can enjoy.”
Certainly, when it comes to motion, Microsoft is going to face some serious competition not only during this week’s E3, but in the months to come as Sony reveals more about its own motion control device known as PlayStation Move and as Nintendo continues to unveil motion control games for Wii and, more importantly, games that make use of Nintendo’s more-precise control device known as MotionPlus.
All of this news and these new gaming peripherals couldn’t make Frank Gibeau, president of the EA Games label, happier.
“For us, whenever there is a hardware war we win because we make the bullets,” he said. “We’re a platform-agnostic company and the more devices out there, the better it is for us.”
At a press conference on Monday afternoon, EA executives showed off a number of games they are developing for various game consoles, including “Crysis 2” and “Bulletstorm” — which will appear on PS3, Xbox 360 and the PC.
EA also revealed its latest fitness game — one that they’ve created to take advantage of the motion controls on all three game consoles. It’s called “EA Sports Active 2” and it puts the Kinect, Move and Wii motion controls to work in different ways on each platform, helping players work out and get in shape while gaming at home.
When asked which motion control game device he thinks will come out on top, Gibeau said it was much too early to tell.
More importantly, he pointed out, “They’re so differentiated as platforms that really it’s a win for consumers because they have so much choice out there.”
You’ll can follow Winda Benedetti as she follows video games .