Motion controls to grab players at E3 videogame expo

A new battle in an ongoing war between game console makers is expected to break out at a leading videogames conference which opens in Los Angeles on Tuesday.

Typically a stage for new blockbuster titles, the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) this year will also be an arena where Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo duel with motion-sensing controls for rival PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and Wii consoles.

"Motion controls are by far and away going to be the talk of the show," said Scott Steinberg, head of videogame consulting firm TechSavvy Global.

Microsoft has planned a set of high-powered events to debut "Project Natal" technology that lets players control Xbox 360 consoles using natural gestures such as the wave of a hand.

Natal boasts facial recognition capabilities that enable consoles to distinguish between players.

Cirque Du Soleil performers known for magically combining theater and acrobatics have crafted Natal into a show Microsoft is hosting in Los Angeles on Sunday, two days before the official start of E3.

"The big story of the year is going to be motion controls for Xbox 360," said Game Trailers editor-in-chief Shane Satterfield.

"Nintendo sort of broke the mold for the videogame industry with Wii and everyone else has been trying to capture lightning in a bottle ever since."

At a game developers conference in San Francisco in March, Sony unveiled a hotly anticipated motion-sensing Move controller that it hopes will fuel new interest in its PlayStation 3 (PS3).

Move wands that synch with Eye cameras on the consoles will hit the market in time for the year-end holiday shopping season, as will Natal technology to be renamed before it heads for store shelves.

Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo are expected to reveal rich line-ups of videogames they hope will win players to their consoles and motion control systems.

"It's going to be a big battle between Sony and Microsoft," Satterfield said. "On the heels of that, Nintendo has a big show planned. It is going to be tough to topple Nintendo."

A shift to downloadable content will be among the trends on an E3 show floor renowned for action-packed trailers displayed on giant screens, demonstrations of coming titles, and models dressed as popular in-game characters.

Videogame publishers use downloadable content to deliver gaming software as well as virtual items such as outfits or weapons to consoles via the Internet.

Popular titles can be kept alive by selling new missions or sequels to original games bought on packaged disks at real-world stores.

Downloadable content has a dark side, tempting videogame makers to hold back on content in the original package so they can sell it to players later.

Knowing that glitches can be fixed with patches available online can also result in premature releases of titles.

"(Downloadable content) has already been abused," Satterfield said. "It's a slippery slope for developers. Sadly, it looks like that is the direction it is going."

Downloadable content also opens up opportunity for independent game makers to sell titles from websites and for games to be adapted in real time based on feedback from players, according to Steinberg.

For example, Bethesda Softworks resurrected the main character of "Fallout 3" who died at the end of the original title but was brought back to continue the videogame adventure.

"It turns the box product into a gateway experience," Steinberg said. "It makes the games more of a service than a product."

E3 remains, at its heart, a showcase for top-shelf blockbuster videogames.

Hot titles on the expo horizon include "Rage" and sequels to popular franchises including Halo, Call of Duty, Little Big Planet, Civilization, Fallout, Mafia, Mario, Fable and Portal.

Sony used a San Francisco club recently to provide a pre-E3 peek at a "Killzone 3" shooter game that will be playable in 3-D on PS3 consoles.

"It's all about software," Satterfield said. "Hardware is just a chunk of metal and transistors if you don't have games to play on it."