Gamers ready for 'console wars'

New computer hardware with more realistic software aims to attract mainstream

Content is king when it comes to videogames, but aptly enough for an industry built on the battle mindset, hardware is still the foot soldier in the ongoing so-called "console wars."

This latest round is particularly heated. Major player, Sega, bites the hardware dust and ceases hardware manufacture, as a new, perhaps invincible combatant, software giant Microsoft, throws its new X-Box into the ring.

Sony CEO of computer entertainment, Kazuo Hirai, whose Playstation and Playstation 2 (PS2) dominate more than half the $10 billion videogame marketplace, responds by throwing down the gauntlet, saying "the only question now is who will occupy the No. 2 spot."

Meanwhile, industry veteran Nintendo, suggests that it is the only true gaming company left.

All this in-house scuffling may confuse the casual gamer, but this fierce competition to win the eyes, ears, and pocketbooks of the nation's estimated 145 million gamers is producing new hardware and software that promise to transform the interactive entertainment landscape while vastly expanding its audience.

This past week the combatants brought the fight to the floor of the industry's annual trade show, the Electronic Entertainment Exposition (E3). Big hardware announcements include:

* Microsoft unveiled the X-Box, a powerful new $300 videogame console, packing the power equivalent of an 800 mhz personal computer, with 3D graphics so close to the real thing that gamers could be seen involuntarily putting their hands on the screens all over the Microsoft demonstration area.

It will include Internet connectivity as well as DVD playing capability and will be available in early November.

* Nintendo announced the new $199 console, GameCube, which will play mini-DVD game discs and connect to the latest version of its popular handheld, GameBoy Advance. The graphics are nearly as detailed as the X-Box, with full 3D backgrounds rendered in real time. GameCube also is scheduled for an early November release.

* Nintendo also previewed the $99 GameBoy Advance, a horizontal version of the vertical Game Boy (GB). With a 32-bit processor, it packs eight times the power of the previous GB and offers more than 500 times the on-screen colors. This will come out June 11.

* The self-pronounced first-place holder, Sony Computer Entertainment, announced the arrival in November of key peripherals for its PS2, such as: a $40 network adapter with a 56K modem and an ethernet port as well as a 40 GB hard drive.

* At the same time, Sony is working to retain its phenomenally successful Playstation audience with its Playstation One (PSOne), a compact Playstation console that can be outfitted with a small LCD screen for complete portability.

On the software side, the videogame industry has mastered the Hollywood mantra Why argue with success? New software releases are littered with sequels and updates. One of the most anticipated, parent of the hot summer film, "Final Fantasy" is up to No. 10 (Final Fantasy X). Previews of this title are appropriately jaw dropping in their depth of resolution and character development.

Other software developments include:

* A big new push into online gaming by the top hardware manufacturers.

Just as Microsoft works to erase its association with the PC world by pre-loading its new black box with Internet capability for the dedicated console gamer, Sony expands its PS2 with all the traditional peripherals of the PC world: a keyboard, mouse, and computer screen all set to take advantage of Sony's strategic alliance with AOL-Time Warner. All the peripherals will be on sale in November as well.

* Sega's departure from the hardware race positions it as a powerful software producer, announcing plans to extend its popular sports and character franchises, such as NFL 2K and Sonic the Hedgehog, onto multiple platforms.

* Now that gamers are going for the mainstream, many more developers are coming out with games offering a broader appeal. Without question, one of the hottest new titles is based on the Harry Potter books. Role playing and adventure games based on the first installment, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," are due out in November, to coincide with the film's release.

* Launch titles for the GameBoy Advance were developed with an eye toward a broader demographic than its traditional under-14's. While the unit will continue to play all the previous GameBoy cartridges, new titles include familiar face Super Mario Advance and F-Zero, a racing game.

Perhaps the warring titans could take a lesson from pint-sized performer Nintendo.

Its current model of GameBoy Color, with a relatively modest 8-bit CPU, was the top-selling video game system at the start of this year, says Nintendo. The less-is-more system accounted for 47 percent of all hardware system sales and 23 percent of all industry revenues in 2000.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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