Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Tokyo tastes the future of gaming

Held over the weekend at the city's Makuhari Messe convention center, the show gave the widest view yet of this fall's battle of the behemoths. Expectations have run high before the U.S. launches Nov. 17 and 19, respectively, of Sony's Blu-ray disc-ready PlayStation 3 and Nintendo's motion-sensing Wii systems. They join Microsoft's Xbox 360 in stores for the holidays.

With the war brewing, an estimated 160,000 game fans and industry reps from around the world lined up to watch the Japanese game companies compete for control of the living room.

But despite PlayStation 3's overwhelming presence at the show, including a giant, theater-equipped booth and a lengthy keynote speech by Sony Computer Entertainment chief Ken Kutaragi, crowd reactions were mixed.

"The system's definitely powerful, but I don't know if it's worth the money," said David Allen of Pittsburgh. "I'm taking a wait-and-see approach."

Wii was a virtual no-show, with fewer than a dozen titles on display among the more than 569 products featured overall at the show. Still, the console's influence - trying to broaden the market with a lower price, an easy-to-use controller and a focus on games rather than technology - was felt. "It's going to do something never done before," enthused Drew Davidson, director of Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center.

Like many bystanders, though, Eric Parks of San Antonio and Chris Casey of Chickasha, Okla., were less than impressed by the newcomers. "PlayStation 3 looks OK graphically, but it's still early," Parks said. "I haven't seen any major functional improvements yet."

The $500-$600 PlayStation 3 clearly dominated the event, says IDC analyst Billy Pidgeon. But he also says that the $250 Wii represents a better entry point for newcomers and that too much information surrounding Sony's system remains a mystery.

Conversely, AOL Games senior editor Libe Goad says she's better acquainted with the PS3 and more positive about it than ever, yet she's concerned that people will see Wii's wand-like motion-sending controller as a gimmick.

And with price an issue, Sony announced that the cost of the entry model PS3 was being cut by 20% in Japan to better compete with Nintendo and Microsoft (though no similar reductions are planned for the USA). Pre-release price cuts are rare in the game industry.

The problem with predicting a winner in the coming battle is that it's not just Wii vs. PS3 vs. Xbox 360, Parks says. "People still like their old PlayStation 2 and Xbox. There's nothing about the new consoles convincing anyone to give them up. It's possible (the game industry) has hit a plateau."

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