Throngs of tech media packed the theater for Microsoft's night-before-CES keynote. An atmosphere of anticipatory excitement--albeit clouded by resignation--emerged, and developed into unfulfillment as the show progressed.
It's a problem that continues to dog Microsoft. Regardless of how capable its products may be, the company struggles to generate much raw enthusiasm. And each year, I sit in the crowd wondering if Microsoft's gaming line-up will provide that missing spark.
To be fair, nothing was going to save this year's show. It started with the air knocked out of its sails due to a power failure that left us in the dark, only to further numb the audience with a mundane display of Windows 7 hardware and features once it actually began, and the fairly long gaming segment that ended the event was scarcely better. A few nuggets of information offered some bright spots, but overall Robbie Bach's assertion of 2010 being the best year ever for the Xbox 360 seemed to be on shaky ground.
Bach cited three main pillars in support. The first of these was, he claimed, the best lineup of Xbox 360 exclusives ever, with Mass Effect 2, Splinter Cell: Conviction, Fable 3, Crackdown 2, Alan Wake, and Halo Reach. Excited as I am for a couple of these, a crop of sequels to four well-respected games, a Halo title, and one original IP isn't going to set the world on fire.
The second point he referenced was the growth of Live as a community hub. After some impressive usage stats for Twitter and Facebook on Xbox 360, Bach summed up that 1/3 of the time being spent on Live goes to non-gaming activities. But clever as it may be to tout such statistics, Live's strength was built on being the best way to get gamers together to play games. It may not have achieved this yet, but I wonder whether the non-gaming element could become an unwelcome distraction.
Thirdly, Bach pointed to Natal as the next great revolution in video games. With a video montage of all sorts of developers and academicians giving testimonials, Bach described Natal as a convergence of research that has spawned over 1000 patents. BOOM video 3454
But while Natal's skeletal tracking technology goes well beyond prior devices, the success of Natal comes down to the games and whether people really want to dance around in front of the TV to play games. All the while the experts behind Bach extolled its virtues I couldn't stop picturing that scene from Tucker, with Jeff Bridges (as Preston Tucker) describing how great his car would be.
Yes, I know there are literally millions of people waving Wiimotes around at the screen, but that's a far cry from the sort of full body involvement with Natal. Tony Hawk Ride, on the other hand, has met with far less success. Even so, Natal held the potential to be a real show stopper, except Microsoft squandered the opportunity.
After verbal claims of great strides in its development and the announcement of a Holiday 2010 release, an on-stage demo of actual Project Natal games would have been the coup de grace. Instead, Bach concluded his presentation with a blank sheet of paper, asking the audience to "just imagine what will be conceived" as Natal represents "the best of our imagination, created in software, completely at your service."
No other part of the Microsoft keynote ever came close to hitting a high note--the company didn't show its most exciting products of today very well and discarded the fun world of tomorrow future tech that's always marked the end of the show. A timing slip-up meant gamers already knew about Game Room before the conference, and its glory days of gaming appeal was largely lost on the room. It's also another lost opportunity that Game Room wasn't announced for Zune. But then, despite being arguably Microsoft's biggest consumer electronics win in recent memory, the Zune HD went largely unrecognized in the presentation. That oversight reflected the unevenness of the whole affair, which left people unsure if the show was even over when the gaming portion ended. It was.