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Electronics Entertainment Expo
Thinking out of the Xbox spawns "Live Anywhere"
Seattle Times technology reporter
LOS ANGELES — Microsoft is expanding the reach of its Xbox system, allowing players to access video games from a home console, a Windows computer or a cellphone.
The move, disclosed Tuesday at an Electronics Entertainment Expo (E3) briefing, strikes at the heart of a goal the gaming industry has had for years: a single experience that stretches across multiple platforms.
Microsoft dominates personal-computer software and is finally making strong inroads in the cellphone business, and said it will tie those systems with Xbox Live, the online gaming service that accompanies the Xbox video-game console.
The integrated platform, called Live Anywhere, is to debut early next year along with the release of the Windows Vista operating system.
"Microsoft is probably the only company that can pull this off," Chairman Bill Gates said Tuesday in a surprise appearance at a Microsoft news briefing. It was Gates' first visit to E3, the annual video-game-industry conference, which officially opens today.
Nintendo also met with reporters Tuesday and announced that its next-generation system, the Wii, will be out sometime in the last three months of the year. The company didn't give a specific launch date or a price, saying it preferred to keep those details secret.
But it did demonstrate its novel wireless controller, a motion-sensitive device that can be used in different ways than a traditional gaming controller. Paired with unusual games, executives said, the Wii system will go a long way to attract people who have never played video games.
"We believe this approach can appeal to a much broader audience but also excite core gamers," said Nintendo President Satoru Iwata.
The 2006 Electronics Entertainment Expo
What it is: The annual industry-only conference for the video-game business.
When and where: Conference and workshop sessions run Tuesday-Thursday at the Los Angeles Convention Center. The expo runs Wednesday-Friday.
What happens there: About two-thirds of the 400 exhibitors will show off the games they're preparing to release by the holidays. Retailers will get a sneak preview of the hottest games of the year.
What to expect: The next-generation video-game systems from Sony and Nintendo will be the talk of the show. But increasing attention is directed at mobile gaming; half of the exhibitors will launch a title for a handheld platform.
Who's selling earplugs?: Walking the show floor is like being trapped in a Best Buy for days. There will be 5,800 flat-screen computer and television screens, all blaring at once.
Sony plans to launch its PlayStation 3 console Nov. 17 in the U.S. for $499 and $599, depending on the storage capacity of the unit.
Gates said Microsoft will have shipped 10 million Xbox 360 consoles to stores by then, a head start "that we only dreamed about a year ago."
Microsoft also said it would double the number of members on Xbox Live in the next year to 6 million. Live Anywhere will likely contribute to that growth, taking advantage of the vast contact lists Microsoft users have already built up on instant-messaging and e-mail systems.
Under the Live Anywhere setup, a player will have one contact list across all platforms and will be able to check the status of friends on the list and see if they are on their cellphones, playing Xbox Live or on a Windows computer.
An Xbox 360 player hooked up to Xbox Live will be able to play someone who is using a Windows PC as long as the game is available on both platforms. Voice chats between the systems also will be available.
Eventually, Microsoft said, Xbox Live players will be able to send instant messages over the Internet or check e-mail directly from the service.
Live Anywhere will appeal to gamers as another way to stay in touch with each other, said Billy Pidgeon, a game-industry analyst with Go Play Research.
"It makes really good sense," he said. "I'm surprised [Microsoft] didn't do it earlier."
But for all the innovation on multiple platforms, the experience for players will ultimately come down to the games themselves, said Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg.
"It's a way of differentiating themselves against Sony," Gartenberg said of Microsoft. "It's not necessarily something that drives gamers to the device."
The company demonstrated a car-racing game that can be initiated on the Xbox but continue across other systems. On a PC, a player can use an art program to design the look of a car in the game. And from a cellphone, a player can buy new features to add to the car.
Microsoft pulled off a bit of a coup in landing "Grand Theft Auto IV," the next release in the popular series. In the past, Sony has benefited from having the first crack at selling "Grand Theft Auto" games.
Microsoft doesn't have exclusive rights to "Grand Theft Auto IV," but Sony won't, either. The game is to go on sale for both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on Oct. 16, 2007, in North America and two days later in Europe.
Microsoft said it will offer exclusive access to additional content related to the game for Xbox Live.
It also said it will begin selling in the fall a wireless headset and a Web camera for the Xbox 360 system.
By the end of the year, it will debut an external player for high-definition movies in the HD-DVD format. It did not disclose the price of the player.
HD-DVD differs from and will compete with Blu-ray, the format that Sony is using on PlayStation 3.
Sony has been dominant in the current generation of video gaming. Now, analysts said they weren't so sure it could hold all or even most of that lead moving forward.
"There's no clear winner at this particular point," Gartenberg said. "It really is going to be a very, very strong fight among all of these players going forward in terms of trying to capture the hearts and minds of consumers."
Kim Peterson: (206) 464-2360; email@example.com
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company