Microsoft's press conference this E3 may have seemed like a whole lot of nothing; an endless parade of expected sequels and uninteresting casual games, but it tells quite a lot about their plans for the future.
The fifth year of a generation has always been pivotal, but the increased fidelity of HD gaming has brought with it an unexpected longevity of growth that has left many guessing as to when the console cycle will begin anew. Nintendo, who ably leveraged control over high-end visuals, have fallen deep into their year-five slump, and all accounts are pointing to new hardware. Sony, on the other hand has continued to see growth, albeit slowing, and MS has been selling even more units, thanks in part to the Kinect and the newly streamlined (and more reliable) Xbox 360 units. Sony is not ignoring the need for new hardware, but are instead focusing on their new handheld, the PlayStation Vita, but Microsoft's next move has been a mystery.
That's because Microsoft doesn't have a next move. When Unreal presented their cutting edge "Samaritan" demo as a plea to console developers for a high-end spec, many assumed this was just a coy way of avoiding the issue of hardware under development. It turns out this may have been a genuine persuasive effort that has fallen on deaf ears.
Microsoft began their conference with a series of high-profile sequels, beginning with Modern Warfare 3, and including the newest Mass Effect and Ghost Recon titles, the latter two of which emphasized Kinect features. Gears of War served to close the hardcore gaming portion of the show, which then continued for almost an hour with nothing but Kinect titles.
The stream of casual-minded games was almost endless. Particularly disappointing was the news that the new Fable title would be a Kinect-oriented rail shooter, and that Double Fine's latest is a Sesame Street game. Nearly the entire presentation focused on Kinect software and "becoming the controller." Microsoft has indeed had quite a bit of success with Kinect and they're smart to keep games coming, but the rapid decline of the Wii should serve as a warning about the longevity of gimmicks.
The most revealing part of their conference came at the very end, with the requisite reveal of their next blockbuster sequel. Before dimming the lights to unveil the latest Halo, Don Mattrick declared it "the dawn of a new trilogy for Xbox 360." If Microsoft is truly planning to keep the series rolling for three new games on the 260, it seems unlikely they are planning for new hardware before 2015. That seems like quite a wait, and it wouldn't surprise me if that changes once their competitors step up, but it seems to indicate that Microsoft has a lot of confidence in their ability to keep the current gen going.
In a way, they could be right; Nintendo effectively kept the same hardware going for two generations by repackaging it with a new controller, and Microsoft's efforts are only slightly more transparent. But if Microsoft wants to be the new Nintendo, who will be the new Microsoft?