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Long read: The beauty and drama of video games and their clouds

"It's a little bit hard to work out without knowing the altitude of that dragon..."

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Xbox 360 fails to convince in LA

Did PS3 reveal itself on Microsoft's chips?

Some of the hyperbole Peter Moore concocted in the Microsoft's Xbox conference tonight was nothing short of sublime. The Xbox 360 pad is, according to the ageing suit, a "gateway to gaming Zen". He actually said that. He said that Xbox 360 games will be "beyond real". How's that, Peter? Seriously, how is that?

And even though his words were the crassest of the painfully obsequious trio of himself, Allard and Bach tonight, J and Robbie both chipped in with some genuine pearlers. Allard claimed several times that Xbox 360 will be put in front of a billion "consumers" in this current generation. The global population is currently around 6.5 billion, well over a billion of which live in abject poverty. Now, J, come on. Bach claimed that Microsoft is about to turn "thought leadership into market leadership". Even through the soberest eyes, tonight was undoubtedly the night the Xbox management team upped its acid dose beyond the acceptable.

Even the setting was surreal, the Shrine auditorium near the LA Convention Center, a huge pavilion filled with many thousands of people, seething queues desperately pleading to get through iron security. Forced back up into the Gods, we were impressed by the stupid opulence of the event, as speakers poured thunderous drum and bass over the crowd. The Microsoft three took to the stage and what followed raised more than a few eyebrows. Only Allard got away with any genitalia intact.

After an intro from Bach, Allard was first up with his part of the Xbox 360 equation, presenting the new Live and its marriage to the machine's now well documented multi-media functionality. It's cool, no doubt. In fact, it's far beyond cool, and the concept itself in theory really could represent a revolution in the way digital media is used in general. Xbox 360 will be a storage unit for audio, video and games, the user being able to switch effortlessly between formats, and users being able to constantly contact each other by being permanently connected via broadband. The interface was lovely, and Allard managed to keep a lid on this in the main, showing a highly slick idea with a measured air. He showed how women could be brought into the gaming fold by supplying online puzzle and card games, and claimed they'd thought of every demographic and how to put them "back on the couch".

Then it got boggy. Xbox 360, he said, was going to bring games back to the mainstream, with Live free for the console in its most basic form. It wasn't convincing: imagine giving your mother an Xbox 360, a wireless router and a quick lesson in the concept of video on demand. No, us either. And a billion consumers? No, J. No, we love you and all, but that's not right. And unfortunately, it was all downhill from there.

Moore Moore Moore

Peter Moore now swanned up with all the grace of a steaming uncle at a niece's wedding. Now, we're a charitable bunch, but you have to sort Peter out, Microsoft. We're transcribing what he actually said at the moment, but to paraphrase, Xbox 360 will represent the perfect equilibrium of mind and body. Honestly. He used the word "Zen" several times. If you thought J Allard was cheesy, this guy is the ripest stilton yet conceived. He delivered what is sure to go down as an absolute classic speech in general video gaming history. And unfortunately, for both you and him, the games he demoed didn't seem to back up any of his outlandish claims.

Lost Oddysey was shown, and looked good, as you'd expect. The Project Gotham Racing 3 demo looked, well, real, although it was impossible to tell where FMV ended and real-time began. Then Ghost Recon 3. Right. Nice smoke. And NBA 2K6? This wasn't good. Rare's Kameo you've seen. Call of Duty 2; again, nice, but it's no revolution. Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion propped up the third-party RPG contingent all by itself. Gears of War was brain-crushing, full power, by far the most exciting game they showed. EA slid up on stage and showed a video of Need for Speed and Madden, among others (Robert Gallery from the Oakland Raiders). The publisher plans to have six games at launch later this year. You've seen them all before.

And that was it. Read that list again. The plan is to have between 25 and 40 games available before the end of the year, with over 160 currently in development. But considering the multimedia functionality Allard demoed was far more interesting than the actual game output, you have to be wondering if games per se are Microsoft's final objective. It really wasn't that clear.

Round peg, Square hole

Bach came back on, thankfully, to make the obvious - and well known behind the scenes - announcement that Square-Enix is making games for 360. President Yoichi Wada arrived, said everything was fine and dandy and his "games" would be coming to the machine, the first of which being Final Fantasy XI. Which is four years old.

Positive pundits will obviously say that the announcement is significant. The more cynical will say that Square merely wants to make more money and why on earth would Sony care about FFXI appearing on Live now? It means nothing, they'll say. If they'd made this announcement when they launched Live, that would have been significant, they'll say. Wada showed a real-time tech demo to pep things up a little, of an ornate pier at sunset, a dragon flying over a lake. Very pretty, but not mind-blowing.

PS free

Which is a shame, because Sony's PlayStation 3 announcement this afternoon certainly was. The machine's spec has left experts watchers stunned. Read this and this and this. Xbox 360 was on the back foot before the Microsoft conference even started, and considering what Sony showed, Microsoft's new beast suddenly looks flat, from a games sense at least. The Live stuff, as we've said, looked brilliant. But the games simply didn't give the air of being truly "next gen".

Bach rounded up saying 360 will reach "new markets across the world," not millions of users but tens of millions. "We will truly redefine what it means to have fun."

From where we were sitting, the reality isn't matching the dream. Microsoft got on stage tonight and promised nothing short of entertainment revolution, games and concept far beyond anything yet conceived. Maybe they just don't have what it takes to create what they see in their mind's eye. Maybe no one does. Or, Microsoft's worst cased scenario, maybe Sony does. Wonder what Nintendo's going to show in the morning?