Microsoft leans on 'core' games and the promise of HoloLens at E3

Microsoft came out swinging today at its annual E3 press conference with a core gamer-focused slate of newly announced and already known games.

At the University of Southern California's Galen Center auditorium today, Microsoft once again held its annual E3 press conference -- and came out swinging with a core gamer-focused slate of newly announced and already known games.

The company announced Xbox One backwards compatibility with select Xbox 360 games with a dig at Sony's PlayStation Now service -- head of platform engineering Mike Ybarra said, "We won't charge you to play the games you already own." This is good for developers and publishers, of course -- long-tail sales of Xbox 360 titles are now possible.

The company also announced an "Elite Wireless Controller" which follows the trend towards premium peripherals for "gamers" -- a clear stab at making the console stand out as the one for the serious player.

Of course, Halo 5, Gears of War, and Forza Motorsport 6 made their requisite appearances, looking as polished as you'd expect; and third-party games like Fallout 4, Rise of the Tomb Raider, and Dark Souls III made prominent and (judging by audience reaction) welcome appearances as well.

The Xbox target audience has been long identified, and the message toward them honed. Bonnie Ross promised the "greatest lineup in Xbox history," Josh Holmes the "biggest and most ambitious Halo campaign yet," and Forza Motorsport's Dan Greenawalt the "most beautiful, most technically advanced, and the biggest game we've ever built."

There's something telling about the fact that Rare has refocused away from family games for the Kinect (which was all but totally absent from the showcase) and debuted its "most ambitious game ever," in the form of multiplayer adventure Sea of Thieves. It seems that Microsoft is finally being truly honest about the purpose of the Xbox, and its true audience, after years of dissembling.

The format also allowed for a sizable swath of indie games -- including impressive timed exclusives in the form of Fullbright's Tacoma and Cuphead, which looks simply stunning. A selection of those indie games will debut later today alongside Microsoft's new "Xbox Game Preview" program, a direct competitor to Steam's Early Access platform that allows developers to sell their games on Xbox One while they're still in development. Like Early Access, developers can solicit feedback from Xbox Game Preview players; unlike Early Access, they will be required to offer a free demo for Xbox Game Preview titles.

Microsoft's attitude toward VR is interesting, and quite different from Sony. While its relationship with Oculus VR was already announced last week (this tie-up lets you play non-VR Xbox One games in VR, streaming to a Windows 10 machine and displayed within the Rift on a virtual screen) and today, a relationship with Valve for Steam VR -- but, again, on Windows 10, not natively on Xbox One. There was also a HoloLens demo of Minecraft -- but, again, this has nothing to do with its console. (That didn't stop the crowd from flipping out for the demo, mind you.) It was impressive, no doubt, but also misrepresentative of the limitations of the current Hololens experience.

Phil Spencer capped off the showcase by promising updates on previously announced games that didn't even show -- including Scalebound, Quantum Break, and Crackdown -- and a hefty presence at events later in the year, like Gamescom.

The company has fully embraced its platform's destiny as home to "gamers" and done a good job lining up appealing (timed) indie exclusives via its ID@Xbox program. Its hesitance to go all-in on a VR platform for the console itself may be  a handicap or may seem intelligently prudent, depending on how the next year or two goes.

Moves like backwards compatibility, a new "Elite" controller, and Early Access -- along with a host of exclusives and timed exclusives -- are not likely to move the needle greatly, however. The Xbox will continue to see stable interest and, no doubt, will briefly jump ahead of Sony on a month-to-month basis in the North American market, as it has periodically done.

But heading out of the Galen Center into a smoggy LA day, it's clear that this is Sony's day to lose; its Morpheus VR platform, which is due to launch next year and should figure heavily in its presentation, could yet outshine what was the clear crowd favorite at Microsoft -- the AR Minecraft HoloLens demo.

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