At E3, video games shift their aim to casual players

This year's downscaled E3 video game expo drew about 4,500 gamemakers, analysts, retailers and journalists to L.A. last week — less than a tenth of E3's size two years ago — even as the industry grew from $10.5 billion in 2005 to $18 billion in 2007.

And the inviting nature of Nintendo's Wii and games such as Guitar Hero have transformed the market.

"No longer is there a stereotypical gamer," says Michael Gallagher of the Entertainment Software Association, which runs E3.

Displays targeted new gamers as heavily as hard-core players. USA TODAY reviews the highlights of E3 2008.

Xbox 360: Singing (and acting) along

Several games unveiled by Microsoft cater to the casual crowd, including the karaoke game Lips, which comes with a wireless, motion-sensitive mike, and You're in the Movies, which uses the Xbox webcam to insert players into a modern spin on charades. (Both due later this year, no prices set for games unless mentioned.)

A refurbished Xbox 360 "dashboard," due this fall, will deliver a cleaner, Windows Vista look to the system's interface. And players can create realistic avatars (observers compare them to the "Miis" used on Wii) that will show up in new games such as the card game Uno Rush, out later this year. With that update, Xbox Live Gold level subscribers ($50 annually) who also belong to Netflix will be able to watch many of their Netflix requests — at least 10,000 of the service's catalog of 100,000 DVDs — over the Xbox 360 online service.

Also this fall, a new Primetime TV channel will let Xbox Live members compete in (and watch) live game shows for real prizes, the first being a version of NBC's 1 vs. 100. "A totally new Xbox experience will be delivered through the magic of software," said Microsoft's Don Mattrick.

And the entry-level price, for an Xbox 360 with a 20-gigabyte hard drive, dropped $50 to $299; a new model with a larger hard drive (60GB) will be out next month for $349.

Wii: Earning a resort vacation

Nintendo aims to fuel the frenetic buzz around the Wii, which has sold 10.9 million — and has overtaken the Xbox 360 (10.5 million) — according to June data just out from The NPD Group. Last month, Wii became the system to hit the 10 million mark the fastest, surpassing the previous-generation PlayStation 2 by about month.

A sequel to Wii Sports, Wii Sports Resort (due spring 2009) will have several new activities including a wave rider game, sword fighting and Disc Dog, in which you toss a Frisbee and your cute furry friend chases and catches it. Included is a new Motion Plus accessory that more accurately interprets arm, hand and wrist movement.

Social and family play is also part of Animal Crossing: City Folk (due later this year), a cartoony simulation that lets you build a home, create goods, be part of a community and connect with others using a WiiSpeak conference-call-styled microphone.

Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto demonstrated Wii Music (out later this year), which uses the remote, nunchuck and Wii Fit balance board to virtually play drums, horns, guitar, violin and even cowbell. Up to four players can join up to play jazz, rock and other genres. "There is no need to closely follow any music notes or rhythm guide to play," Miyamoto said. "All that you have to do is hold the remote and move your hands like you would playing a real instrument."

PlayStation 3: Action and oddities

Of the three system makers, Sony steered the most traditional course, balancing action games such as Resistance 2 (October) and Killzone 2 (February) with quirky games such as the side-scrolling, user-generated Little Big Planet (October) and casual games such as Buzz! Quiz TV(September). An in-development multiplayer fighting game from the makers of SOCOM, MAG (Massive Action Game) allows 256 players organized in eight-member squads.

New to the PlayStation Network is a movie/TV download service operational now with movies, some HD, for sale and rent ($10-$14 purchase, $3-$6 rentals) from Fox (Jumper), MGM (3:10 to Yuma), Warner (10,000 B.C.) and, of course, Sony (Spider-Man). Disney films such as Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest are for rent. Purchased movies can be downloaded to handheld PSP game systems.

Also announced: a new PS3 with an 80-gigabyte hard drive, due in September, priced at $399, the same price as the current 40GB model. That leaves the PS3 high-priced, but Sony's Jack Tretton would not apologize for the company's stance. (The PS3 has sold about 5 million units in about 11/2 years.) "If our competitors are the tricycle and training wheels for the PS3 when they grow up, we have no problem with that," he says. "Anything that gets people interested in games we think gives us an opportunity to compete with consumers."

Games: Rumble of the rock 'n' rollers — and controllers

The battle of the music games is getting cranked up. In addition to Wii Music, two new band-based games from Disney (Ultimate Band) and Konami (Rock Revolution) are in the works for later this year.

Both hope to steal some of the spotlight from Rock Band and the upcoming Guitar Hero World Tour (due this fall, no price set), which cuts into Rock Band's territory by expanding the guitar-only game into a four-piece combo (two guitars, drums and vocals).

World Tour adds new twists, including a music studio that lets you lay down instrumental tracks that can be posted to a new "GH Tunes" site. "I can record my drums, you record your bass, she records the guitar. We can all be in different states and we can record music and put a real song on there," says Travis Barker, ex-Blink 182 drummer who is an adviser and character in the game. (His remix of Flo Rida's Low will be in the game, too.) The World Tour drum kit has three drum pads and two cymbals, and a guitar with a slide on the neck for virtuoso performance. No list yet, but 85 songs are included.

Rock Band 2, exclusive to Xbox 360 for a few months after its September release, promises almost as many songs (84) but will kick the total up to 100 via free downloads. Players can also create and buy photos, T-shirts, posters and figurines of their "band" via A more realistic Fender guitar and larger, livelier drum sets (with cymbals) are due, too, as are add-ons such as a real electronic drum set from Ion ($299 for Xbox, Sept. 14) that works as a game controller. The new game has a drum trainer that gives players "an opportunity to actually study the basics, everything from simple patterns to how to do fills well," says Harmonix chief Alex Rigopulos.