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The next big game

Sony's new PlayStation 2 expands video games into an emotional realm and adds DVD and Internet capabilities.

By ROBB GUIDO, Times correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 6, 2000

It's the kids who will clamor to buy Sony's PlayStation 2 when the new video game console hits the U.S. market this fall. But Sony Corp., the Japanese entertainment giant, is betting it can lure the whole family to a little black box that can do far more than flash games such as Gran Turismo 2000 and Final Fantasy VII.

"We want to build a new entertainment platform for the home," said Ken Kutaragi, chief executive of Sony Computer Entertainment, Sony's video-game unit.

For about $300 -- high-priced for a video console but a bargain compared with a computer -- PlayStation 2 will come with supercharged graphics processing and a built-in DVD player to show movies. It can be hooked up to an optional modem and keyboard to send e-mail and surf the Web.

Sony introduced the system in Japan over the weekend, hoping to build on the phenomenal success of the original PlayStation, which has sold 72-million consoles (and 592-million games) since 1994.

Sega got a head start on the next-generation game systems last year with its powerful Dreamcast, and Nintendo is working with IBM on its new system. In addition, Microsoft reportedly is ready to announce its entry into the video-game market soon.

But Sony is expected to throw a lot of marketing muscle into PlayStation 2 to maintain its top spot in the $7-billion video-game market.

The system won't be available in the United States until September, but already the buzz has started.

"The kids are really excited about it," said Mike Crisp, assistant manager at Babbages software in Countryside Mall, which has taken 30 prepaid orders. "But the adults are pretty scared of the price. You can tell they're scared from the reaction on their face. They're like, "300 bucks! For a console?' "

The price in Japan is $360, and Sony expects to sell 1-million units this month. In fact, when Sony started taking orders on its Web site, the demand crashed it. One reason strong Japanese sales are expected: The DVD player alone makes it a relative bargain in a country where players cost $600 or more.

The expected U.S. price of about $300 compares with the Dreamcast's $199. For the money, PlayStation 2 buyers will get a 12- by 7-inch black box that looks a lot like the original but is 100 times more powerful. The 128-bit microchip, which Sony calls the "emotion engine," processes graphics three times faster than Pentium chips in Windows PCs. It includes jacks for Universal Serial Bus connections, as well as audio-video output, so it can link with TVs, VCRs and other devices. The modem for Internet access will be sold separately.

What this means to players is realistic graphics, even characters showing emotion. For example, a baseball player may show his disgust after striking out. Characters in other games may show fear, anger, excitement and joy. We're talking about games that grab you much the same way movies do.

Power by itself is no guarantee of success. Sega enjoyed success with its Saturn system until the PlayStation blew it away. However, Sega's Dreamcast system, which also can connect to the Internet but does not include a built-in DVD player, shows that gamers have an appetite for power: More than 4.4-million units have been sold in five months in the United States.

The PlayStation has another advantage over its competitors: All but about 15 of PlayStation's current 2,500 game titles can be played on the new console, and more than 100 new titles are expected to be available by the time the system makes its U.S. debut.

But the new PlayStation is attracting attention far beyond the video-game industry because it's also Sony's entry in the new competition for low-cost devices to serve as alternatives to personal computers. Sony is signing deals for Internet services and interactive entertainment for the system.

PlayStation 2 "allows Sony to develop its own portal site," said Keith Edwards, a strategist at American Express Asset Management Ltd., which manages $1.6-billion in Japanese equities.

"The fact users can sit on their settee, do their shopping and online accounts will cause many people in the PC industry to quake," he said.

-- Information from Times wires, including Bloomberg News, was used in this report.

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