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Vidgame console firms show off new offerings

Pre-E3 meeting a platform for companies to shine

It’s that time of year again where gameplay gets serious.

Price wars, hot titles and Internet offerings dominated presentations by the Big Three makers of vidgame consoles — Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft — as the trio gave their annual briefings on the eve of the game biz’s largest gathering, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, opening today at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

The three companies spent lavishly on flashy demos of some of their premier titles for the coming year, including a number of big Hollywood spinoffs, and claimed better-looking bottom lines as they move into their most profitable period in their machines’ second and third years of existence. The vidgame biz generated $20 billion last year, surpassing the film biz, which brought in more than $9 billion at the B.O. last year.

Boasting about its commanding presence, Sony Computer Entertainment of America prexy-chief operating officer Kaz Hirai declared, “The console war is over. We liken the gap with our competitors to the Grand Canyon.”

Sony’s PlayStation 2 has now sold 30 million units worldwide, nearly a third of those in North America, since its fall 2000 debut, with another 20 million expected to be sold in the next 12 months.

And in the wake of last week’s $100 price cut to $199, Sony exex claimed the machine’s retail sell-through rate was up eight times, and the machine was outselling competitors 4-to-1.

Sony will bow its first online console game offerings in August, and was the only one of the companies to show working versions of online titles: NFL stars Daunte Culpepper and Jevon Kearse played Electronic Arts’ “Madden NFL Football 2003” from opposite ends of the country, while John Madden provided play-by-play.

Sony’s online effort, like Nintendo’s, will leave to each publisher the responsibility for setting up and running online services for their titles.

But Sony, having paid off the multibillion-dollar cost of creating PS2, said it would use some of its profits to jumpstart online gaming.

Microsoft is taking an approach consistent with its history elsewhere in pushing new technology. The company said it would spend $2 billion in the coming year, largely to establish a high-speed online service dubbed Xbox Live, which it would control using the machine’s built-in broadband connection. Users would pay for access to the service.

Both Nintendo and Microsoft have sold between 3.5 million and 4 million machines worldwide since their bows last winter.

Nintendo emphasized an upcoming slate of games starring its franchise characters — Super Mario, Zelda, Wario, Metroid and Starfox — plus games and add-ons that will tie together the GameCube with the handheld Game Boy Advance, which has sold 6 million units in North America in a year.

Nintendo cut the GameCube price by $50, to $149 this week, days after Microsoft matched Sony’s price cut with its own of $100, to $199.