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Monday, December 10, 2001
On Hardware

Gaming giants wait for broadband
Faisal Islam

MEET Ulala. She’s a pink-haired micro-skirted and crop-topped newsreader who fends off evil alien kidnappers by outdancing them.

Or Parappa. A hip-hop-dancing cartoon mutt that has a fixation with learning the ancient Japanese art of ‘romantic karate’ and then rapping about it.

Then there’s Rez. He flies through space rhythmically destroying targets, picking up drumbeats, and simultaneously composing an aggressive techno soundtrack inspired by Coldcut.

Only in Japan, you may say. And you would be right, until now. But the frankly absurd band of characters that populate the world of Japanese video games are on their way West. In fact, they are part of Sony’s secret fighting move as it enters a Tekken-style battle with Microsoft’s foray into the games market.

The official line from Tokyo is that Bill Gates’s Xbox is, along with Nintendo’s Gamecube, welcome competition for Sony’s PlayStation 2.


"We see them as a stimulant to each other in terms that, like PlayStation and PlayStation 2, there is a common vision to enhance the development of computer entertainment," Ken Kutaragi, the head of Sony Computer Entertainment and inventor of both PlayStation systems, told ONS.

But scratch the surface and the battle lines are evident. Kutaragi does not refer to Microsoft or Xbox or Gates, instead he talks of the ‘PC-based newcomer from Seattle’. Indeed the Sony Group’s latest financial results revealed the extent of the preparation being made to head off the Xbox. The first move was the recent 33 per cent price cut, to $ 292. The Xbox is not available until March, and will cost $ 146 more than the PS2. But this price cut increased the operating loss in the quarter to September 30.

The idea is clear. Sony is making the most of its last festive shopping season without competition to increase the installed base of PS2 users. More than 20 million PS2 units have been shipped, bringing the total number of PlayStation users to well over 100 million.

This will be a formidable obstacle even for the might of Microsoft that has invested huge amounts of time and effort in the basic commodity of the industry — games. It’s no coincidence that when Gates arrived at the recent Tokyo Games Show, he made a beeline for the stands of two leading games manufacturers — Sega and Tecmo. Both have produced leading content exclusively for the Xbox system.

‘Jet Set Radio Future’ and the fighting game ‘Dead or Alive 3’ will appear only on the Xbox. They are two of the 40 games that will feature on the opening slate when the machine is launched.

In private, sources at Sega say that Xbox will be the more important platform for them. Microsoft has clearly bent over backwards to get the giant of arcade gaming on board.

The first glimpses of Xbox in action have certainly impressed the gaming industry. Getting the ‘hardcore gamers’ on board is the first priority of Microsoft’s marketing strategy.

But the question is whether this content will be sufficiently compelling to get masses of gamers to purchase a new machine in this current weak economy. Sony sources were surprised that Xbox was priced at just under $ 426, and that games will cost a hefty $ 65. Given PS2’s headstart, during 2002 Xbox will be scrapping with Nintendo’s $ 192 Gamecube for second place in Japan and the US.

But while Xbox is establishing its gaming credibility, Sony has mapped out a strategy to take its PlayStation into new areas. Sony Computer Entertainment will expand the market from a kids-focused toy market to a computer entertainment market that is widely accepted by a variety of users,’ says Kutaragi. ‘I expect that wholly new forms of entertainment will be created.’

This is where emblematic icons such as Rez, Parappa and Ulala come in. These PS2 titles take games machines away from the traditional shoot them ups, sports sims and arcade adventures into a fusion of music, and interactive video.

Rez, inspired by painter Vasili Kandinsky’s synaesthetic connections between sounds, shapes and colours, sees players strap a vibrating machine to their torso simultaneously shooting targets and creating techno music. ‘As the play goes on,’ says creator Matsuya Masuura of Sega, ‘players will be involved in a weird hallucination as if they were manipulating music and the world. It’s almost transcendental.’

Such off-the-wall software will be supplemented by new ways of controlling electronic entertainment. For example, instead of relying on a joystick, Sony has developed technology that captures control information from a Webcam. The picture can interpret hand or arm movements and use them to change the speed and direction of a bird flying through a virtual sky. Sony also showed off interactive movies, which are controlled directly by voice commands.

But Kutaragi says the biggest revolution will come when the PS2 is connected to a broadband network — a function which will come as standard with the Xbox. A working version of a networked game was demonstrated in Tokyo. "The immense number of PlayStation2s supporting various display formats, including digital broadcasting, will be a strong leader of the broadband era. The world of game will see no limitation and will evolve to a new form of computer entertainment," he says.

Both Sony and Microsoft see broadband as a pre-requisite to enjoying the potential of online gaming. When it arrives, a whole raft of content from movies to music, as well as games, will be available online. Games could be paid for per-play, per-life, or even per-shot. This huge potential revenue-earner has led Sony to toy with the idea of giving the hard disk and modem to PS2 users for free, subject to a Sky-style monthly subscription fee. Sony is currently in trials with Telewest in the UK.

For now, however, the look of the boxes is one of its selling points. Xbox is far more cumbersome than PlayStation 2. Goto-san, the award-winning designer of the Walkman, Vaio computer, and both PlayStations, spent an hour explaining the aesthetics of the PS2’s form. "The blue represents the sky, and the black is the land," he explained before being confounded by a question about his views on Xbox’s design.

‘Design? design? design?’ He appeared astonished that anybody had even considered the aesthetics of the Xbox. This was charitably translated, as ‘we do not comment on competitor products’. Sony may not be commenting, but it believes it knows how to take on the newcomer.

This feature was published on November 19, 2001