Despite weeks of tireless speculation about the possibility of major gaming announcements from Microsoft at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this year, company head Bill Gates and other senior executives focused on other subjects for the Microsoft chairman's swan song performance, including little related to gaming and favouring rhetoric over real substance.
Rumours of a new Xbox 360 SKU to potentially contain HD-DVD playback, a 320GB hard drive and other wish-list features were laid ignominiously to rest by Gates and the president of Microsoft's entertainment and devices division, Robbie Bach, as sentimentality of Gates' closing tenure as corporation boss, a slew of social networking products for Windows, Zune updates and Windows Mobile took precedent over gaming in a presentation that contained little solid detail about existing ranges and few announcements about new ones.
After a video "funny" showing how Gates' last day at the office may look before he retires as Microsoft's front-man this year and focuses solely on his charity concerns - a piece of film including the likes of Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Barack Obama, Steven Spielberg and Bono (all 100 Courics of him) - Gates told a heaving auditorium that Windows Live now has 420 million users and that Windows Mobile is currently the handheld platform of 20 million people. A demonstration by a very nice lady called Mika of "new" Windows features such as a calendar (that looked nothing like Google's web calendar), an event and social network tool (that bore no resemblance to Facebook) and an online video search system were followed by an announcement that Microsoft will be handling all the internet video coverage of this year's Beijing Olympics. Game-coloured alarm bells had been ringing for a few minutes at this point.
Watch your Bach
Bach came out after about 40 minutes. We like Robbie. He's great. Tonight, though, he didn't really have the firepower to back up his traditionally bombastic performance. Xbox Live has now passed 10 million users, he said in the big reveal, and reiterated the recent announcement that Xbox 360 has sold more than 17 million consoles worldwide. Not shabby, obviously, but there was none of last year's glory at passing the ten-million-console mark. With 2007's launch of Vista, he said, Windows gaming has continued to "grow and be strong". Non-gaming entertainment - video, specifically - formed the bulk of the conference's new 360 content, with announcements that Disney and ABC are to add TV programmes for download on Live Marketplace, and that MGM is to include movies.
The other major announcements for Xbox 360 concerned "Extender devices" from Samsung and HP, allowing Windows Media Center functionality without an Xbox 360, with HP going the whole hog and actually building Extender functionality into one of its new TVs. On the media convergence tip, Bach also confirmed that BT will be the first global telecom provider to allow subscribers to use Xbox 360 as a set-top box - an echo of last year's BT trials announcement. No other details were offered.
"When you look at all this together, what we've done with Xbox and Xbox Live and what we're doing with Media Center and Mediaroom [the company's IPTV and multimedia platform - Ed], it's abundantly clear that building great connected TV experiences is not a hobby for Microsoft. This is something that we take quite seriously and we think we can build a great business with great products for ourselves."
Aside from that, core gaming discussion was limited to willy-waving in the face of Sony and Nintendo's US sales, with Bach claiming that up to November 2007 Xbox 360 products had accounted for USD 3.5 billion of business.
"That's a billion dollars more than Nintendo did on the Wii and 2 billion dollars more than Sony did on the PS3," said Bach. "And if you look at the spend on Xbox 360 games, it's more than the spend on Wii and PS3 games combined. So our Xbox business is in a very, very good place." There was no comparison of sales in Europe and Japan, or of how much everyone had had to spend to make those billions of dollars.
And that was it. What happened next: Zune is the "clear alternative to iPod", Zune Social looks like MySpace and iTunes combined, Ford Sync will be included in a million cars this year, "911 Assist" is a magic car thing that calls an ambulance for you if your airbag goes off after a crash and you're too mashed up to tell it not to (quite cool, to tell you the truth), Windows Mobile is outselling Blackberry and iPhone OS, TellMe is a voice-activated mobile thingy that lets you locate local services on your phone and book stuff like cinema tickets, and Gates came back on with this funny brick thing for his future-gazing bit, which could recognise faces and buildings and stored random episodes about your life without you telling it to.
Just to be clear, until the last few minutes, the only actual game footage on the stage had been some clips of Madden '08, Halo 3 and Guitar Hero III during the Bach gaming section. Game titles simply hadn't been mentioned apart from this. As a finale, Bach and Gates played some Guitar Hero III with some girl who was clearly very good at it, then Slash (the actual Slash) came out and played the solo from Welcome To The Jungle [and not Sweet Child o' Mine as we originally said - we promise never to let Pat write anything ever again - Ed]. Then Bach said something along the lines of, "That's it. I'll be back next year. He won't." And off they all went.
Shut the Gates on your way out
This was Bill Gate's last CES keynote, his eleventh and his ninth in a row, and there was something just a little sad about the movie poking fun at his departure from Microsoft proper. Lack of gaming content aside, there really wasn't that much solid detail about any of the new products shown during the presentation, and that alone left a distinct "meh" on the lips of the exiting crowd. Not having many games to show from a company involved in the console hardware race happens from time to time, as you'll know if you follow the global gaming event roadshow, but to have no games to show at all? CES is a show dominated by Microsoft, the great American tech company, so no mention of titles for end-of-year 2008 here is surprising, if not confusing.
At CES 2007, Microsoft showed AOE III The WarChiefs, Supreme Commander, Shadowrun, Alan Wake, Spinworld, Luxor 2, BioShock, Flight Simulator X, Bliss Island, a new Train Simulator, The Lord of the Rings Online: Shadows of Angmar, World in Conflict, Hellgate: London, Company of Heroes, a PC version of Geometry Wars, Lego Star Wars 2, Halo 2, Age of Conan - Hyborian Adventures and Crysis during its keynote. At CES 2008, Microsoft didn't show a single new game.
There's no denying Bach's figures are impressive. Xbox Live usage has doubled in the past year, and console sales have risen a similar amount: it's laudable. PC gaming growth figures, however, were conspicuous by their absence.
But last year they felt like fighters, with executives like Peter Moore - since departed for EA - and Chris Satchell lambasting Sony for an insipid launch and mistakes made with online PlayStation 3 services on the showfloor after the keynote. Tonight's performance felt off the boil, and with no confirmation yet of a GDC showing from Microsoft next month - Sony ruled the roost in San Francisco last year with LittleBigPlanet and the first Home demo - are we really going to have to wait until E3 (assuming there is an E3) to find out what Xbox 360 owners are going to be playing this Christmas? Maybe Gears of War 2 and Banjo at the Moscone Center in February?
We sincerely hope so. It's what Bill would have wanted. God rest his soul.