Game Consoles

NYTimes writes that developers are preferring Microsoft’s XBox console over Sony’s PlayStation and wonders if gamers will follow:

Sony has prevailed up to now on symbiotic advantages: it sells more consoles because it has many of the most popular games, often exclusively, and developers of those games are attracted by the sheer number of PlayStation users. If Microsoft can woo more developers to Xbox, the balance of power in the next round could change.

“It’s clear that the camps are being aligned for the next-generation consoles,” said P. J. McNealy, an analyst with American Technology Research in San Francisco. “Whether or not Microsoft is playing for market dominance is another question. I think they would be pleased with a strong second-place showing.”

To topple Sony from its No. 1 position any time soon would be a “titanic event, up there with the fishes and loaves on the all-time miracle list,” he said.

Mr. McNealy said that recent sales figures indicate that Xbox will outsell PlayStation 2 in North America this month, by 275,000 units to 200,000, versus 100,000 for the GameCube. If so, it would be the first time any rival has surpassed Sony’s console sales in North America in 45 months, he said.

That 45-month period roughly corresponds to the current generation of consoles. About 70 million units of PlayStation 2, released in early 2000, had been sold by January of this year. That compares with fewer than 14 million for Xbox, released in late 2001; GameCube, also released in late 2001, lags further.

Part of Sony’s advantage, many experts note, has hinged on its ability to produce blockbuster games or lock up exclusives with third-party game developers. A best-seller like Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, a 2002 release for PlayStation 2 and the PC, can sell six million copies at $50 each. (It later became available for Xbox.)

Microsoft and Sony each have fundamental strengths to exploit in the game arena. Sony is principally a hardware maker. Sony Computer Entertainment America’s research and development laboratory, for example, has helped developers take full advantage of its console with hardware peripherals like its successful EyeToy for camera-assisted games. And Sony was established in the console marketplace years before Microsoft arrived there.

Microsoft has a core strength in software. The console’s very name was derived from a crucial Microsoft program for game developers, Direct X. The unit is “a Direct X box, a hardware manifestation of our software for games,” said J. Allard, Microsoft’s chief Xbox officer. The central needs of developers – like the ability to render game play at a higher resolution – were a guiding principle in the console’s design.

Many developers say that PlayStation 2, meanwhile, is a more difficult console for creating games. Some complain that its software tools are not as intuitive as the Xbox’s, especially for developers who have a long history of developing games for PC’s.

And in the end, Xbox is clearly the most powerful console among the three. “On the technical specs it is fairly cut and dried,” said Michael Goodman, a senior analyst for the Yankee Group. “Who’s got the biggest processor? Microsoft. Who’s got the highest-end video card? Microsoft. Who’s got the most memory and the greatest flexibility with that memory? Microsoft.”

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.