Microsoft banks on Xbox 360 installed base, cross-platform gaming

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Microsoft banks on Xbox 360 installed base, cross-platform gaming

Hollywood (CA) – This morning, Microsoft played to its key strengths: an estimated five million Xbox 360 systems shipped to date (although that estimate may be on the high side), and a handful of established titles, including Gears of War and Halo 3. After today, it’s absolutely clear which markets the big three console manufacturers are targeting: Sony is looking for the electronics aficionado who wants bragging rights to the biggest numbers and the best experience; Nintendo is targeting the casual gamer and the family member who misses having fun with electronics; and Microsoft is looking to clean up with whoever is left.

Grauman’s Chinese Theater, the site of this afternoon’s Microsoft Xbox 360 gala in Hollywood.

The most significant news to emerge from this morning’s Microsoft event was the development of a cross-platform gaming network, called Live Anywhere, that will be integrated into future renditions (as well as firmware upgrades) of Xbox 360 and Windows Vista. Users of MSN Messenger in Windows Vista, who also happen to be signed up for Live Anywhere, will be able to see their friends list that they’re already accustomed to seeing in Xbox Live. And future users of Windows Mobile will also be able to communicate with friends on the gaming list, as well as participate in some game-related activities – one example being, “purchasing” spare parts for virtual vehicles under construction in the forthcoming Forza Motorsport 2.

But almost as big news as what Microsoft was showing was what it didn’t. All of a sudden, Microsoft’s is the console with the lackluster controller, as the Wii’s enormously versatile, one- or two-part contraption remained the talk of attendees even to the Microsoft show. The company will be unveiling an optional steering wheel control with force feedback, in time for the holidays; but even that will only be useful for the minority of games where driving is a factor, and force feedback is supported.

The other buzz going into the show, among attendees, was the “small print” that Sony conveniently forgot to mention in yesterday’s PS3 gala: that the entry-level, $499 edition would be minus the HDMI digital output that makes 1080p output from the Blu-ray disc viewable on modern HDTV displays. In North America, the majority of installed HDTVs use 720 horizontal lines of resolution, and some are analog; prospective Blu-ray owners have been concerned about whether Blu-ray players would downconvert analog output to 560 lines, even on 720-line analog displays.

It was this news that appeared to give Microsoft a bit of an opening, as attendees anticipated the announcement of an HD DVD add-on attachment for Xbox 360. Indeed, it was announced, and a few slides were shown. It looks like a little closed, leather-bound book, perhaps so it doesn’t dangle outside the console like an oxygen tank. But Microsoft didn’t announce a price, nor a truly firm date – it’ll be available “by the holidays.” And, perhaps more importantly, Microsoft didn’t comment on how – or whether – Xbox 360 would handle its 720p maximum output differently, even if customers tried to play HD DVD titles with 1080i or 1080p resolution. So all of a sudden, it appears the two premiere vehicles for high-definition displays in North America have both started shutting the door on that prospect, as they turn their focus toward their own native content. Nintendo actually seemed to benefit today from not having to bother with this problem.

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