Gaming moves up a gear

4 Aug 2005

Next-generation game consoles came to Dublin in the last fortnight but it was hype rather than the actual hardware that took precedence as Sony and Microsoft set out to stake their claim in the next stage of evolution in the multibillion-euro industry. Microsoft’s Xbox 360 will be first out, on sale before Christmas with 50 games available from launch while PlayStation 3 (PS3) is expected in Spring 2006. Sony will, however, be launching PSP (PlayStation Portable) on 1 September in an attempt to make a dent in Nintendo’s dominance of the handheld market.

The rivalry between Sony and Microsoft reached fever pitch back in May when the consoles went head to head at E3, an annual games expo in LA. The only sure thing to come out of the claims and counter claims about superior image processing and performance was a dip in sales of current consoles and software as gamers turned their attention to the pros and cons of their successors.

The consensus seems to be that PS3 may edge ahead on the performance front although many observers are sceptical about Sony’s ability to build and mass produce the product it previewed. Only last week Sony Computer Entertainment’s Ken Kutaragi added further cause for concern when he advised kids to start saving their money because PS3 would be very expensive.

Xbox 360 has the advantage of being out first and having the Christmas market to itself, though price and a precise launch date are still to be confirmed. The product highlights Microsoft’s growing interest in sneaking its way into people’s living rooms. At the Dublin preview Xbox head of marketing Steve McGill talked of hooking a Windows Media Centre PC up to the console, creating a one-stop home entertainment system capable of streaming recorded TV, movies, music, and photos alongside the dedicated Xbox games — “hardware, software and services” as Microsoft prefers to put it.

“Gaming is at the heart of it,” said McGill, “but it goes beyond and into a digital entertainment lifestyle.” This is a tricky strategy for Microsoft. A more obvious route might have been to bundle more of this functionality directly into the Xbox but it can’t be seen to demote its core function as a gaming console. Any suggestion that it is less than serious about games could irretrievably damage its hard-earned credibility with a fickle games community.

Sony has had a similar dilemma with PlayStation products since day one. Careful not to detract from its consumer electronics division it has underplayed the CD and DVD capabilities of its consoles. It remains to be seen if PS3 will mark a significant change in this policy and make more noise about its multimedia functions. There is certainly no danger of it underselling the functionality of PSP, the €255 handheld is a unique, one-stop entertainment proposition for an under-explored portable market. It has a widescreen LCD and uses Universal Media Disk — a new proprietary storage medium — for storing a wide range of digital media from music to movies.

Amidst all this activity, Microsoft looks likely to remain the driver for online gaming. Its Xbox Live service features heavily in its pitch for the 360 along with high-definition TV compatibility. While Orla Sheridan, home entertainment division manager for Microsoft Ireland, accepted these features made more sense in America where broadband and higher-definition TV sets are more common, she argued someone had to be first to drive the technologies locally.

Finally, Nintendo, the longest-standing console manufacturer, continues to plough a purer path where games are the only real agenda. The successor to Gamecube, a minimalist slab of technology christened Revolution, is also slated for a spring 2006 launch. Nintendo continues to be a major force in the games market not least because of GameBoy and its ongoing dominance of the handheld market, a position that was reinforced when its DS product, launched in March, recently notched up a million sales in Europe.

By Ian Campbell