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Latest Microsoft Interactive Entertainment Gaming News

As the industry gears up for E3, Microsoft is preparing to unveil the next wave of premium game content and online gaming services for Xbox 360, and there are more surprises just around the corner.

The World Embraces Xbox 360

The worldwide Xbox 360 launch was met with great success and fanfare in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore on March 16 and Australia and New Zealand on March 23, successfully placing the console around the world.

The launch “down under” was the highest grossing entertainment launch in Australian history – grossing more than the Harry Potter books or the Lord of the Rings movies. More than 350 stores opened in Australia and New Zealand at midnight and the console availability may have temporarily impacted the region’s productivity: more than half of customers who preordered a console said they intended to take a day off from work to play their new consoles. More than 30,000 consoles sold in the first four days, making Xbox 360 the fastest-selling console launch in Australian history.

The excitement continues on April 22 when Australia aims to break records again, this time with the world’s largest water balloon fight. The water balloon event ties into the console’s “Jump In” brand advertising tagline, which has heralded the next generation of gaming (check out the ad online at xbox.com.au/waterballoon). The event takes place at Coogee Beach, one of Australia’s iconic beaches. Thousands of gamers from all over the world will launch more than 50,000 water balloons at each other.

Australia isn’t the only country stepping up the fun. In a news conference in Tokyo on April 6, Takashi Sensui, the new general manager of the Japanese Xbox division, announced that 15 more games would be added to the Japanese lineup by summer, bringing the total to 40 – a number that is expected to double by the end of the year. Also announced was the “Blue Limited Edition” Xbox 360 model themed after the FIFA World Cup, of which Xbox 360 is the official games console. A special blue faceplate included in this model matches Japan’s national soccer team’s color. Other Japanese-exclusive content includes an online “Mobile Suit Gundam” game from Namco/Bandai, SquareEnix’ exclusive “Project Sylph,” a secret RPG developed by TriAce, downloadable anime episodes through Xbox Live Marketplace, and the upcoming RPGs “Lost Odyssey” and “Blue Dragon.”

In an effort to meet the unwavering demand for Xbox 360 across the world, Microsoft is now shipping two to three times the number of consoles that had previously been shipped to retailers each week. This keeps us firmly on track to meet forecast of 4.5 to 5.5 million units worldwide by the end of June 2006.

Xbox 360 Games: Topping the Charts

Xbox 360 is setting the bar for high definition gaming. Both “Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter” (Ubisoft) and “Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion” (Bethesda) exploded software sales in March. Bethesda announced “Oblivion” shipped more than 1.7 million copies on the Xbox 360 and Windows platforms between its launch on March 20 and April 7, making it one of the fastest-selling RPGs ever. “Oblivion” has been receiving accolades from nearly every game reviewer, and has been hailed by some as “one of the best RPGs ever made.” In Europe, “Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter” topped the all-formats sales charts the week it released – replaced only by “Oblivion” two weeks later.

Of the 80 high-definition games scheduled for release by June, games being released in April include:

o “FIFA World Cup™” (EA SPORTS)
o “FINAL FANTASY® XI” (Square Enix, Inc.)
o “Top Spin 2“ (2K Sports)
o “Major League Baseball 2K6” (2K Sports)
o “Battlefield 2: Modern Combat™” (Electronic Arts)
o “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: Legend” (Eidos)

Xbox Live Marketplace and Xbox Live Arcade: The Digital Trendsetters

There is incredible momentum behind the Xbox Live Marketplace digital distribution center. More than 10 million pieces of content have been downloaded from Marketplace since launch. In addition to high-definition movie trailers, games and demos, more than three million of the downloads were Xbox Live Arcade game titles. The ability to “try Arcade titles before you buy” is a big hit, with an average 20 percent trial-to-purchase conversion rate (39 percent for the most popular Arcade game, “Geometry Wars.”)

Gamers can also expand their gaming experience by downloading new content from Xbox Live Marketplace. Three new content packs for “Kameo: Elements of Power” introduced entirely new gaming features such as online cooperative gameplay. Kameo and her warriors received digital makeovers with a slew of new skins and costumes available online. Kameo players will also have a chance to leave their own personalized mark on the game with the “Kameo: Elements of Power Design Your Skin Contest.” Users will submit their own creative skin designs, with the winner’s skin available to the community after the contest concludes.

In “Perfect Dark Zero,” Joanna Dark fans will enjoy new maps in which to play and new gameplay functions in the coming months to expand this best-selling Xbox 360 title.

The downloadable “Project Gotham Racing 3” Speed Pack gives racers access to new gameplay upgrades including new cars. “Project Gotham Racing 3” also kicked off its first major tournament on April 17. When users register for the event, their game becomes tournament-enabled with the most recent update, and then they compete with other speed demons from around the world in a variety of events. Qualifiers and single-elimination tournaments culminate in a race for the gold at the Lamborghini Factory in Italy in June. Registration for the tournament closes on April 28.

In Game With Fame (GWF) news, Xbox Live gamers got a chance to participate in a special GWF session on April 5. Featuring R&B artist Chris Brown challenging opponents to a game of “Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter,” the session also included an auction for various prizes including signed CDs. The proceeds from winning bids went to Habitat for Humanity’s New Orleans relief efforts.

