Xbox briefing 12 Phil SpencerIt didn’t take Phil Spencer, Head of Xbox for Microsoft, long to tack back from last year’s entertainment focus to one purely about games, which is all he said he would talk about during this morning’s presentation to media and analysts ahead of the big E3 videogame conference in Los Angeles. “This generation (of game consoles) is off to the hottest start in history,” Spencer said. “This benefits everyone…especially gamers.”

That games-only focus is a far cry from last year, when the company spent much of its annual E3 pre-briefing touting the cross-media capabilities of its just-announced Xbox One console and interactive video programming to come from the Xbox Entertainment Studios. The interactive programming has been slow to arrive. More importantly, Xbox One sales have been good, but despite some extremely impressive technology, still lag well behind Sony’s competing PS4, which like the Xbox One launched in November and costs $100 less. The Xbox One’s stumbling launch, with controversies over policies some gamers called anti-consumer and the departure of Xbox chief Don Mattrick to Zynga, didn’t help either.

Xbox The DivisionThat said, there were a few tidbits of news today with strong Hollywood connections. Harmonix, the big maker of music- and dance-based games, announced Disney Fantasia Music Evolved, which, along with another entry in its Dance Central franchise, founder and Chief Creative Officer Alex Rigopulos said, would feature “expressive motion game play.” What that quite means, besides more dancing and music, isn’t clear, because he didn’t show any game play or video. And the franchise that made the original Xbox a hit, Halo, will get a career retrospective, combining all the installments of the game remastered for the Xbox One, plus the previously announced live-action digital video series Halo Nightfall, produced by Ridley Scott. And the audience got an update on Tom Clancy’s The Division, loosely based on the work of the techno-thriller author. The next Assassin’s Creed installment, Unity, will be set in the French Revolution. Publisher Ubisoft is already busy getting a movie made based on one of its predecessor installments of the parkour-heavy stealth killer throughout history franchise.

Xbox briefing 3 Sunset OverdriveThere were lots of other games, both new and previously announced, though only a few stuck out, most particularly Sunset Overdrive, the latest from long-time Los Angeles studio Insomniac Games. For once, there’ll be a hip, funny, brightly colored and entertaining game set in a post-apocolyptic world where you fight off mutants. Whoever thought of such an idea? It’s look and feel are closer to hyperkinetic classics such as Sonic the Hedgehog than the usual dingy and grim fare accompanying most end-of-the-world shooters these days. Put simply, it looks like a great deal of fun. Microsoft emphasized that several games will have cooperative gameplay, bringing a stronger social aspect to many titles. And it emphasized its exclusives (even if some are only for a few weeks before showing up on competing platforms), most notably the next Call of Duty, the futuristic Advanced Warfare, which will give Xbox players first crack at all the downloadable content that now rolls out weeks and months after the big title’s initial launch, to extend playability and audience engagement.

E3 logoAs for why the change in focus, one Spencer comment was suggestive: “Gamers are helping set the future direction of Xbox.” In other words, Microsoft couldn’t find enough people the past seven months willing to splash down $500 for a box that plays interactive TV shows that haven’t really arrived yet, nor for a sophisticated replacement for a cable TV set-top box that cable companies won’t do business with. That leaves games, and gamers, the still-reliable audience that will spend a lot of money for a cool and absorbing experience that takes them to a different place.

“We will continue to listen to you, our community, and we will continue to make the Xbox for you,” Spencer said in closing. “Thank you for making your voice heard, and thank you for helping us shape the future of the new Xbox.”