E3 - Gamers to get wired

Connectivity for consoles is the catchphrase at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) here this week. Representatives of both Sony Computer Entertainment and Nintendo are hawking the new strategy, but only Sony is giving details about taking its Playstation online.

The Tuesday morning announcements follow Microsoft Corp.'s Monday introduction of Xbox Online, a broadband gaming package scheduled for release in Northern Autumn.

Unlike Microsoft's plan for flat-rate access to online games, Sony will release a combination Ethernet port/analog modem for US$39.99 in August, and open its network to any ISPs (Internet service providers). "Even MSN users are welcome," said Kaz Hirai, president and chief operating officer of Sony Computer Entertainment America.

Nintendo, which last week announced it will market both a modem and broadband adapter (priced at $34.95 each) for its GameCube console, gave only scant details of its plans. Phantasy Star Online will debut this fall on the service, said Satoru Iwata, director of corporate planning for Nintendo.

Sony shows off

Sony gave a preview of its online game play, including an eight-on-eight squad combat in SOCOM: U.S. Navy Seals. Half of the players were on-site at E3, and the other half was 300 miles away in the San Francisco Bay Area. Available in August, the $59.99 broadband-only game will include a USB headset for issuing voice commands to computer-controlled characters or communicating with other real players.

In another preview, John Riccitiello, the president and chief operating officer of Electronic Arts, introduced NFL opponents battling online via Madden NFL Football 2003. Minnesota Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper served as an on-site "game tester" going head-to-head with Jevon Kearse, defensive end with the Tennessee Titans, who was in Orlando. John Madden himself provided color commentary also from a remote location in Pleasanton, California.

"This is great," Madden said. "Football in May!"

Sony will also let game publishers create their own pay-per-play proposals and share their revenues, Hirai said.

"More than 60 percent of our users said that their main barrier to gaming online would be having to pay a fee," Hirai added. Clearly, however, he is confident of success: Hirai declared the console war over, likening the gap between Sony and its competition to the Grand Canyon.

Other games slated for the PS2 network include Final Fantasy XI, EverQuest Online Adventures, Star Wars Galaxies, and Resident Evil Online, Hirai said.

Nintendo's approach

Nintendo focused on the connectivity between its handheld Game Boy Advance and its GameCube console, demonstrating new plans for the convergence. Plugging the Advance into the GameCube will unlock special features in certain games, company representatives said. Also, gamers will be able to download content to the Advance, making parts of their GameCube games portable. Nintendo will take no licensing fees for its network, Iwata said.

Another Nintendo device, the E-Reader, will plug into the Advance and let gamers scan in data from E-Reader cards, such as new characters or mini-games--and even original Nintendo system games.

But Nintendo leaned heavily on its franchise characters. New games featuring the return of old favorites drew enthusiastic reactions from the audience. Returnees include Super Mario Sunshine, Metroid Prime, and the Legend of Zelda. Nintendo even converged old characters and new connectivity by showing off Zelda for Game Boy Advance with a four-link cable for cooperative and competitive simultaneous play on four different Advances.

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Joel Strauch

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