During their flashy press conferences, Microsoft, Nintendo and Sony all announced plans for more games, more sequels, more exclusives, more connectivity and more ways for gamers to use their systems for stuff other than gaming.
Such an escalation in enhancements is undoubtedly good news for existing owners of the Xbox 360, Wii and PlayStation 3 consoles, as well as their handheld counterparts. However, the upgrades may leave the systems feeling less distinct than ever before. Similar features and comparative accessories could confuse financially strapped consumers looking to power up this holiday season.
Microsoft kicked off E3 Monday at the Los Angeles Convention Center with a ceremony pitching the Xbox 360 as family-friendly. Perhaps the biggest announcement was a redesign of the console's interface, which will allow users to create avatars that can interact with each other and play select games online. The Wii's already had that feature - called Miis - since its 2006 debut.
The parallels only begin there. Microsoft flaunted "Lips," a new sing-along game similar to Sony's popular "SingStar" franchise. Unlike "SingStar," this karaoke game developed by iNiS enables wannabe singers to croon their preexisting tunes from MP3 players and to bust moves with a microphone that's motion sensitive, a feature that's been a hallmark of the Wii.
The next day at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, Nintendo unveiled WiiSpeak, a "community microphone" that attaches to the top of the console's sensor bar and will allow users to vocally chat. The WiiSpeak accessory will cost $29.99 and be available later this year. Both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 already feature voice chat capabilities and their own headset microphones.
Nintendo teased the news that new entries in the decades-old "Mario Bros." and "Zelda" franchises were currently in development. And for the first time, Nintendo will bring the "Animal Crossing" series to the Wii with "Animal Crossing: City Folk" later this year. The cutesy open-world game will boast a bigger playing field and an online auction house selling virtual items.
"You're able to just do all the things you love to do in 'Animal Crossing' but even more," said Cammie Dunaway, vice president at Nintendo. "And particularly with the new WiiSpeak peripheral, it just opens up the experience, so that you can be playing in a roomful of people, talking to people somewhere across the world."
At the end of their press conference, Nintendo struck up "Wii Music" - yet another play-along music game but one that uses the Wii's controls instead of instrument-shaped peripherals like "Rock Band" and "Guitar Hero." Nintendo's game will give makeshift musicians the ability to conduct an orchestra as well as simulate playing 60 instruments. That's 56 more than "Rock Band."
Later at the Shrine Auditorium on Tuesday, Sony debuted its long-awaited video download service for the PlayStation 3. Standard and high definition videos from such studios as MGM, Fox, Lionsgate and Disney can be downloaded and watched on the console and transferred to Sony's PlayStation Portable handheld system. Rentals cost $2.99 to $5.99 while purchases range from $9.99 to $14.99.
Microsoft announced a deal the day before with DVD rental company Netflix which will allow Xbox 360 owners to stream videos from Netflix to their TV. Microsoft launched its own video download service two years ago with programming from providers such as Paramount Pictures, MTV Networks and Warner Bros. Lionsgate and Disney have since used the service to dispense their content, too.
Sony surprised some spectators at E3 by announcing it would focus on and reduce the price of the 80-gigabyte PlayStation 3 to $399. Previously, the company sold a 40-gigabyte version for that price. Before E3 began, Microsoft revealed it would cut the price of 20-gigabyte Xbox 360 by $50 to $299. The company will also begin selling a 60-gigabyte version for $349.
Microsoft and Sony used part of their press conferences to showcase a crop of upcoming sequels. Microsoft will unleash role-playing game "Fable 2" and third-person shooter "Gears of War 2" later this year. Sony sequels due in time for the holidays include follow-ups to "Resistance" and "Motor Storm." The first next-generation "God of War" game will be released next year.
"Franchises like 'Resistance' and 'MotorStorm' that did so many key things for us at launch are going to be very key for us this holiday season, with 'Resistance 2' and 'MotorStorm Pacific Rift,"' said Jack Tretton, chief executive at at Sony Computer Entertainment America, following the Sony press conference Tuesday.
In what may have been E3's best-kept secret, audible gasps were heard from the audience Tuesday when Nintendo announced that Rockstar Games was developing a "Grand Theft Auto" title for the portable Nintendo DS system that would be released in winter. Titled "Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars," the game will be set in Liberty City and focus on the Triad crime syndicate.
While the Big Three presented much more of the same, they also used E3 to show off completely different products. Microsoft demonstrated a game that uses a video camera to transport players inside B-movies while Nintendo showed off Wii Motion Plus, which adds more precision to the Wii Remote. Sony is betting the new user-generated puzzle game "LittleBigPlanet" will be a blockbuster.