In the five months since Microsoft unveiled a prototype of its new video game machine, the Xbox 360, the company has tried to generate excitement by staging demonstrations of the console's ability to play music and display digital photographs and by trumpeting its online community features.
Yet as Microsoft has tried to build buzz for the 360, the most important ingredient has largely been missing: games.
There have been flashy screenshots and impressive trailers. But since the game industry's big trade show in Los Angeles in May, Microsoft has shown little of actual, playable games. So far, Microsoft has done little to convince hardcore gamers that the 360 will be a must-buy this holiday season.
Microsoft means to change that in a big way, starting now. On Tuesday and Wednesday, more than 1,000 journalists, analysts and game industry executives are gathering here at X05, Microsoft's game exhibition, to see and play the games that the company hopes will propel the 360 into millions of homes in its first few months on shelves. The machine will reach stores on Nov. 22 and cost $300 for a bare-bones model and $400 with accessories.
Dan Hsu, editor in chief of Electronic Gaming Monthly, one of the top video game magazines, said, "They have shown a lot of other stuff like the community functions, but this is the one chance for Microsoft to really wow everybody and get people excited about the games and convince the industry that Xbox 360 will truly deliver a next-generation experience. Clearly, the hope is that the people in Amsterdam can then pass along that buzz to the consumers."
Microsoft will try to create demand for its new machine by showing that its own game development operation is a budding hit factory. Games that Microsoft will publish for the 360, like Gears of War, Kameo and Perfect Dark Zero, will be scrutinized closely by the industry.
Microsoft is also expected to announce this week several new projects to be published by Microsoft, including a game called Crackdown that is under development by Real Time Worlds.
The Crackdown announcement is likely to generate interest because one of the main developers at Real Time Worlds, David Jones, helped start the team that invented the wildly successful Grand Theft Auto franchise as well as the popular Lemmings game series.
"Microsoft definitely has a challenge ahead of them," said Sid Shuman, a producer for Games.net, a game community Web site. "Microsoft responds fairly well to challenges, but they need to convince people that this system can deliver game play that simply isn't possible on the current generation. That goes beyond graphics to elements like realistic physics, so if I want to roll a grenade under a car, for example, I can do that."
Even as Microsoft champions its own games, the company is also eager to show that independent game publishers are enthusiastic about writing games for the 360 system.
For example, Ubisoft, the big French game company, plans to announce that its best-selling tactical combat game franchise, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell, will be available for the 360 next year.
Many analysts agree that developers have had a positive response to the 360. Yet Paul-Jon McNealy, a video game analyst for American Technology Research, said that some game makers might delay the release of 360 games until after the holidays, fearing market saturation.
Of all of the games at this week's event, none will be watched more closely than Perfect Dark Zero. When the original Xbox was released in 2001, only about 15 games were available.
One of them, Halo, became a megahit that was almost single-handedly responsible for the Xbox's initial success.
Perfect Dark Zero, another shooting game, may become the marquee title for the 360, though Microsoft hopes that more than 25 games for the 360 will be available this year.
Microsoft demonstrated Perfect Dark Zero at the Electronic Entertainment Expo convention in May, but the game received a mixed review from industry experts because the game's graphics did not appear to be significantly better than the graphics in older games. Microsoft executives, however, say the production version of the 360 is much more powerful than the prototype used in May, and games like Perfect Dark Zero look much better now than they did earlier in the year.
"Now, we feel we are in a position to demonstrate what we are really capable of," said Peter Moore, Microsoft's top Xbox marketing executive.
The Xbox 360 will have the advantage of reaching the market at least several months before its main competitors, the PlayStation 3 from Sony and Nintendo's new Revolution console, which are both expected next year.
In fact, Evan Wilson, an analyst with Pacific Crest Securities, said that demand for the 360 had already exceeded his earlier projections, and sales could make Microsoft's game division profitable over the holiday quarter.
But the 360's ability to overtake Sony, which dominates the game console market, by arriving first in stores is far from a sure thing. Analysts said that the first buyers of the 360 almost certainly would be hardcore gamers who would probably buy both a 360 and a PlayStation 3, if not a Revolution as well.
"The earlier movers aren't making a decision between the two," said Michael Pachter, an analyst with Wedbush Morgan Securities. Over all, analysts said they expected Microsoft to sell 2 million to 3 million consoles over the holidays, including as many as 1.5 million in North America.