Which way to play?

Next-gen consoles diverge in battle for gamers' hearts

The future of interactive entertainment is here, but, depending on whom you ask, it looks radically different. And with three new high-profile console launches — Nintendo’s Revolution, Sony’s PlayStation 3, and Microsoft’s Xbox 360 — expected before the end of 2006, tomorrow is anybody’s game.

One thing is certain, though. “These (set-top systems) possess the potential to be Trojan horses,” says Neil Young, VP-G.M. of Electronic Arts Los Angeles, referring to the boxes’ abilities to do more than just play games. “It’s feasible to see them becoming the center of entertainment in the home.

“The coming years represent an inflection point for hardware manufacturers,” says Young. “This is a key strategic battleground. Will the PlayStation 3 supplant your cable box? Probably not. But will PlayStation 4? Certainly.”

Each company has taken an original approach to delivering digital experiences that are increasingly complex and audiovisually immersive.

Witness the Xbox 360, hitting stores this holiday season, promising to usher in an era of customization and connectivity. Selling points include high-definition content; personalized user profiles and face plates; built-in broadband access; support for online music, video and software sampling or purchasing sans subscription fees; and synchronicity with Windows Media Center PCs.

Its all-white aesthetic targets diehard consumer-electronics enthusiasts. A full line of similarly styled expansions and home accessories also is planned.

Microsoft Game Studios head Shane Kim further revealed in a recent interview with Xbox.com that fans of popular franchises like “Halo,” “Fable” and “Project Gotham Racing” “can safely assume” that investment in these properties will continue.

By contrast, sources suggest the PlayStation 3 will put its stock in superior hardware performance and system-exclusive titles targeted at mainstream audiences. “So long as games like ‘Grand Theft Auto’ are available for the machine, the company can’t go wrong,” says Adam Sessler, host of G4 television’s “X-Play,” which reviews and previews vidgames.

The only forthcoming contender to sport a next-generation disc drive, the unit also gets a boost from the ultrapowerful Cell processor, jointly designed by IBM, Sony and Toshiba. The chip, which operates at speeds in excess of 4Ghz (faster than most modern PCs), and compatibility with superior data storage formats give the device an edge over rivals from a tech standpoint.

Sporting a back catalog including bankable names like “SOCOM” and the “Gran Turismo” series, which has sold 43 million copies worldwide, Sony’s sure to continue its strategy of developing games for all age ranges.

As for Nintendo, analysts see the platform’s target audience as gaming connoisseurs and kids. Says Young, “Innovation is the only way it can compete.”

Reinvention is what Nintendo execs say the Revolution is all about. “We believe the industry has gotten stale,” says VP of marketing and corporate affairs Perrin Kaplan. “It isn’t about technology anymore. . .what matters is redefining the gaming experience.”

The Japanese giant’s latest creation won’t just introduce long-awaited wireless and online multiplayer capabilities, but will champion open-ended gaming concepts — see “Nintendogs” (in which owners play with and take care of a digital dog) for the Nintendo DS — as well. Speculation additionally runs rampant surrounding the device’s controller, purported to be markedly different from anything seen to date.

A sleek, thin system standing no taller than your thumb, the unit further addresses compatibility issues that plagued past developments.

A first for the company, the days of proprietary cartridges and optical discs are over; the Revolution, debuting in the second half of 2006, will run content stored from standard DVDs. The console also will be backward-compatible with titles for any of the company’s previous set-top gaming units, including the Nintendo Entertainment System, Super Nintendo, Nintendo 64 and GameCube.

Despite inherent differences though, there is one thing every camp shares in common: a burning desire to be No. 1.

“With so many strong players competing, anything could happen,” says David Cole, president of research and consulting firm DFC Intelligence. “Picturing the market fragmenting in three separate and unique ways isn’t a stretch.”

It wouldn’t be the first time.

Sony dominates the $13.3 billion videogame business, with the PlayStation and PlayStation 2 enjoying a combined 50.6% market share in North America. The Xbox and GameCube trail with 28.3% and 21.1%, respectively.

Given that revenues are expected to grow to $13.8 billion by 2008, competition within the increasingly lucrative sector is only heating up. Experts warn an all-out war for the public’s hearts and minds, not to mention disposable income, is brewing.

Some such as Midway CEO David Zucker believe other factors have the potential to be even more polarizing than mere product positioning. “The question of which machine you’ll idolize is one games themselves will answer,” he says. “Ultimately, they’ll define who’s drawn to each platform.”

Whatever the case, forward thinkers can’t help but have a field day soon, given the industry’s changing climate.