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Microsoft swings for the future with integration, not games

Microsoft swings for the future with integration, not games Exclusive

June 4, 2012 | By Christian Nutt

June 4, 2012 | By Christian Nutt
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing, Exclusive, E3

[Microsoft's pre-E3 presentation at the Galen Center in Los Angeles detailed the company's gaming and entertainment plans for the rest of the year and beyond -- onsite, Gamasutra's Christian Nutt analyzes the company's showing, from SmartGlass to South Park.]

At the Microsoft presentation at this year's E3, the company showed its hand in its plans to integrate Windows 8 and the Xbox platform -- perhaps even giving glimpses into its future plans, even with its next-generation Xbox platform completely absent.

The conference started out as more of what we've come to expect from the company -- late in its lifespan the Xbox 360 is firmly established as the home of franchises like Halo, and Gears of War, which all made strong showings vociferously approved by the hardcore audience in attendance at USC's Galen Center.

Third party games like the new Tomb Raider, Resident Evil 6 and Splinter Cell: Blacklist made strong -- even bombastic -- showings. It's the end of a generation, and all of the sequels are in full force. Business as usual, right?

No. These core games felt almost like islands -- isolated from the real underlying strategy of the company moving forward.

Execs Yusuf Mehdi and Marc Whitten spent significant time on the expanded non-game functionality of the console. Mehdi showed music, movies, and especially sports content -- announcing new partnerships with the NBA and NHL, and some TV channels, as well as the Xbox Music service (which is cross-device with smartphones, tablets, and PC.)

Whitten, more tellingly, introduced the concept of Xbox SmartGlass, which will allow tablets and phones to work with the Xbox 360. He showed Internet Explorer -- "the web transformed for TV" -- and movie playback cross-devices.

While there was a "Halo 4 Concept" for SmartGlass and a Madden-themed demo, too, that wasn't the core of his presentation, or the experience it promised. The company also plans to bring "Xbox entertainment to the Windows 8 Tablets and PCs", per Whitten, further integrating its console business with the company at large for its next PC OS generation.

The highly significant question is whether this is a corporate strategy behind handed down from on high, or actually a useful, thoughtful implementation of ideas that matter as tablets and smartphones become more integral to life.

(This question was effortlessly deflated by South Park co-creator Trey Parker, who satirized it when demoing South Park: The Stick of Truth, promising no smartphone, oven, or refrigerator integration. "Our game doesn't do any of that," he snickered.)

"A time when you start every day with the Nike Trainer and finish it with a blockbuster movie," promised the company's Don Mattrick. "An era when every TV becomes a next generation smart TV."

He then went on to introduce a new demo of Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, but the point sunk in: in Microsoft's view, the one-time simple game console is continuing its inexorable transition to an integrated entertainment hub, and all of the explosions in the world can't distract from that.

Now, where MS might find a win is its decision to work with not just Windows products but also iOS devices, at least for some of this functionality. This might be a handy end-run around Nintendo's Wii U tablet and Sony's promised Vita integration with PlayStation 3, which still hasn't taken off at all.

It's clear that some of these ideas are early and their implementation will not really be felt till next year's show (see "concept" tags all over the Xbox SmartGlass presentations.)

But this is where the company sees itself headed, and the tonal disconnect between the traditional game content like South Park, which Parker clearly felt keenly, and its strategizing is real and significant.

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