Play it online

Cyber-battle:The big three game console companies unveil rival services for the Internet at the Electronic Entertainment Expo.

May 23, 2002|By Kevin Washington | Kevin Washington,SUN STAFF

LOS ANGELES--Only six months after the video game war began, console makers are launching another battle for the hearts, minds and trigger fingers of their players this time in cyberspace.

Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo detailed their Internet war plans to gamers, reporters and analysts this week at the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo, where hardware and software companies roll out the technology they plan to have ready by the winter holiday season.

All the new services will give console gamers what PC owners have had for years the ability to play opponents across town, across the country and even around the world.

Each online gaming empire will be different. Microsoft, for example, will serve as host and control almost every aspect of the online gaming experience, while Sony and Nintendo will leave details of online play to individual game developers.

Even the audiences will be different. Microsoft is aiming strictly at those who have broadband Internet service cable or DSL. It hopes high-speed online communication will showcase the companys powerful new Xbox console, which has a built-in network adapter. Sony and Nintendo owners will be able to play at least some games over slower, but far more common dial-up Internet connections. They'll have to pay $40 for adapters to play online.

All the major players say business is looking good. Microsoft, which branched out of PC software into console gaming last year, even promised to pump $2 billion into the Xbox over the next five years to show its commitment to the cause.

The three giants can afford to make the investment because the video game industry is thriving in an era that has battered the rest of the technology sector. Overall, about 145 million people play interactive games on a regular basis using consoles, PCs and handheld game machines, according to Peter D. Hart Research, a survey research firm.

Spurred by the introduction of powerful consoles from all three manufacturers, consumers bought $9.4 billion worth of video game hardware and software last year, up a startling 40 percent from 2000s figures. And for the first time, the video game industry surpassed the movie industry in total sales by a cool $1 billion.

The battle for dominance in this growing market led to serious hardware price-slashing last week, with Sonys PlayStation2 and Microsofts Xbox console falling from $299 to $199 each. Nintendos Game Cube, already $199, fell to $149.

With their consoles selling near cost or, in Microsofts case, at a loss the gaming giants believe online play offers a path to increased profits from two sources. First, customers will have to buy new games with online capability. Second, game makers hope customers eventually will be willing to pay extra fees for Internet play.

Online gaming is already popular in the PC world, with an estimated 59 million players, according to Jupiter Media Metrix, an Internet market research firm.

A lot of gamers have either already played online games or have heard how much fun they are, said Greg Kasavin, executive editor of Gamespot.com, a Web site that follows the industry. Moreover, everyone agrees that online gaming is on the upswing.

Its also no secret that traditonal video gaming is often a social event in which friends shoot it out, compete on race courses or do battle in fantasy worlds on their television sets. If friends cant get together in the same location, the industry is betting, they will spend money to play online.

One asset for all three is Sega Corp., which abandoned its own Dreamcast console last year to concentrate on software. Sega pioneered Internet console play and had 15 games online when it dropped the Dreamcast. It now develops titles for the Xbox, PS2 and Game Cube.

Charles Bellefield, vice president for corporate strategy at Sega of America, said the big question is how easy it will be for console gamers to get online and stay there.

The key will be to deliver a consistent experience to the consumer, he said.

Heres what the Big Three plan to offer: *Sony -- The industry leader with more than 30 million PS2s sold worldwide, Sony will get a jump on Nintendo and Microsoft in the online world, too. Starting Aug. 27, buyers will have a choice of an Ethernet adapter for broadband connections or a dialup modem adapter for regular phone lines at $39.95 each.

Sony's package will include a startup disc offering game demos, help and software to hook up to Internet service providers such as AOL and EarthLink. Players will be able to use their existing Internet service provider if they prefer, Sony said.

There are no plans to charge for online play, at least initially. While all games with online capabilities can be used with broadband service, not all will support slower connections.

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