Traditionally the first of the major video game console makers to host its annual E3 press conference, Microsoft sets the bar for Sony and Nintendo to follow.
For 2012, the general feeling is that this will be another software-heavy year, with little or nothing said about any future generations of the Xbox console. The counterweight to that prediction, however, is that the current Xbox 360 is almost 7 years old at this point, and we're about to see Nintendo's new Wii U console for the second year in a row.
But that tug of war between expanding the capabilities (especially in multimedia and streaming) of current consoles versus introducing risky new hardware is expected to be a major theme of E3 this year.
The software highlight of the entire E3 show is likely to be Halo 4, actually the seventh game in the series (or the eight, if you count last year's high-resolution rerelease of the original Halo). The series' iconic, if faceless, protagonist hasn't been seen since 2007's Halo 3 (cameos aside), and subsequent games (Halo Wars, Halo: ODST, and Halo: Reach) have been warmly received, but not with the same level of enthusiasm as the original trilogy.
Halo 4 is expected in November 2012, and Microsoft will be doing extensive gameplay demonstrations at E3. It's safe to say that in the absence of the now-delayed game BioShock Infinite, Halo 4 has a good shot at being the most-talked-about game at the show. Other Microsoft-exclusive franchises likely to be shown off at the company's press conference include Forza Horizon and Fable: The Journey.
The real star that Microsoft would be wise to focus on is the Xbox Live service, which has greatly expanded the system's original footprint as a game console into social networking and streaming media, including video on demand and even live TV.
Recent additions, including HBO Go and Amazon Instant Video, have joined Netflix, Hulu Plus, and ESPN to make the Xbox 360 just short of a viable alternative to the set-top cable box in some cases, or at least an excuse not to get a second cable box from your cable provider. (That's actually part of the reason some cable providers, notably Time Warner Cable, have been slow to enable those services that require a local cable company/ISP sign-off.)
Is the next step full-on live TV from major cable providers? Verizon Fios and AT&T U-verse already offer limited live TV selections, but it's not yet a real set-top cable box experience.
Kinect and clouds
Kinect has been one of the stars of the show for the past two years at E3. While the external camera controller has sold well, its library of must-play games is, to be honest, thin. More interesting has always been the gesture and voice control, something Samsung has recently tried to build into TVs, with much less success. Steel Battalion: Heavy Armor is an attempt at a more serious Kinect game, but we haven't heard of many other big Kinect game pushes.
Microsoft has wisely started to embrace data clouds, allowing for cloud game saves and easier account switching between Xbox consoles. That seems like another opportunity for the aging hardware to expand, with more cloud-based demos and games, or the ability to connect and stream from other sources (such as Google Drive or Amazon's music cloud, for example).
It won't happen, but one novel idea we've kicked around in the office is a stripped-down Xbox 360 Lite, with limited local storage and no optical drive, designed to be a cloud-based device to stream movies, games, and other content. Like a Roku, but with better games.
Of course, there's always the outside chance Microsoft will at least tease the idea of its next game console (which people have jokingly called the Xbox 720 for a couple of years now), but we think it's unlikely, or at least nothing more than a last-minute teaser for next year.
Tune in on June 4, at 9 a.m. PT / noon ET for our live blog and additional coverage from the Microsoft E3 2012 press conference.