The video game industry's biggest trade conference -- E3 -- revs up this week. It's the equivalent of fashion week for gamers, the opportunity to reveal the best of what the nearly $50 billion industry is cooking: consoles, games, the works.
This year the big buzz is about players generating their own content and companies chasing a growing group of casual gamers -- users who never thought of themselves as hard core fans. Unlike previous years in which consoles generated the biggest news, E3 14 is about the games themselves.
And while some E3 critics say the conference is a half-baked, lackluster affair, that doesn't mean there's nothing to salivate over. Here's a quick preview of what to expect from the conference, which wraps up Thursday:
User-Generated Content: Do It Yourself
User-generated content games -- games in which players develop and program the video world themselves -- are going to be big this year.
"They're Web 2.0 for video games," said Guy Cocker, the features editor for GameSpot UK, "and all the big game companies are jumping onboard."
One of the most hyped games in this category is "Spore" from Electronic Arts. "Spore" was designed by Will Wright, the creator of "SimCity" and "The Sims," one of the most successful game franchises ever created. In the game, Charles Darwin-esque players control the evolution of a species, from microbe to intelligent being to galactic explorer. They even create the characters.
While "Spore" is scheduled for release in September, Wright said players have already created more than 1.7 million imaginary species on the game's demonstration version. That's more known species than inhabit Earth, Wright told a crowded theater during an EA press conference Monday.
Another user-generated game is "LittleBigPlanet" from SCEE on PlayStation 3. In this world, players make all the choices for their characters, "Sackboy" or "Sackgirl." Everything is customizable, and players build their own locations and generate their own levels.
"Venture capitalists are putting a lot of money into games like "LittleBigPlanet" and "Spore," said Brandon Sheffield, editor in chief of Game Developer Magazine. The buzz is that these games are going to usher in a new generation of player-driven video games, he said.
However, questions about how these games will make money after the initial purchases are already creeping up.
"'The Sims' games made so much money because players purchased extra clothing and packages for the characters. How will these new user-generated games make money if the players are making all the extras themselves?" said Cocker.
Music Games: Rocking Hard
"There's going to be a proliferation of music, rhythm, singing and dancing games this year," said George Jones, editorial director of GamePro.com.
Titles like Activision's "Guitar Hero World Tour," EA's "Rock Band 2," Konami's "Rock Revolution" and Microsoft's "Lips," which enable players to rock out on real instruments, are expected to generate some of the biggest attention in this category.
"Guitar Hero World Tour" will give players the ability to compose and record their own music. "Rock Revolution" will feature the biggest drum set yet -- a six-pad station with a kick drum. "Rock Band 2" will have an 84-track set list, including Duran, Duran, Fleetwood Mac, the Donnas. There will be the option to buy more, of course. Microsoft's karaoke game "Lips" will allow players to plug their Mp3 player into the console and sing songs directly from their music library.
The popularity and prevalence of music games at E3 is a sign the industry is going after casual gamers, said Cocker. They're trying to emulate Nintendo's success with the Wii and tap into a growing corner of the market -- gamers who aren't your typical die-hard fans, he said.
His only criticism is the companies are reinventing the wheel in the process.
"Many of these titles are extensions to games from previous years," said Sheffield. "And games like "Lips" have been popular in Europe and the U.K. for years. We're not seeing anything new here."
Shooter Games: More Weapons to Die For
While casual gamers are becoming a more sought-after target this year, E3 will also include a bevy of titles for hard-core gamers.
One of the most anticipated games in this category is Epic Studio's "Gears of War 2," for Xbox 360. In this third-person shooter game, the hero Marcus Fenix and the rest of the COG Delta Squad try to prevent the Locusts from destroying entire cities. It's supposed to be bloodier, more gory and offer enhanced multiplayer modes.
Other games on view at E3 that blogs are hyping include "Resident Evil 5" (Capcom, PlayStation 3/ Xbox 360); "God of War III" (Sony, PlayStation 3); "Beyond Good and Evil 2" (Ubisoft, PlayStation 3/Xbox 360); "Resistance 2" (SCEA, PlayStation 3); and "MadWorld" (PlatinumGames,Wii).
Sports Games: Stats Galore
Along with the new "Madden" football game, this year sports games will include lots more up-to-the minute downloadable stat features.
Electronic Arts' new "NBA Live 09" for Wii will feature "Dynamic DNA," or stats on anything and everything about the NBA The most revolutionary part is that all the data -- player tendencies, scores and team dynamics -- will change every 24 hours.
"Like the NBA, it will be made fresh daily all season long," said Peter Moore, president of EA Sports.
And it's the same data that analysts for NBA teams use: which side of the court Kobe Bryant favors when he shoots; how the Celtics pass as a unit; and midseason trades. The game's designers say it will reach new levels of realism.
The Other Stuff
While game console news isn't expected to be big this year, Microsoft announced it will drop the price of the Xbox 360 from $360 to $300. Microsoft also announced that it will integrate more downloadable content options into its lineup. Users will now be able to download Netflix through their Xbox 360.
In the past 2 ½ years, Microsoft has generated $1 billion off the 500 million items downloaded off Xbox live. Expect other companies to reveal similar features.
Other talked about E3 game news? "Final Fantasy XIII" by Square Enix will make a much anticipated platform jump to Xbox 360.
E3: All Hyped Out?
While the excitement of E3 is mainly over the unveilings and the announcements, a lot of the buzz is also about whether this years' E3 will measure up to how it used to be.
In its heyday, E3 was the world's largest video game convention, complete with rowdy fans and "booth babes" -- women dressed in skimpy outfits. Since 2006, the babes have been banned. It's probably just a coincidence, but the event has also gotten smaller ever since.
"In the past few years, it's gotten more and more about the business than the games," said Cocker. "In the past, it used to be these huge events. Now it feels like a giant big press conference."
E3 has also been plagued by industry dropouts. Activision Blizzard Inc., one of the industry's biggest game companies, pulled out of both the trade group that runs the conference, the Entertainment Software Association, and the trade show itself. George Lucas' game studio, LucasArts, and Id Software also dropped out of the ESA but will participate in E3.
Other criticisms of the conference include timing. E3 runs later now than in previous years and coincides with a sales lull for some companies. It also means many autumn titles that will be shown here have already been publicized.
"It's still a big deal, but it seems like some of the life was sucked out it," said Cocker. "It's not over yet though."