The Next Step for the 'Big Three' Game Platforms

Console video game heavyweights Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo have all announced their own next-generation game systems. Each system moves beyond eye-popping graphics to focus on creating a larger media experience for gamers — and in the case of the Microsoft Xbox, becoming a central home entertainment platform.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

The three leading makers of video game consoles have something new coming. Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo will all release new consoles in the coming year. It's big news for video game enthusiasts. Here with more is DAY TO DAY technology correspondent Xeni Jardin.

Xeni, welcome back.

XENI JARDIN reporting:

Thank you, Alex.

CHADWICK: And first, what devices are we talking about?

JARDIN: Well, we're talking about the thing you attach to your TV in the living room to play games on. Lots of games are played on your computer, but here we're talking about games that require special hardware, consoles. Every five years or so, there's a new batch of them, and that's what's news right now. So Microsoft announced that its Xbox 360 is going to come out just in time for holiday 2005. Sony is going to introduce its PlayStation 3 spring of next year. And Nintendo's Revolution is also going to come out about that time.

CHADWICK: And people were talking about this at this electronic expo that you just went to in LA. Did they have one of these to demonstrate?

JARDIN: Well, Microsoft had its Xbox 360 present. I didn't have a chance to try any of these things out. Mostly, at the E3 convention, it's a lot of smoke and mirrors, a lot of fancy video demos and not a lot of hard facts. And we're pretty far still from the release dates for each of these devices.

What we do know is that all three promise improved displays, more processing power. Another big thing is going to be the ability to connect to the Internet, to buy games or play with other people remotely.

But there's also a lot of BS. I mean, Microsoft was telling people that eventually a billion people are going to be using the Xbox. I'm trying to think of something else that a billion people do on the world other than breathe. (Laughs) So, you know, we don't know how true those stats are going to be.

But I talked to Joel Johnson, who edits the gadget Weblog Gizmodo, for his expert take on how much of the promise is hype and how much of this is real.

Mr. JOEL JOHNSON (Editor, Gizmodo): They're showing these videos that said, `Look how amazing the graphics on this new console could be and maybe will be in three or four years when we figure out how to program these things.'

CHADWICK: But they haven't figured out how to program them quite yet.

All right, which of these game systems, Xeni, is most popular right now?

JARDIN: If we're just talking about hardware, the consoles themselves, Sony is the champ right now. Their PlayStation 2 outsells Microsoft's Xbox by a factor of 4:1, and Nintendo is a very distant third. With this next crop of gadgets, though, they're all going to be doing something a little bit different. Sony and Microsoft are developing what they hope will become the center of your living room, devices that have the ability to play movies, browse photo and music. Nintendo's taking a different approach. Their device is going to be smaller, cheaper and just for gaming, not the be-all, end-all.

I spoke with Brad King. He wrote a book about the history of gaming called "Dungeons and Dreamers." Here's what he said about Nintendo.

Mr. BRAD KING (Author, "Dungeons and Dreamers"): They made a mistake this last time around with the GameCube by not utilizing some of the latest technologies. Most obviously, there was no way to connect to the Internet.

JARDIN: So they're not going to make that mistake this time. And another advantage Nintendo has is a huge library of popular games that stretch back 20 years. We're talking Super Mario, Zelda and lots of others. And the margins on software, the margins on the games, are fatter than hardware. So they stand to make better profits there.

CHADWICK: Aha. Are video games still just mostly something that young men do? I mean, that's certainly my impression from what I hear.

JARDIN: Well, more women around the world play video games than you might think. And those can include digital versions of card games and board games. Games aren't just things where you aim guns and blow people up. But there is a growing sense that women and older consumers are less served and, you know, with all these movie tie-in games being released, that's something that seems to be changing.

Some things don't change, though. I spoke to Alice Taylor, who's a game researcher with the BBC and a 10-year fan of the games Quake and Doom. She lives in London. Here's what she said about why guys still tend to place at the top in gaming competitions.

Mr. ALICE TAYLOR (Game Researcher, BBC): While it's a level playing field in terms of everyone can pick up a controller and everyone can use a computer, actually what does happen is that the boys--you tend to find that the younger boys will play up to 18 hours a day. I kind of think that girls, when given the option of staying indoors in front of the computer for 18 hours a day, not eating, not washing and not going out, would probably say, `No.'

CHADWICK: Eighteen hours at a time at one of these gaming consoles?

JARDIN: You know, for people who are really into this, absolutely they'll spend that kind of time. But there's one ray of hope. There's also mobile devices that people can carry around with them to play games. So even if you like food and sleep and bathing just as much as you like games, there will be lots of options for you this year.

CHADWICK: Xeni Jardin, DAY TO DAY technology contributor.

Thank you, Xeni.

JARDIN: Thank you, Alex.

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