Music, co-op games the dominant trends at E3

It was largely a quiet week lacking major surprises. But a couple of trends did emerge that show where the video game industry is heading.

Among the dominant trends at E3 in Los Angeles this week were music games. Everywhere you looked, publishers were announcing new ones, and players were rocking out to them. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

As planes packed with video game industry people start heading out of Los Angeles in droves after this week's E3 convention, the question is, What really transpired during the confab?

If one thing was clear, it was that the industry largely played it safe this week. Sure, there were a few big announcements--perhaps led by Microsoft's announcement of its planned revamping of the Xbox Live architecture--but for the most part, this was a pretty uneventful E3, an unsurprising reality given that we're a couple of years into the "next-generation" of consoles already and the fact that all the expected big games for the year have long since been announced and previewed and tested and showcased.

There were, of course, some themes that dominated the show, and for anyone who's been paying attention to the industry the last year or so, they shouldn't be surprising.

First, music games are taking off in a very big way. This is hardly shocking, given that Activision's Guitar Hero franchise and its first cousin, Harmonix's Rock Band, have brought in many, many millions of dollars in sales and have turned the industry on its ear.

Now, Activision has a new version of Guitar Hero coming out called Guitar Hero: World Tour, for the Xbox and Sony's PlayStation 3. Among its innovations will be an entirely new guitar controller as well as a drum kit and, more interestingly, a system called Tunes which will allow anyone using the game to create their own all-new music and then upload it to a network where other users can listen to it and rate it. The upshot of this is that there are almost certainly going to be future rock stars emerging from the Tunes community, much the way that some stars have come out of the YouTube world.

Brian Bright of 'Guitar Hero' developer Neversoft demonstrates the Music Studio element of 'Guitar Hero: World Tour' during the Activision press conference Tuesday evening. This is the part of the game that will allow players to create their own music and share it online through what is called the Tunes system. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

But Activision wasn't the only one riding the music wave. Nintendo, too, has jumped on the bandwagon and announced at its press conference on Tuesday that it will be releasing a game called Wii Music that will have some of the same elements of the next Guitar Hero, including the ability to create and share new music. And with the Wii's huge popularity, I think it's safe to say that Wii Music will be a gigantic hit, especially because it's the kind of far-reaching game that will appeal to core gamers and non-gamers alike.

And Rock Band was able to make some waves of its own with announcements of the set list for the forthcoming Rock Band 2, which will include tracks from AC/DC, Bob Dylan, Guns n' Roses and more.

'Resident Evil 5'

Another obvious trend was the emergence of cooperative, or "co-op" play in many games being showcased at E3. Such games included the next Call of Duty,MAG for the PS3, Resident Evil 5, Fable II. As my colleague Dan Ackerman wrote on Crave, "This year's big (E3) buzzword is 'cooperative gameplay'--meaning gamers play together, but are collaborating, rather than competing, to complete the game's goals. This often happens online, where gamers connect via Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network from remote locations."

This is an important trend because it ties gamers together, no matter where they are, making the experience more meaningful for being less of a solo thing. And this, clearly, is the promise of connected play on systems like Xbox Live and, the PlayStation Network.

And it is becoming increasingly obvious that these kinds of innovations are crucial for the industry, especially as Nintendo has proved that it has opened up video gaming to entirely new markets with its Wii.

That success has a clear ripple effect, perhaps best seen in the revamping of Xbox Live, which Microsoft announced Monday morning at the first major press conference of the week.

Xbox Live will feature an entirely new look and feel starting this fall. It will have an avatar motif that reminds many of what Nintendo has done with its hit console, the Wii. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

With the introduction of an avatar-based interface for the new Xbox Live, it was obvious that Microsoft has decided that the mainstream appeal of the Wii is something it wants a part of. Microsoft says that it isn't trying to copy anyone else, and that it is just trying to open up its system to the broadest possible market of consumers. But to anyone watching the industry, it is evident that the Wii was on the minds of the designers of this new architecture. As one commenter on my Xbox press conference story put it, Microsoft's announcement could easily have been called "Mii too," in reference to the Wii avatar system.

Sony, while having the least newsy--at least from this corner--of the week's major press conferences, did still grab a few headlines.

Among those headlines was the announcement--without any promised release date--of God of War III, the follow-up to a very popular franchise; and it also announced that it was going to start offering its 80GB PS3 for $400.

Although it did not announce a publication date, Sony said 'God of War III' would be coming to the PS3. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

For its part, Electronic Arts gave the first glimpse of The Sims 3, the next major iteration of its monstrously-popular franchise. It also unveiled a new system in its next NBA game, NBA Live '09, called "Dynamic DNA," which will incorporate real-life stats on a daily basis in the game. The idea here is that players can see their playing experience change day to day, improving or regressing during the NBA season as the real players go through their year. Those changes will be reflected in the video game in how the digital point guards and power forwards perform on-screen depending on what happens on courts around the country.

But with all that news, there's no question that E3 was really kind of quiet and conservative this year. As I mentioned above, this wasn't a big surprise, but it did make the experience of walking through the halls of the Los Angeles Convention Center feel kind of flat and lacking energy.

This actually is kind of a relief after years at the convention center where being there was completely draining. But if anyone expected to come to Los Angeles this week and have their socks knocked off by the industry's giants, they most certainly did not get what they came for.

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