When Hollywood wants to let the world know a big movie is coming out, they roll out the red carpet. Stars file in, two-by-two, from stretch limousines. Fans swoon and scream, and the hype goes worldwide.
The video game industry doesn't really do red carpets. But when new consoles are released, the result is the same. Thousands of fans line up around electronics stores, pockets brimming not with sharpies and headshots for autographs, but with cash -- and lots of it, to buy the latest and best the industry has to offer. This year, Nintendo and Sony are offering the Wii and PlayStation 3.
Sony released the PlayStation 3 just after midnight Thursday, but the lines at stores had been forming since Wednesday. A nine-months pregnant woman in New Jersey told the Associated Press she was ignoring her contractions so she could keep her place in line.
After Friday, good luck finding one of the $600 machines: Sony has had manufacturing shortages, so receipts for pre-orders have been selling for more than double that price on eBay.
The Nintendo Wii, priced at $250, will appear in stores on Sunday. Nintendo will have many more consoles ready than Sony. You might even be able to swing by the store and pick one up while you're on a food run for Sunday's football games.
The difference between the two is night and day. Opening up the box for the Nintendo Wii, you see a cute white contraption, not much bigger than an old VHS tape. It's a tiny, safe-looking little machine. If you had it in your luggage, the TSA wouldn't give it a second look.
The PlayStation 3 is dark, shiny and treacherous-looking. I half expected it to levitate, start glowing and give me its best HAL 9000 impression. Kubrick would be proud.
Those differences are indicative of the different kinds of people expected to buy these machines.
Sony is going after just two groups: game fans who have to have the top of the line, and early adopters who love bleeding-edge technology. The PlayStation 3 doubles as a Blu-ray DVD player, and it's much more powerful than most home computers. It has a fast multi-core processor, separate chips for graphics and sound, and a hard drive. If you buy one and end up hating the games, install Windows or Linux on it, and you've got enough processing power to do local weather forecasting.
If Sony wants the hardcore techie market, Nintendo wants everyone else. Its machine doesn't have nearly the specs of the PlayStation 3, but it does have a new control system. Instead of having millions of buttons, the Wii-mote, as they call it, is motion and position sensitive. You can swing it like a bat or a golf club, turn it like a steering wheel, or punch with it like a boxer. Instead of memorizing button combinations, the Wii-mote lets you move naturally, and the movements show up on the screen. Grandma could do it, which is exactly what Nintendo wants. They want more age groups and more women to buy into the system.
The business of these games is huge. Sony has sold more than 100 million Playstation 2s. Since the decline of other Sony products like the Walkman, the Playstation division is now the padding for Sony's bottom line. Nintendo's last console was widely seen as a failure. Its portable game systems outsell the competition 2 to 1, but failure in the console market isn't an option for Nintendo either.
For the time being, however, the two companies have to concentrate on selling as many systems as they can during the Christmas season. But it won't be until after the holidays that sales numbers tell us who is coming out ahead.