Slave to the Game

Filling you in on the oddball gaming news

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I had written off Sony's PlayStation 3 game console as a flop, but it may be time to reconsider.

One reason is Sony finally brought the price down, with a $400 model announced last week. But what's really interesting, especially here in the hometown of Microsoft, RealNetworks and Amazon.com, is the way Sony is accelerating plans to position the PS3 as a digital media center.

Those companies are all jockeying for position with devices and services as the world moves to high-definition television, digital music and online game and video content.

Will we keep using PCs to download and store this stuff, or will some computerish consumer-electronics gadget emerge as the new home-entertainment hub?

I'm not sure that dream machine will be a PS3, but Sony is pushing it that direction, while simultaneously trying to build the console's stature among gamers.

Clues started trickling out this fall in Europe, where Sony has had more success with the year-old console than in the U.S.

That's where Sony is releasing an add-on TV tuner that turns the PS3 into a TiVo-like video recorder. It's also where Sony is talking up plans for an online video and music store, similar to the ones operated here by Microsoft and Amazon.

"Some of that same functionality are things that we're working on here," Peter Dille, senior vice president of marketing at Sony Computer Entertainment America, told me last week.

Sony will offer different services around the world, he explained. In the U.S., "we're working on a service which would offer video content, movies, TV shows, etcetera, in a downloaded fashion via the PlayStation Network."

The tuner may not come to the U.S. for a while, but Sony's doing other things to sharpen the entertainment focus.

Within a month, a software upgrade will improve the PS3's interface for music stored and played through the system, Dille said.

Sony's also working with retailers to change how the console is sold and displayed. This holiday season it will appear more often in the home-entertainment section, alongside TVs and DVD players, as well as in game sections.

Retailers are also being coached on how to sell the system to "moms" as "a broader entertainment experience," Dille said.

"If she knows the whole family's going to get some lifestyle value out of this and not just the gamer in the house, it becomes a ... better value proposition," he said.

It won't take much to sell lower-priced PS3s to video enthusiasts because it's now the cheapest high-definition Blu-ray disc player.

A lot of people who bought fancy TVs over the past year or two have been looking for ways to get more digital content on their screens. They've been waiting for high-def player prices to fall, and for a resolution to the format war between the Sony-backed Blu-ray and the Microsoft-backed HD-DVD.

The Xbox 360 is a pretty good solution for streaming content from a PC. But it's loud, and you have to buy a $179 external HD-DVD drive if you want to play 1080p discs.

Microsoft is helping partner companies develop "extender" devices that wirelessly play PC-stored content on a TV, but they don't have as many features as the consoles and they cost nearly as much.

Sony's PS3 also streams content from a PC, but its interface isn't as nice as the one the 360 borrows from Windows Media Center. Dille said Sony will be doing more to promote that capability, but it won't use Media Center's interface anytime soon.

Sony seems to have taken the easy way out with its latest PlayStation Portable. You could feel the excitement drain out of last summer's E3 conference after Sony touted TV output atop its amazing new features.

Now we can watch all those games and Universal Media Disc movies scaled onto a giant TV screen.

On the upside, the new PSP comes with double the original 32 megabytes of internal memory, a spacious 1-gigabyte memory card and a slimmer design that shaves off a few ounces.

But it has the same 333 megahertz processor, even tinnier speakers than before. And the continued lack of a right analog control means first-person shooter games are out of the question.

It's not really worth buying the $19.99 cable to hook it up to your TV, unless your set has progressive scan. And I was disappointed with the visuals on my 37-inch HD set, because games weren't in high-def and only filled a small chunk of the screen.

LOS ANGELES (AFP) - Imagine a video game in which characters evolve from primordial ooze, acquiring speed, claws, wings or other traits needed to survive.

Picture a "Glass Cutter" murder mystery game in which a hero gleans psychic clues from graffiti etched into subway windows, barroom tumblers, taxi mirrors or other depicted glass surfaces.

Envision defending their "colonies" by spreading or checking weaponized diseases.

Two dozen aspiring game makers hoping for fast lanes to success pitched those ideas and more to a panel of industry experts at the E for All video game exposition in Los Angeles on Friday.

"What is really fun about this stuff is you can never tell what the hell people are going to say," said US video game consulting company chief executive David Perry, who was on the judging panel.

"What I've found is that there is always somebody cool in the room."

Christopher Gough sees a game set in a world in which people are dying from kindness.

People are so generous they give away everything they need to live and an overabundance of goodness has the sun shining 24 hours each day, searing plants to death and causing drought.

The objective of Gough's game is to save with a healing balm of evil and darkness.

"People think it is all about being good but sometimes you flat out have to be evil to survive," Gough told the judges, prompting knowing laughter from the audience in the auditorium.

"It's all about bringing balance to the world."

As players manipulate townspeople into being nasty, daylight hours grow shorter and rain returns to the world, according to Gough.

Another proposed game is set play in a world ruled by China and rife with slaughter. Rebel fighters capable of taking on animal powers fight to liberate the land.

A suggested game based on swapping societal power roles of blacks and whites in the United States met with a warning from judges that the original idea would be a tough sell because "it would probably offend everyone."

Game ideas involving online group play won praise from judges for tapping into a hot trend in the industry.

"The market for those kinds of games is booming," said GameSpy executive editor David Kosak, who was among the judges.

By the end of 2007, an estimated 14 million gamers in North America will be playing online, according to technology intelligence firm IDC.

"The increase in revenue from the online use of game consoles, including subscriptions, downloadable content, and advertising represents the largest growth in the console software sector," said IDC program manager Billy Pidgeon.

Microsoft Xbox 360, Sony PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii consoles each have online capabilities. IDC projects that the number of Internet-ready gaming consoles in North America will tally 37 million by next year.

In North America online console revenue will triple from 133 million dollars in 2006 to 583 million dollars this year, according to IDC.

While the "console wars" get considerable attention, the market for games on handheld devices is "smoking hot" with Nintendo's DS "ruling the roost," Kosak told aspiring game makers.

Some game ideas were variations on cliched themes such as puzzle solving or humans battling alien races.

In one proposed game a player begins as a speck of dust in outer space and gains mass by eating everything it collides into.

An ethical component to the game would be to have players decide whether to devour peaceful living things for the sake of getting bigger.

The lone woman to pitch an idea pictures a Canoe Trek game letting people use the motion-sensing controllers of Nintendo's Wii to play fishing, hunting and paddling games.

"Originally I was going to pitch a survival horror game but I'm doing a complete 180 and pitching a cartoon game," said Tim Hayes, whose idea included people superimposing their heads on characters.