E3 2012: The Big News from Gaming's Big Three

With the first day of this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo behind us, it's time to make sense of what the three console manufacturers showed at their annual media briefings. What was shown is just as important as what wasn't and reading between the lines is key.

The biggest difference between the three console manufacturers' E3 press briefings was focus. Microsoft is worried more about services and netting a return on their massive investment on Kinect. Sony is all about games and catering to the hardcore gamer crowd. Nintendo is banking on games, too, but with a strong focus on identifying the most unique aspect of their new hardware, the controller and how it works.

With the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 in their twilight years, Nintendo could have blown the doors off the Nokia Theater yesterday with a showcase of the new Wii U's hardware capabilities. Instead, the day before, both Sony and Microsoft beat Nintendo to the punch, matching much of the Wii U's functionality with hardware you already own. With the Xbox 360 and SmartGlass app, Microsoft is turning any TV that's connected to an Xbox 360 into a smart TV. That Microsoft and Sony pulled it together within a year of Nintendo showing off the Wii U for the first time is nothing short of impressive.

SmartGlass links tablets, TVs and mobile phones in concert. The concept video Microsoft showed had players accepting multiplayer game invites via the tablet app, surfing the web by navigating the Xbox 360-based Internet Explorer with a smartphone, and accessing metadata like cast and crew bios on a tablet while watching a purchased video from the ecosystem's marketplace.

Sony is using their Vita portable as their second-screen technology, but with more of a focus on games. The cross-platform playability of PlayStation All-stars: Battle Royale means you can have four players on the PlayStation 3 and an additional two joining the chaos via Vita. We've been jumping mid-movie or TV episode from the Vita to PS3 via Netflix since the Vita launched earlier this year; the announcement of Amazon Instant Video and Hulu Plus for Vita only sweetens the pot.

When you begin thinking of the HDTV and Wii U gamepad pairing as the top and bottom screen of Nintendo's 3DS platform, their strategy makes sense. With 3DS games, the bottom touchscreen typically displays a map or inventory. The examples shown at yesterday's press briefing didn't stray far from that, but added a few twists like gyroscopic controls or scanning an environment for enemies by looking "through" the screen at your TV. It also promises asymmetrical gameplay with four players using the nunchuck controller to perform typical game functions and someone using the Wii U gamepad for something completely different like calling out dance poses while the others perform them.  

Whether inadvertently or not, all three systems have second screen functionality at this point which means third party developers can develop similar functionality across all three platforms. The "advantage" situation is more or less moot and gamers stand to benefit from the feature parity.

As far as games shown at the briefings, Sony had the strongest presentation. There may have been fewer on display but they were longer demos and they were of gamer's games, not fitness trainers. God of War: Ascension, The Last of Us, and Beyond: Two Souls all grabbed my attention and didn't let go. Microsoft started their show strong with the first public look at Halo 4's campaign, but killed any momentum they had after that, even going so far as relegating announcements of new Gears of War and Forza Motorsport to check-Twitter-or-you'll-miss-them trailers, not full presentations.

Nintendo mastermind Shigeru Miyamoto's charm only goes so far and once Pikmin 3 was off screen and he was offstage, it was hard to muster enthusiasm. The casual market's been very friendly to them in the past, but it isn't clear if Nintendo can enjoy the same success they had with the original Wii this time around.