E3 2009: Gaming gets more social, and one-ups Wii’s demo-widening gameplan

Press start to continue: Sir Paul McCartney, Tony Hawk, meet Minority Report and Project Natal. These and other highlights from the E3 Expo in LA - plus what they mean for brands who want to play in this space - courtesy of our game-ready correspondents from Youthography.

John Price and Nicole Fawcette of Toronto-based Youthography Inc are at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in LA, covering the latest in gaming evolution – and sussing out the resulting new opportunties for MiC readers.

From June 2 to 4, all eyes will be on the nerd Mecca that is E3. Now in its 15th year, North America’s largest video game event attracts thousands of press, PR types, and industry professionals for three jam-packed days of gamer goodness. The definition of a gamer has changed dramatically in the past few years – from twenty-somethings rocking out to Guitar Hero to grandparents playing Wii with their grandkids – so no matter who your audience is, you can bet that they play video games in some respect.

To say that E3 started with a bang would be an understatement. Yesterday, before the convention doors opened, came press conferences from Microsoft, Electronic Arts and Ubisoft. Which is quite fitting, considering that Microsoft brought the thunder, and EA & Ubisoft followed through with the lightning.

Check out what we think are the notable moments from E3 thus far.

1. The Beatles RockBand: You know things are going to be awesome when you start a press briefing with appearances by Yoko Ono, Sir Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. That’s exactly what happened when Microsoft revealed the opening sequence of their much-anticipated RockBand title dedicated to the 13-album discography of The Beatles. MTV & Harmonix, the developers behind The Beatles RockBand, have created the new game that allows users to play as the Fab Four starting from the band’s inception in the early ’60s (in Liverpool’s The Cavern Club), through their psychedelic phase, all the way to their final works on Abbey Road and Let it Be. We expect this title to be a huge success with a multitude of audiences this year including older gamers that have never taken the dip into rhythm games.

What we love: download the ‘All You Need is Love’ track for the game and all proceeds go to Doctors without Borders.

What we don’t love: at the end of the day, it is just another RockBand title.

What this means for you: The rhythm genre has matured by leaps and bounds, and the support of The Beatles to release a game like this shows serious confidence in the casual gamer. This is the also the first real demonstration of corporate responsibility tied directly to a game title. No doubt the philanthropic nature of Sir Paul, Ringo and Yoko had something to do with this. But this is the kind of warm fuzzy that gamers can get behind.

2. Tony Hawk RIDE: Tony Hawk himself took the stage at the Microsoft Xbox media briefing and unveiled his newest game in the Tony Hawk franchise, called RIDE. What makes this game so unique is the specially made skateboard deck accessory. Basically, much like the Wii Balance Board, gamers can stand on the skateboard to perform in-game moves in order to experience the same ‘rush’ as the real thing. Users can ride ramps, grind rails, perform flips and catch some serious air, all while standing in their living room.

What we love: performing ollies without the scraped knees or need for cargo pants.

What we don’t love: buying yet another gaming accessory that turns into landfill.

What this means for you: a game like this lends itself to a lot of opportunity for brands. There’s a lot of equipment needed in the game (from shoes, to clothes, to outdoor media and more), and there are loads of ways to partner with a game like this and cash in on its cool factor and innovative technology.

3. Social media experiences on Xbox Live: to address the explosion of social networking tools, Xbox Live announced partnerships with Facebook, Twitter and Last.fm – all free with a gold membership. Users can post updates, browse profiles and upload game content (like screenshots) to their existing social networks all from their game console. It’s the ultimate in entertainment convergence.

What we love: using the online services through our game console. Showing our non-gamer friends the awesome headshot we got in FallOut 3.

What we don’t love: is this a case of bandwagon jumping? Do we really need to be tweeting and posting and reading updates while immersed in gaming?

What this means for you: the social network universe just got bigger, which could be worrisome for some marketers and advertisers who still don’t have a good grasp on how to use social networking in an effective way. But we think with all the built-in tools that Xbox Live offers, this could be a great opportunity to target gamers and non-gamers alike with social experiences that are relevant and memorable.

4. Microsoft’s Project Natal

According to Microsoft, the next iteration of the game controller has already been invented – and it’s your own body. Reveal Project Natal, a codeword for a new sensor system equipped with motion, facial and voice recognition, as well as a unique form of scan and store technology. Basically, Xbox consumers can stand in front of their TVs and control their games and Xbox systems by waving their hands or speaking commands like ‘good night’ (which would turn your system off).

Project Natal is being heralded as a revolutionary form of gaming. Steven Spielberg said it was breaking the ‘intimidation’ barrier of gaming by removing the physical controller, therefore widening the potential market for consumers even farther than had been previously done by Nintendo with the Wii.

What we love: the Minority Report-style navigation of the Xbox menus is so futuristic it makes us giddy.

What we don’t love: sometimes we want to be lazy gamers and just hang on to a controller instead of turning video games into exercise.

What this means for you: expect Xbox to be the new Wii – what was once a hardcore haven is now making gaming so easy that anyone can take part. Microsoft also revealed amazing social tools that allow users to connect to each other to play together, chat together and even shop together. That only stands to reason that brands can help users have a complete interactive experience in all these aspects.

Needless to say it was a full day of exciting announcements – and Nintendo and Sony are still to come. Stay tuned as we find out if the competitors can battle back from the impressive showing we saw in the lead up to E3 2009.

John Price (john@youthography.com) is director of youth marketing with Youthography. Nicole Fawcette (Nicole@youthography.com) is a research and strategy supervisor with Youthography. Both are avid gamers and are LOVING this assignment. Follow John & Nicole’s E3 updates on twitter at www.twitter.com/youthography.