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The hottest trends in interactive entertainment.

EVEN IN A TOWN famed for its fantastical personalities and outsize special effects, visitors breezing by the Los Angeles Convention Center this June 15 to 17 could be forgiven for thinking that they’d accidentally stumbled into an alternative world. Thank annual video game-industry extravaganza E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo), a veritable wonderland of flashing lights and ear-splitting guitar solos where interactive entertainment’s hottest new titles and trends are revealed. Can’t con your way into the trade-only event? Not to worry: While it’s the perfect venue to sneak a glimpse at upcoming retail smashes like Halo: Reach and Fallout: New Vegas, this year, much of the hottest action in gaming is actually happening off the show floor. The following are just a few of the phenomena currently reshaping the future of play that you can witness right from the comfort of your own couch.

MOTION CONTROLS
Inspired by the success of Nintendo’s Wii and plastic-instrument-powered titles like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, both Microsoft and Sony are introducing custom gesture-tracking controllers. The former will launch Project Natal — a 3-D camera that eliminates the game pad entirely, challenging players to use their body as the joystick — in time for the holidays. As for Sony, its new PlayStation Move controller (a glowing-ball-tipped wand that you can wield like a sword, a golf club or, when two are used in tandem, a bow and arrow) will debut for under $100 this fall.

SOCIAL GAMES
Featuring instantly intuitive interfaces, numerous multiplayer elements and a variety of familiar topics (food, fashion, etc.), titles for social networks such as Facebook and Bebo are now the hottest thing in gaming. (Case in point: Zynga’s FarmVille currently boasts more than 80 million players — seven times that of the fabled World of Warcraft and more than the entire population of France, Italy or the U. K .) Even more amazing, with services like MySpace and Hi5 now making concerted pushes to court game developers, the thousands of titles presently available on these platforms, from Mafia Wars to Pet Society, may soon increase tenfold.

TRADITIONAL TITLES
After decades of games being created by 18- to 34-year-old Caucasian males for an identical audience (hence all those zombies and giant robots), in 2006, when the Wii launched, publishers finally woke up to the value of creating titles for the general public. But after a staggering overall 8.6 percent drop in industry sales last year, and with rabid enthusiasts still the field’s most ardent evangelists and financial supporters, in 2010, it’s all about games again for die-hard aficionados, from Fable III to Brink and L.A. Noire.

ONLINE GAMES
Once upon a time, 3-D virtual worlds like EverQuest and Aion were the hottest thing online. But now they’re facing increasing competition from countless free-to-play titles (Free Realms, Dungeon Fighter Online) and zero-cost web-browser-based outings (see: Shockwave.com or Newgrounds.com). Simultaneously, bite-size, digitally retrievable games from services like Steam, Xbox Live and WiiWare are also gaining in stature, given their low cost and high convenience. Downloadable content (DLC) such as extra maps and levels for games like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and BioShock 2 is further helping extend even traditional titles’ shelf lives. But the most potentially revolutionary developments here are the advances that have been made in cloud computing. Credit services like OnLive, Gaikai, InstantAction and Otoy, which aim to process computationally demanding games remotely and then stream them back to your PC, TV or smartphone via a high-speed broadband connection — no expensive hardware required.