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PS2: The battle heats up

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[EDO]
Critics say there aren’t enough compelling new games for PlayStation 2. Army Men, for instance, also is available for Nintendo.

By ROBB GUIDO

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 5, 2001


Sony’s new PlayStation 2 has stumbled because of a scarcity of consoles and quality games. That could give the edge to two upcoming game systems: Microsoft’s Xbox and Nintendo's Gamecube.

Sony's PlayStation 2 isn't just a video game console. Now, it's a target.

Unhappy consumers are complaining because they can't find one to buy. Sony is playing catch-up after producing only about half of the 1-million game systems it promised by Christmas.

And now those who shape public opinion about gaming are beginning to ask whether PlayStation 2 is worth the wait.

"Speaking personally, it's a great DVD player," said Chris Charla, editor of the Daily Radar Web site, which has news, reviews and features about video games (www.dailyradar.com). It was not intended as a compliment.

The critics' complaint: Once you get hold of a PlayStation 2, there aren't enough compelling new games to play on it.

"When you look at what was out at the launch, Madden (football) was great and SSX (Snowboarding) was really fun, but then there was a big drop to number three," Charla said. "And after that, the rest seemed like real also-rans."

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[Sony]
So far, there are no "killer" games for PS2 to rival Nintendo's Pokemon for kids and Perfect Dark for older players. Nor can PS2's lineup compare with Dreamcast's collection of quirky arcade titles such as Crazy Taxi and deeper games such as Shenmue.

Charla's opinion, shared by others, is important because the gaming media help shape players' buying choices. Bad game reviews could mean trouble for Sony in a year when the industry is sure to see big changes.

Sega, a distant No. 3 in the market behind Sony and Nintendo, will stop production of its Dreamcast system March 31 and will make its games available for other systems. Nintendo, with some of the top-selling games, is expected to release its Gamecube system next year. And then there's software giant Microsoft, which showed off its upcoming Xbox last month to good initial reviews.

"When the Xbox is released, I want it to kick PlayStation 2's (butt)!," said Heather Berry, editor of gaming newsletter the Scoop. "Sony has gotten lax, and so far, the PlayStation 2 hasn't raised the bar as far as I think it should have."

Sony's problems may prove to be an advantage for Microsoft. "There will be plenty of people who say, "The Xbox is more powerful technologically and, maybe, there's some cool-looking games already announced for it. Why don't I just wait?' " Charla said.

Six months ago, the gaming world was abuzz about the PlayStation 2, and the frenzy was building. Sony billed it as the entertainment center of the future, a great machine for game playing that also included a DVD drive to play movies; jacks to connect TV, VCRs and stereo speakers; USB connectors for other devices; and Internet access.

Then Sony pulled the rug out from under retailers.

"When people can't get their hands on your product -- when they really, really want it -- your credibility is damaged. Enough so that some consumers are going to forget about you and wait for the next guy to not screw up," said Chip Carter, a syndicated gaming columnist. "The PS2 launch was an absolute worst-case scenario: Create huge demand for a product and then not be able to deliver it."

Sony's bottom line suffered: The company's income fell 23 percent in the third quarter, with PlayStation losses cited as a major cause. And, according to the Wall Street Journal, Sony is predicting it will ship 9-million units this fiscal year, which ends March 31, 1-million fewer units than expected.

"Sony is seeing demand outstrip supply tremendously," Babbages Etc. vice president Russ Howard said. "Certainly we wish we would have received more, and we continue to sell what we get into our stores immediately."

Behind the scenes, the battle has been for the loyalty of game developers whose inventive creations mean more to typical players than the fine points of graphic displays and DVD capabilities.

Charla says some experienced developers shied away from producing games for the launch of PS2 because it costs a lot of time and money to work with a new system.

"That's why you see the first generation of software not doing anything dramatic and not taking any chances," Charla said. "I think that as the system matures, you will see more risks taken."

A few developers, such as Oddworld Inhabitants, have moved to Microsoft's Xbox, and several game companies promised to support it as well. Some of that may be caused by Microsoft's clout, as well as a powerful system promising unprecedented graphics quality.

But no matter how powerful the Xbox may seem, and no matter how many Microsoft can ship to stores on Day One, it still comes down to software. From this perspective, Microsoft is by no means a shoo-in to win the console battles of 2001 and 2002.

"Microsoft has been making great games for a long time, but for the PC," columnist Carter said. "Console games are a whole other animal. I'm not saying they can't do it, I'm sure they can, and I hope and imagine they'll deliver something great."

Carter thinks Nintendo and its upcoming Gamecube may have an advantage. "People are always ready to write Nintendo off," Carter said. "But what was last year's top game? The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask for the Nintendo 64. And what was the top game of 1999? The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time for the N64, a game that made more money than any Hollywood movie at the box office that year, with the exception of Titanic."

No matter which system ultimately ends up on top, it's clear that the heat on PlayStation 2 is about to rise.

"There's a lot of power there (with the PS2) and I think if developers come up to speed, we are going to see really good games," Charla said. "The question from a business perspective is: Will that happen before Xbox arrives on the scene? Once Xbox arrives, it's going to be a whole new game."

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