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Archive for Saturday, May 14, 2005

Firms aim to score with new consoles

Conference to display latest gadgets

May 14, 2005

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The PlayStation 2 is so yesterday. Xbox? Old news. And the GameCube? That's downright retro.

After years of showcasing primarily video game software, the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles highlights a new generation of gadgets that should offer much more than blistered fingers.

Sony Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Nintendo Co. are promising machines with enhanced wireless Internet connectivity, cinema-quality graphics and more high-tech computer circuitry than ever.

Exactly what that means for consumers remains to be seen.

Even before the E3 show starts Wednesday, Sony and Microsoft were expected to display their new systems at separate news conferences Monday, and Nintendo will discuss its new console further on Tuesday morning.

The companies have been mostly tightlipped about their new products, with Microsoft alone in announcing significant details about its Xbox 360 console.

The curvy white box will have a removable 20-gigabyte hard drive, three processors, a custom graphics chip and built-in wireless for cable-free access to the company's Xbox Live online multiplayer service.

Beyond games, the Xbox 360 will try to replace other entertainment appliances, acting as a hub from which you can listen to music, view photos and do real-time video chats with friends and relatives around the world. Also built-in is the ability to play DVD movies.

Consoles to hit market

Microsoft Corp. has revealed its Xbox360 game machine.

Microsoft Corp. has revealed its Xbox360 game machine.

Microsoft said it would begin selling Xbox 360 in North America around Thanksgiving, and Europe and Asia by the end of the year.

Nintendo's new console, code-named Revolution, will be a sleek box about as big as a stack of three DVD containers, said Reggie Fils-Aime, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Nintendo of America.

Revolution will play DVDs as well as older GameCube games, and a range of color options are being explored, he said.

"It's the most industrial design we have ever done," Fils-Aime said.

Fancy technology called Cell will be the star of Sony's anticipated PlayStation 3. Cell processors, jointly developed by Sony and Toshiba Corp., are expected to deliver 10 times the performance of today's standard PC processors, according to the chip's designers.

Officials at Sony and Nintendo have suggested their consoles will launch sometime next year.

While that may tip the balance in Microsoft's favor, analysts said being first had often hurt game manufacturers in the past.

First doesn't mean win

Video game history is littered with failed firsts, where the technological marvels of their time failed to lure buyers because of a lack of games or high costs. Examples include Sega's Dreamcast and Atari's Jaguar handheld.

"Being first to the market isn't enough," said Jay Horwitz, senior analyst for Jupiter Research. "Really, it's the first to hit 10 million units that's really meaningful."

Horwitz compared Microsoft's massive marketing blitz for Xbox 360, which was unveiled Thursday night in an MTV special hosted by actor Elijah Wood, to the company's hoopla surrounding the launch of Windows 95.

"They're really going for a knockout here," Horwitz said.

The stakes are certainly high and getting higher in the $10 billion-a-year U.S. games industry, the bulk of it in consoles.

Sony tops last year

In 2004, Sony's PS2 led the U.S. console wars with 43 percent of the market. The Xbox was a distant No. 2 with 19 percent, followed the GameCube at 14 percent. The remainder included hand-held game systems.

But by 2010, Horwitz forecasts, Xbox 360 would grab the lead with 38 percent of the market, followed by Sony with 32 percent and Nintendo with 22 percent.

With Nintendo focusing more on games and Microsoft pushing for an all-in-one entertainment system, Sony is left in a tough position to attract consumers, said Jane Pinckard, editor at GamePro magazine.

"They have to decide if they want to compete on the level of the Xbox, or take a more Nintendo path," she said. "They're really caught in between. They do all these things yet they haven't been able to really position themselves in the broader electronics marketplace as Microsoft has."

For all three products, many details such as pricing and game selection remain unknown, nor is it clear whether the PS3 or the Xbox 360 will be able to play the vast library of games already out for their aging counterparts.

Ultimately, none of these consoles will be worth much without games.

Hundreds of new games and accessories will make their debut at the conference -- almost all of them for the existing generation of hardware.

Highlights should include a new "Legend of Zelda" game from Nintendo featuring action hero Link, another gory first-person shooter in "Quake 4," and "Spore," a simulation from "The Sims" creator Will Wright. "Spore" will let you evolve primordial goo into an interstellar civilization.

Big-budget sports games will include "Madden NFL 06," while Lara Croft returns after a two-year hiatus with "Tomb Raider: Legends."

The Hollywood connection continues stronger than ever, with digital adaptations of "The Godfather," "Taxi Driver," "Jaws" and "Pirates of the Caribbean."

But since it's been nearly five years since the last generation of consoles, the new hardware will probably steal the show.

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