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Game consoles vie for nextgen supremacy

Microsoft, Nintendo could benefit from Sony’s price, production woes

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Once again, three major video game consoles are set to battle just as the holiday shopping season gets in gear. And just like the last round of console wars five years back, the players are Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo.

(MSNBC is a joint Microsoft – NBC Universal venture.)

In the fall of 2001, Microsoft unleashed the Xbox on a world that was skeptical of the computer software giant’s ability to compete with the more experienced companies. Around the same time, Nintendo also released their new console, the Gamecube. But Sony, building on its success of their first machine, had a one-year head start with the PlayStation 2.

Sony’s dominance grew, eventually capturing about 70 percent market share. Xbox proved to be a respectable entry into the gaming world, and Nintendo stayed alive, mostly due to the success of their GameBoy and DS handheld systems.

This time, Sony isn’t first-to-market with their console–that honor goes to Microsoft’s Xbox 360. The company’s second entry into the console wars was released a year ago, and has generated strong reviews and decent sales. And Nintendo’s Wii, with its unique, motion-sensing controller, has generated good pre-release buzz. And Sony? Manufacturing problems have caused delays and shortages for their PlayStation 3 launch.

So the million (billion)-dollar question is, on the eve of the PlayStation 3 and Wii launches: Is the balance of power shifting in the game industry? Let’s take a look at some of the factors that will come into play.

Sony initially planned to release the PS3 last spring, but then slipped the date back to November. Manufacturing delays forced the company to cut shipments in the U.S. by half to two million by the end of the year. A mere 400,000 will be available on launch day, Nov. 17.

Nintendo hasn’t released exact numbers for its launch on Nov. 19, but says it plans to ship four million by the end of 2006.

When the Xbox 360 was released last year, getting your hands on one was nearly impossible for several months. Now, most major retailers have it in stock.

So if your heart is set on having either of the two new boxes under your Christmas tree this year, you’d better be reading this from the line at your local electronics retailer, or think about getting an Xbox 360.

Advantage (temporarily): Xbox 360

Sticker shock
At this year’s E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo), the talk on the show floor wasn’t about the latest high-end graphics or the newest first-person shooter, it was about PS3’s price. Sony sets a new high at $499 and $599 for the 20GB and 60GB models respectively. That’s $200 above the prices for the two Xbox 360 models.

Driving up the cost of the PS3 is Sony’s Blu-Ray disk drive for high-definition video and increased storage capacity. Xbox 360 offers the competing HD format drive as an add-on for $200, making the two systems equal in price. However, at this point Xbox 360 games are played through the standard DVD drive, making the new drive purely optional.

Sony hopes the PS3 will push their Blu-Ray format to the forefront, making the console launch a key part of their overall consumer electronics strategy.

At $250, Nintendo’s Wii is the cheapest of the bunch. It’s also the only one that lacks HDTV resolution support and DVD playback capability (current or next-generation). Still, at $50 below the stripped-down Xbox 360, the Wii is difficult to ignore.

Advantage: Wii

The games
All three systems feature the ability to run some, if not all titles from earlier systems, but Xbox 360’s lead time gives it a head start on games made specifically for the machine, with over 100 currently available. Unfortunately for Microsoft, the coveted killer app is missing from that list. Bungie Studios’ “Halo 3,” (the original version was a must-have for the first Xbox) won’t be available until next year. Recently released “Gears of War,” by Epic Games, has been hailed by some reviewers as a worthy successor, but it’s still not “Halo.”

PS3 also suffers from the missing killer app. Although around 20 titles will be available on or shortly after launch, “Final Fantasy,” by Square Enix, isn’t due out until the end of 2007. And Konami’s hugely popular action title “Metal Gear Solid: Guns of the Patriots” won’t hit shelves until next summer.

Wii will have about 30 games available around launch time. Included in the bunch is the highly-anticipated “Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess,” sure to become a must for any Wii library. Other big names, “Mario” and “Metroid Prime” have been pushed back to next fall. In addition to “Wii Sports,” included with the console, Wii will feature games, like “Excite Truck,” designed to take advantage of the revolutionary motion-sensing controllers, creating more active experiences than the usual button mashing. One of these titles could prove to be a major draw.