Exclusive Entertainment on Xbox Live

Xbox Live users can now download exclusive content from Epic records to enhance their entertainment experience. Announced last month, the exclusive Epic Records Artist of the Month program brings the hottest music to Xbox Live users, absolutely free. Each month, Epic features songs in 5.1 digital and high-definition videos from a new artist, starting with British singer-songwriter Natasha Bedingfield whose video “Unwritten” is available through April 30. Artists of the Month will also participate in the “Game with Fame” program on Xbox Live Arcade, giving fans a chance to test their mettle against their favorite musicians.

Free Xbox Live Gold Weekend: Everyone Jumps In

If the ability to demo games converts to sales, then what about the ability to demo the entire Xbox Live Gold service? That was the philosophy behind the incredibly successful Free Xbox Live Gold Weekend, presented courtesy of Verizon from March 31 through April 2, 2006. Xbox 360 gamers connected to Xbox Live enjoyed all the services of gold membership, free of charge.

Gamers rocked the Xbox Live world during the Free Gold Weekend in a series of events representing the largest multiplayer games programming effort ever. Events included Xbox Live Arcade leaderboard tournaments, a series of Play and Win contests, and a mentorship program where “veterans” helped “newbies” get acquainted with the service.

Viva Piñata: The Next Big Thing

On March 15, Microsoft Game Studios and 4Kids Entertainment announced the introduction of “Viva Piñata,” a mass entertainment property created by Rare that features a vibrant world of living piñata animals. 4Kids Entertainment are known for powerhouse properties like Yu-Gi-Oh!, Pokemon, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

This fall, a Viva Piñata television show debuts on 4Kids TV on Fox, followed by an Xbox 360-exclusive game in the 2006 holiday season. The customizable and immersive game allows players to create their own unique Piñata-filled adventures.

When Celebrities Play

April 8 saw the first “Settle the Score” event, a new program where celebrities go head to head on the Xbox to see who’s really #1. Kobe Bryant of the LA Lakers defeated Corey Maggette of the LA Clippers in a game of NBA 2K6 for bragging rights – and an Xbox 360 for each of Kobe’s teammates. Future events featuring celebrity rivals are already in the works.

The Envelope Please…

We are proud to announce that the recently-redesigned Xbox.com website was nominated for a Webby Award for Community. The Webby Awards – considered the Oscars for websites – recognize the best online design and content, and by extension, recognize the growing gaming community at Xbox.com, fueled in no small part by the surge in Xbox Live members with the release of Xbox 360.

Games for Windows: A Legendary Rise

One of the most anticipated real-time strategy games will hit the Windows platform next month: “Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends.” This fantasy title has been building buzz online for some time, and fans are ready to roll up their sleeves and pit magic against technology in this epic strategy game.

Additionally, Zoo Tycoon fans will want to visit the completely redesigned Web site for “Zoo Tycoon,” launched on April 3. Fans of the franchise can visit ZooTycoon.com for the latest zoo news, downloadable wallpapers, coloring book pages, ring tones and much more.

Microsoft Gaming: Accolades Abound

Next-gen.biz recently named a list of Top 100 game developers for next-generation consoles, and 15 of those 100 developers are members of the Microsoft Game Studios team. In alphabetical order, the designers honored include: Cliff Bleszinki, Martyn Chudley, Denis Dyack, David Jones, Jason Jones, Tetsuya Mizuguchi, Peter Molyneux, Dr Ray Muzyak, Dr Greg Zeschuk, Okomoto-san, Alexey Pajitnov, Hironobu Sakaguchi, Bruce Shelley, Tim Stamper and Chris Stamper.

Additionally, IGN recently compiled metrics on gaming in 2006 with three major Xbox 360 titles making the “most anticipated original IP” list: “Gears of War” (Epic), “Prey” (Venom Games and 3D Realms), and “Ninety-Nine Nights” (Q Entertainment). Epic Games and Bungie Studios are among the top 5 Developers of 2006.

The Family Grows

A major partner joined the Microsoft Game Studios family this month: Lionhead Studios, makers of the revolutionary “Fable” and “Black & White.” Helmed by founder and legendary game designer Peter Molyneux, Lionhead will now produce content exclusively for the Xbox 360 and Windows gaming platforms.

Availability Means Attachment

With increased supply hitting retail shelves, gamers are gobbling up the next generation of games. Xbox 360 had 3 of the 10 best-selling titles across all video game platforms. “Ghost Recon: Advanced War Fighter” was the #2 title, “The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion” was #3, and “Fight Night: Round 3” was the #9 title. “Oblivion” scored the #3 spot despite being on the market for only a few days in March.

“Fight Night: Round 3” experienced its best sales since launch on Xbox 360. Gamers are clearly looking for a high-definition, next-generation gaming experience now. With Xbox Live giving gamers the opportunity to download the demo and try the game, “Fight Night: Round 3” has become one of the best-attached boxing games in console history.

Top 5 selling Xbox 360 titles for March:

1. “Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter” (Ubisoft)

2. “The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion” (Bethesda)

3. “Fight Night: Round 3” (EA)

4. “Burnout: Revenge” (EA)

5. “The Outfit” (THQ)

The Launch-to-date attach rate for games increased to a record 4.5 games per console in North America, fueled by the desire to jump into the next generation of high-definition entertainment and the increased availability of Xbox 360 in retail channels. The attach rate for Xbox 360 accessories broke its own record, at 3.0 per console in North America.

As E3 draws ever closer, get ready for the next chapter in the Microsoft Interactive Entertainment Business story!

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