Games Invade Comdex

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates opened the Comdex Computer Show in Las Vegas this week by proclaiming the new name of the show "Comde-xp" in support of his company's new operating system and office suite. However, fully a third of his speech was devoted not to high-end networking tools or productivity software, but to the Xbox launch this week.

If the 15,000-person capacity crowd was any indication of the pending popularity of the Xbox system, then Microsoft is going to have a huge hit on their hands. Gates even brought out an Xbox to demonstrate the capabilities of the system to compare it to the competition. But beyond great games, Gates gave his vision of a typical household in the next ten years, with the Xbox being the centerpiece of an incredible home entertainment environment.

Seamus Blackley, head of the Xbox team at Microsoft, came on stage to show off the console. Gates took a new Xbox and had it plugged in and running in under 10 seconds.

"Gosh, we ought to do this for PC's," he said.

The first game that was demoed for the crowd was NFL Fever. The game looked to have undergone major revisions since the demo for the Game Industry News staff at E3. Textures were crisp and the players looked highly realistic, even when blown up to several stories tall on three big screens flanking Gates and his team.

Blackley called a play and had the quarterback throw the ball downfield. The receiver was well covered and not able to make a catch. Blackley wondered aloud why his receiver had missed and put the game in replay mode to find out.

In replay mode he was able to pause the game and then in a matrix-like effect, move the camera to any angle around the player. As he rotated the camera around the quarterback, the audience oohed and ahhed.

"Don't try this on a PS2," Blackley said.

As the ball was thrown he again paused the game and zoomed in very close on the football itself, which revealed textures exactly as they would appear on a real football. Blackley used this as an example as to why the Xbox would outperform the GameCube in all aspects.

"Our ball has more video memory in it than the entire system on GameCube," he said. Later on he said he wondered what Nintendo was thinking by putting out such an underpowered console.

Gates and Blackley then displayed some of the special features of Xbox, such as parental ratings control not just for movies, but for the games. The Xbox can be set to not allow "M" rated games – or any other level – to play without first entering a parental password.

According to Gates, the Xbox is more than just a game console. In the future, Gates said the Xbox would be the center of the home entertainment network. He gave several examples of a home of the future. In one example, a woman comes home and snaps a new LCD computer monitor to the refrigerator. The home network automatically senses the new device and asks her what she would like displayed on the screen. Then television programs, games, family pictures or anything else really could be used with that new screen.

The only thing holding back these amazing applications according to Gates is the cost of putting high-bandwidth connections into homes. As the price of cable, DSL and other high speed connections comes down, expect to see more advanced home networking tools being developed, many of which will have entertainment as their focus. The high-powered Xbox will be the centerpiece and gateway into the new world, he said. As far as timeframe, Gates predicted the prices will have fallen enough that we will start to see significant high speed connection saturation within about five years.

Both Gates and Blackley were confident that the Xbox launch this week would be a very strong showing for the company. Though they can't really hope to top PS2's popularity in the first year or two, its clear that the Gates team is expecting a battle, and are going to make every effort – read spare no expense – to make sure that Xbox and Microsoft come out on top, again.

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