Gamers in a groove at E3

Technology took center stage at expo

Five years ago, videogame publishers decided they were spending entirely too much time and money on their annual trade shows and dramatically scaled back the events — with fewer attendees and none of the largess for which the shows had become legendary.

But as it turns out, largess is a key component for an industry that thrives on energy and adrenaline. So this year, the circus was back in town.

E3 (the Electronic Entertainment Expo, for those who prefer the formal name) wrapped up its 2010 stint at the Los Angeles Convention Center Thursday, setting the stage for the holiday season and early 2011 — and doing it in as flashy a manner as it has ever done.

Performances by Cirque du Soleil and a Lollapalooza-type event with acts ranging from Usher to Jane’s Addiction to Eminem provided theshow’s sizzle, but there was a fair amount of substance as well.

There was a visible presence of Hollywood celebrities along with film and television execs, who increasingly are looking to the videogame world for new sources of revenue.

While E3 is about vidgames, technology took center stage this year. New gesture-recognition controllers from Microsoft and Sony and a 3D handheld system from Nintendo captivated showgoers. And new delivery methods for content were on everyone’s mind as OnLive, a cloud-based gaming company that hopes to turn any screen into a gaming system, launched its product after a year of growing interest by players.

For Microsoft and Sony, this year’s show represented a rebirth for their consoles. Typically at this point in a cycle, both companies would be rolling out their next generation of products. But there’s still a lot of life left in the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. So, taking a cue from Nintendo, both are putting their efforts behind new controllers that make the systems more inviting to consumers.

It’s a big gamble for the companies. Both Kinect, Microsoft’s 3D camera-based system, and Move, Sony’s effort (which more closely resembles the Wii controller), are tailored to appeal to the casual gamer. But pricing could be a concern.

For PlayStation owners, the Move and its ancillary controller will cost nearly $80 when they launch on Sept. 19 in North America. A bundle featuring the PS3, the new controller and a single bundled game will run $399. That’s a steep price for a general audience, which typically gets interested in game machines when they reach the $150-$200 price point.

Microsoft didn’t give a price for Kinect, which hits stores Nov. 4. But analysts are worried about pricing for that as well.

Nintendo was even cagier with details on its 3DS handheld system, which lets owners play games in stereoscopic 3D without the need for special glasses. The system was a hit with showgoers, who waited for up to three hours to see it in action. But the company hasn’t said a word about pricing or an exact release date. (Nintendo will only confirm the system will go on sale this fiscal year, which ends March 31, 2011.)

Hollywood was out in force on the show floor this year. Stars ranging from Leonard Nimoy to Jamie Kennedy to Steven Spielberg were roaming the exhibits, checking out new products. (Spielberg was reportedly captivated with Kinect — playing some of the games with his family.)

They were fixtures in the exhibitor list as well. Crave Entertainment showcased a series of new titles based on Discovery Channel shows such as “Deadliest Catch” and “Man vs. Wild.”

Paramount began expanding its videogame business, showcasing titles based on “Top Gun” and “Days of Thunder” — both of which will be available for PC and Mac and downloadable to the PlayStation 3. It’s a first step for the company, which is focusing initially on casual, handheld and mobile games, since they carry less financial risk due to their smaller production and development costs. But it’s one that could become a growing part of the business, as games have with Disney and Warner Bros.

DreamWorks Animation, meanwhile, is sticking with the licensing model, striking a long-term deal with THQ. The first title from the companies will be this fall’s “Megamind.”

Even ESPN is strengthening its ties to the videogame world. Already a fixture in EA’s sports games, such as Madden, the company will begin streaming on-demand and live content to users via the Xbox 360 later this fall. Over 3,500 events will be available during the first year, including college football and basketball, professional soccer, Major League Baseball and games from the NBA.

As they watch, users will be able to participate in real-time polls and compete in trivia contests with friends. The service will be free to Xbox Live gold members (a premium tier that costs $60 per year — to which most Xbox 360 owners subscribe.)

It’s another step in the movement to erase the increasingly blurry line between videogame machines and settop boxes.

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