Advantage: Wii

System specs
On paper, PS3 has the technical advantage over Xbox 360 and Wii. Sony claims the PS3 has the most advanced processor and graphics card of the bunch. But because the three machines use proprietary technology and software, comparing numbers could be misleading.

PS3 also features the aforementioned Blu-Ray disk drive for more game content and next-generation video playback – and it can handle video up to 1080p resolution. The PS3 also supports up to 7 wireless controller connections, which means that you and six buddies can play in the same room, at the same time. The more expensive unit also includes Wi-Fi connectivity.

Xbox 360 boasts more video and processing memory, but again, comparing numbers to numbers is unreliable. As stated previously, an HD drive is available as an add-on for next-generation video playback. A recently released downloadable update bumped the maximum video resolution to 1080p. Up to 4 wireless controllers can be connected. A Wi-Fi network adapter is available separately.

Wii is the most primitive of the bunch. It doesn’t offer high-resolution video or next-generation (or even first-generation) DVD support. Four of Wii’s unique controllers can connect wirelessly and Wi-Fi connectivity is built in.

Advantage: PS3

Business strategy
All three companies have different approaches to capture as much of the market as possible. Nintendo hopes it can attract a previously untapped audience: non-gamers. Microsoft is aiming to be the centerpiece of a home entertainment and communication center. Sony is going for the hard-core gamer and early adopter crowd.

Wii’s lower video requirements appear to be an attempt to appeal to the most casual of gamer or parent who doesn’t need the newest (and most expensive) technology. The controllers are designed to be as familiar and intuitive as moving (opposed to “Up, R1, L1, Square, Down, L2, X, Triangle”). Rather than focus on processing power and pixel count, Nintendo’s message is that it’s all about playability.

Microsoft is also hoping to lure the casual audience by making Xbox 360 and the Xbox Live service the heart of a home entertainment system. The company recently unveiled partnerships with several Hollywood studios to sell TV shows and movies for download. Additionally, earlier this year, the company announced plans to chip away at the proprietary wall separating different Microsoft systems by allowing Windows Vista computers and Smart Phone users to communicate with Xbox 360 players via the “Live Anywhere” service. A subscription to Xbox Live is required to play games online, but not for downloadable content purchases.

Despite the absence of favorite headliners, PS3’s game lineup is everything a hard-core gamer could ask for: violent shooters, complicated adventures, racing and sports with stunning visuals. The system specs will appeal to those who want the latest and greatest, and are willing to pay for it. Sony has yet to announce any non-gaming content plans for the PlayStation 3 online service, but with corporate brethren like Sony Music and Sony Studios, it’s a good bet that something is in the works. PS3’s online service will not have a subscription fee.

Advantage: Tie – Xbox 360/Wii (until Sony details any additional online services)

And the winner is…
Sony’s dominance in the video game console world is massive. The PS3 looks to continue the company’s tradition of technical innovation and marketing genius. However, shipping delays, shortages and the extremely high price tag could be its downfall. If the Blu-Ray format fails to catch on, PS3 owners will be stuck with a proprietary system that won’t be able to play the latest HD movies. Also, focusing on its core gaming audience may please their most-loyal fans, but I don’t think it will do much to bring fresh blood to the table.

Microsoft has an opening this holiday shopping season to take advantage of Sony’s shortfall and convert some of the gaming audience from PS2 to Xbox 360. The add-on HD drive gives consumers the option of having a next-gen DVD player. But because the drive is modular, Microsoft has the ability to switch to Blu-Ray if it becomes the dominant format. Additionally, the non-game offerings on Xbox live could be an added bonus for families looking to get more out of their investment than just gaming.

Nintendo, with its much lower-priced Wii, is best poised to attract a more casual audience. The more active play-style of Wii’s controllers is sure to get a lot more attention than the thumb and trigger finger moves of the other two consoles, but the lasting appeal of these games could be limited.

Sony will most likely hang on to its lead, with continuing sales of PS2 units and games supplementing the new system. But Microsoft and Nintendo have a huge opportunity to close the gap. Ultimately, a more competitive field could lead to increased hardware innovation and better games.

source: © 2006 MSNBC Interactive –