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Who's Winning the Gaming Wars?

That depends who you are talking to.  A look at how the Big 3 gaming platforms are faring.

By Bill Camarda

Seems like just yesterday that the “big three” – Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo – introduced their latest, most powerful game platforms. Microsoft: Xbox 360. Sony: PlayStation 3. Nintendo: Wii. Whenever a new generation of gaming consoles arrives, everyone in the gigantic gaming business holds their breath. Giant fortunes are at stake. Who’ll succeed? Who’ll flop? Who’ll be able to create best-selling games for these new consoles? Who’ll lose their businesses by betting on the wrong hardware, or building the wrong game?

Of course, unless you own stock in one of these companies, you may have a more immediate concern: which of these expensive gaming consoles should you buy? Two years from now, will there be great games for the one you’ve chosen, or will you be dumping it on eBay? To help you answer that question, let’s take a look at where each of the “Big Three” stands right now: their strengths, their weaknesses, and their sales.
Microsoft Xbox 360

The Xbox 360 recently passed its third birthday – and its 25 millionth console sale, too. To celebrate those milestones, Microsoft gave its user interface a complete makeover: the “New Xbox Experience.” Now, Xbox gamers can create “avatars” that give them a unique, consistent personality wherever they go on Microsoft’s Xbox Live online service. They can create “virtual parties” that let up to eight friends voice chat as they play games. They can even share photos in real-time. Perhaps most exciting from Microsoft’s perspective – since it promises lots more cash – you can now rent and play high-def movies from Netflix on your Xbox 360.

Microsoft’s also cut prices. The mainstream version of the Xbox 360, which contains a 60GB hard drive, now lists for $299. (And, as we write this, it’s available as a “Holiday Bundle,” with two free games.) Microsoft’s also introduced a $199 “Arcade” version with no hard drive. That’s the cheapest serious gaming console you can buy these days. (The downside: without a hard disk, you can’t download online content. However, if that proves to be a big problem for your family – and it very well might – you can add the hard drive later.)    

Microsoft’s Xboxes have always attracted hardcore gamers. With hugely successful games like Gears of War, nothing’s changed about that. Microsoft’s trying to widen its appeal to families and younger children, though that’s been more of a struggle -- especially now that the super-family-friendly Nintendo Wii has arrived.

Microsoft’s been working hard on something else, too: improving the Xbox 360’s reliability. Long notorious for its fatal “red ring of death,” the Xbox 360’s guts have been reengineered twice to improve reliability. (Microsoft’s also extended its warranty to three years.) The newest version, internally code-named “Jasper,” has only just started to appear in the stores. If you can possibly get it, that’s the version you want. (Unfortunately, Microsoft won’t tell you which boxes contain “Jasper.” Here’s a painfully detailed discussion of how to figure it out for yourself. Or, if your kids can wait, just hold off a few months, until all the older models get cleared off the shelves.)

Nintendo Wii

The Wii is proving every bit as engaging as it was promised to be: visit friends who own one, and you’re likely to see folks avidly playing videogames who you never expected to pick up a controller – maybe even grandma and grandpa. For serious gamers, the Wii’s graphics seem almost painfully simple; so, too, its games. For everyone else, however, therein lies the charm.

Aside from their simplicity, what makes these games so different and engaging? The motion-sensitive controller that lets you mimic the “real-world” games you’re pretending to play. The Wii comes with baseball, boxing, bowling, golf and tennis games, and as you play them, it looks and feels like you’re playing those games.

Don’t let go of the controller, though! And, even though Wii games are far more physical than most videogames, don’t expect to lose a lot of weight, either. According to recent research by exercise scientists at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse Exercise and Health Program, playing Wii games typically burns far fewer calories than the real thing – though you can actually get a pretty good workout from Wii Boxing and, to a lesser degree, Wii Tennis.

The folks at LaCrosse are currently evaluating the hottest new game for the Wii, Wii Fit, which comes with its own balance board and provides 40 different activities, ranging from yoga poses to pushups, jogging and step aerobics to hula hoops and ski jumping. Wii Fit sold nearly 700,000 copies in the U.S. in November, and would’ve sold a lot more if not for shortages in the stores. But then, the same could be said about the Wii itself, which can still be hard to find, two full years after its introduction.

Sony PlayStation 3

Sony’s PlayStation 3, first introduced in the U.S. in November 2006, remains the most technically advanced console on the marketplace. In addition to a super-duper IBM Cell processor – the same processor that runs many of today’s most powerful supercomputers – it’s also the only game console that contains a built-in Blu-Ray player. Which means, of course, that it’s the only console that can play Blu-Ray DVD movies.   

This fancy hardware made the PlayStation 3 extremely expensive at launch: many of its first buyers paid $599 for the privilege, and even with that, Sony was reportedly losing hundreds of dollars per unit. (The game console business works like the shaving razor business: you lose money on the razor, in order to make a fortune on the blades – or, in this case, games -- that fit in it.) Sony’s costs have dropped, and so have its prices. You’ll “only” pay $399 for the base version with an 80GB hard disk this season; $499 for the 160GB version. Of course, that’s still a lot more than Microsoft and Nintendo are charging.   

Beyond the PS3’s Blu-Ray player and outstanding graphics, what do you get for your investment? Access to a growing library of high-quality games, for one thing, including PS3 versions of Rock Band, Call of Duty 4, and BioShock, as well as exclusives like Metal Gear, MLB 08: The Show, Resistance 2, and Killzone 2. (As with the Xbox 360, it’s been easiest for the PS3 to deliver titles for hardcore gamers; offerings for younger kids and families have been somewhat scarcer.) The tough, motion-sensitive, vibrating DualShock 3 controller will please most serious gamers, especially those familiar with the older PlayStation 2 controller. (And you can connect up to seven of them via Bluetooth wireless connections, for impressive multiplayer gaming.)

Hook up your PS3 to the Internet and you can take advantage of free multiplayer gaming (something Microsoft charges a subscription fee for). And if you’ve ever been curious about virtual worlds, Sony recently launched the new PlayStation Home. Sign on, get your own virtual apartment, and go from there. (It’s tamer and not nearly as sprawling as the #1 virtual world, Second Life – but for many folks, it’ll be a lot easier to navigate and get comfortable in.)

The ultimate game: the marketplace

So how are all these consoles doing with their ultimate test: the marketplace? Here are the numbers from November 2008, courtesy of the NPD Group, one of the industry’s leading researchers: Nintendo Wii sold 2,040,000 boxes in November (and would’ve sold more if it weren’t for those pesky shortages). Microsoft’s Xbox 360 came in second, at 836,000. And Sony’s slick, expensive Blu-Ray equipped PlayStation 3 trailed far behind at 378,000. Surprisingly, notwithstanding the miserable economy, overall sales for new game consoles were up 10% in November 2008 compared with the previous November: even PS3 sales are up substantially.

That’s evidence for the notion that the videogame industry is at least somewhat recession resistant: instead of taking expensive vacations or buying new cars, folks are staying home and playing videogames. But, as times get worse, it’s far from clear that it’ll stay that way: just ask the 1,000 people Electronic Arts is laying off in the next few weeks.

Bill Camarda has been writing about technology for families, kids, and others for 25 years, starting as an editor for Scholastic's Family Computing Magazine. His 18 computer books include Upgrading & Fixing Networks For Dummies and The Cheapskate's Guide to Bargain Computing. He lives in Ramsey, NJ with his wife and 14-year old son.


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