Sony getting a handle on handheld vidgames

Console makers tout news, wares ahead of E3 opening

This article was updated at 8:23.

Sony will enter the handheld vidgame business long dominated by rival Nintendo with “the Walkman of the 21st century,” a device it says will play not only games but also movies, music and other entertainment.

Sony also will push online vidgaming by including a network adapter with its PlayStation 2 console, part of an array of new capabilities that will revamp the aging market leader beginning in June, while keeping the price at the current $199.

That latter announcement was the closest any of the three console makers — Microsoft and Nintendo are the others — came to announcing hardware price cuts many observers believe will come this year as a necessary spur to further game sales.

All three companies held showy briefings for the press and analysts ahead of today’s opening of the vidgame industry’s biggest conclave, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

‘New baby’

Easily the biggest news came from Sony Computer Entertainment, when prexy and CEO Ken Kutaragi surprised hundreds of onlookers with news that “a new baby is in the incubator.”

The PSP, or PlayStation Portable, would have a screen with a 16:9 aspect ratio that’s about 4.5.inches wide and backlit, and powered by a rechargeable battery.

It would use a new optical-disc technology about half the size of a CD with three times the storage capability, about 1.8 gigabytes.

It’s not clear whether the machine would be compatible with the hundreds of existing PlayStation or PS 2 games that could be transferred to the device. Adding such compatibility would instantly create access to a huge library of games and allow the device to more successfully challenge Nintendo’s GameBoy handhelds, which can play more than 1,000 titles.

Kutaragi gave no details on the device’s price or delivery date, though it is expected to arrive in the last quarter of 2004.

Nor did he show a prototype, but the feature-stuffed machine would be an expensive device that likely will not target the teen and pre-teen boys who have made the GameBoy such a sturdy seller.

But Kutaragi, credited as the father of the PlayStation, has bigger designs for his new baby than just playing games.

Fused entertainment

“We are in a world where all kinds of entertainment — games, music, movies — will be fused,” Kutaragi said. “(The PSP) is the Walkman of the 21st century.”

Such a product would be yet another assault on Nintendo’s GameBoy, which has dominated the handheld business for more than a decade, and sold nearly 100 million units.

Half a dozen companies have tried and failed to unseat the GameBoy, whose newest version, the GameBoy Advance SP, has already sold 980,000 units in the United States since its March debut.

At E3, Nokia will show off its N-Gage handheld game/phone, which debuts in the fall. Other companies are also trying to enter the business.

Nonetheless, Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata was sanguine about the Sony announcement..

“We are essentially in control of the handheld market now,” said Iwata. “I don’t think there’s anything we need to be worried about right now.”

Iwata acknowledged Nintendo had made several missteps last year, his first running the company, but said the company is now focused on creating games for a wide range of ages and interests. Among the new titles were an exclusive “Star Wars” title, a networked “Pac-Man” title, and new episodes in the best-selling grown-up titles “Metal Gear Solid” and “Resident Evil.”

Microsoft mostly showcased a new “Star Wars” title called “Republic Commando,” and the first in-game demonstration of “Halo 2,” far and away the machine’s most awaited title.

Xbox’s slow rollout

But as some observers grumbled, many of Xbox’s hottest titles won’t show up until sometime next year. That may slow sales this year if a price cut doesn’t come along to goose interest.

Much of Microsoft’s focus will be on further expanding its online service, Xbox Live and Xbox’s capabilities. “Music Mixer,” for instance, turns the Xbox into a karaoke machine that also can share photos over the Internet and remix songs.

The Xbox Live online service will get several new functions, including a chat area, and roll out an online area devoted to sports-related games called XSN.

The XSN offering could be seen as something of a retort to Electronic Arts, the publishing giant that announced it would make “Madden NFL” and eight other sports titles available online only through the PlayStation 2. EA has been unhappy with the royalty fees and other aspects of Microsoft’s service, which controls all online games by all publishers on its machine.

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