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The New Console War

All three of the new gaming consoles those magical devices that have changed the face of gaming yet again have now been released. John Edgar Park sees where the chips are falling.

First there was Atari 2600 vs. Intellivision. Later it was SuperNES vs. Sega Genesis. Next came Nintendo64 vs. PlayStation. And now we have the three way battle of Playstation2 vs. GameCube vs. Xbox. You've seen all the ads and heard all the hype -- so how are things really shaping up in this latest war of the video game consoles?

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Battle of the consoles: PlayStation2 vs. GameCube vs. Xbox.

The first thing to understand about console wars is this: Hardware loses money; software makes money. Just like Gillette practically gives away razors so that consumers will buy the replacement blades, console manufacturers are in the business of getting hardware into your homes in order to sell high profit games.

Any of the modern consoles is a marvel of technical specifications, which may lead you to wonder -- how come this sophisticated little computer costs only $200 - $300? Well the truth is, the console manufacturers sell them at a loss. Some estimate that it costs around $350 for Microsoft to build an Xbox, which retails for $299.

However, games are another matter. While Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft each have a different take on licensing, the basic mechanism is the same for all three: If a third-party publisher wants to sell a game for, say, Nintendo GameCube, they must pay a royalty and other fees to Nintendo. Since Nintendo controls the software duplication plants, all GameCube compatible software generates income for Nintendo. The profit margins and royalty systems of games are the spoils of the console wars.

And what a war it is. According to a recent NPD Group report, in 2001, consoles, peripherals and games accounted for $9.4 billion in sales. This is a 43% increase over year 2000 sales. To put this into perspective, movie box office ticket sales for 2001 were around $8.4 billion.

Sony PlayStation2

The Specs: CPU: 294Mhz 128-bit PlayStation2 CPU w/ FPU Co-processor System RAM: 32MB Direct RDRAM Graphics: 148Mhz Graphics Synthsizer Graphics RAM: 4MB Media: CD-ROM, DVD-ROM

Launched in 2000, a yearlong advantage has clearly helped the PS2 stay ahead of the competition. Game developers have had time to get to know the system. Second generation titles like Metal Gear Solid 2, Herdy Gerdy and Devil May Cry look as good or better than the first generation titles available on the newer GameCube and Xbox hardware.

Regardless of hardware stats like polygon fill rates and multi-texturing -- pretty much all current games look great -- it's the gameplay that matters. And there are many more PS2 games with great gameplay than the other consoles combined. This is made evident when you look at what people are buying. Among the top ten selling video game titles in 2001 are these five PS2 games: Grand Theft Auto III, Madden NFL 2002, Metal Gear Solid 2, Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec and Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3. These sales aren't attributable to huge advertising budgets (though that helps) but rather to expertly designed gameplay.

One other feather in Sony's cap: the $299 PS2 doubles as a DVD player without any additional hardware. While many people already own a standalone player, this capability is a major plus for some buyers. Sony sold 6.6 million PS2s in North America in 2001.

A shot from the habit forming Luigi's Mansion. © 2001 Nintendo of America.

Nintendo GameCube

The Specs: CPU: 485Mhz IBM PowerPC "Gekko" System RAM: 40MB Graphics: 162Mhz ATI/Nintendo "Flipper" Graphics RAM: 16MB Media: 3-inch 1.5GB proprietary DVD

Launched on November 18, 2001 this is the purest gaming machine of the bunch. Priced at $199 and lacking DVD movie playback capability, the GameCube is marketed as a games-only machine. It packs great hardware, but more importantly, one of Nintendo's greatest strengths has always been its in-house game development teams. Titles like Mario, Zelda and Pokemon are always huge sellers. Neither Sony nor Microsoft (who rely more heavily on out-of-house developers) can boast these kinds of character-based, must-have titles.

While previous Nintendo consoles have been targeted to a young audience, the GameCube is breaking this mold. With titles like Star Wars: Rogue Leader, Madden NFL 2002 and SSX Tricky, Nintendo has taken aim at the older players that make up Sony and Microsoft's core audiences. They also continue to cater to the younger set with cute, addictive titles like Super Smash Bros. Melee, Super Monkey Ball and Luigi's Mansion. This strategy is paying off: Nintendo sold 1.2 million GameCubes in the United States during 2001.

Journey with Munch's Oddysee. © Oddworld Inhabitants 2002.

Microsoft Xbox

The Specs: CPU: 733Mhz Intel System RAM: 64MB DDR Graphics: 233Mhz Nvidia XGPU Graphics RAM: shared with system RAM Media: DVD-ROM, CD-ROM

OK, no one wants Microsoft to take over yet another aspect of our daily lives. And the Xbox is admittedly one ugly piece of hardware. And the controllers seem to have been designed by Norse giants with enormous hands. But the truth is, the Xbox is a really great game console.

For one thing, you get a lot of hardware for your $299. Like the PS2, the Xbox can double as a DVD movie player (although you must invest in a $20 DVD playback kit first). Unlike the competition, the Xbox comes with a hard drive (for game saves and storing music) and an ethernet card for playing online games.

Essentially a stripped-down gaming PC built around a lean version of Windows 2000 and an Nvidia graphic card, the Xbox is said to be fairly easy to develop for. Game developers with experience coding DirectX (the underlying code in most PC games) are able to make the switch to Xbox without the steep learning curve of most new consoles. Look for quick ports of PC titles like Unreal Championship and Commandos 2.

Two notable titles available at launch were Munch's Oddysee and Halo. Munch continues the terrific Abe's Oddworld series and adds some very compelling A.I. As far as Halo goes, if you ever doubted that you'd want to play a first-person shooter on a console, just grab a friend and an extra controller and try out the co-operative mode. Plainly put -- it rocks!

There had been concern that the Xbox would not attract the big developers needed to create first-class titles. Without good software, nobody will buy the hardware. But with 1.5 million consoles sold in North America during 2001, they seem to be doing well so far.

The Future

From a sales perspective, Sony is in the lead. This is largely due to their huge library of titles (close to 2000 of them if you consider the backward compatibility with original PlayStation games) and yearlong head start. Nintendo and Microsoft have roughly equal sales numbers right now, so it's anybody's guess where things will go. Historically, the market has never supported more than two major players. Remember what the PSX and N64 did to the Sega Saturn?

If Internet gaming does finally catch on in the console world, like it has on the PC, things could get interesting. Xbox is online-capable out of the box. PS2 and GameCube are both readying add-on modems and ethernet cards, but will people buy them in large enough numbers to matter? It also remains to be seen if gamers will be willing to pay additional monthly fees to hook up with others online.

What else can we expect in this console war? Things change so quickly it's hard to tell -- in fact, there are rumors that Sony is already hard at work building the PlayStation 3!

John Edgar Park is a 3D animator, instructor and writer based in Los Angeles. He received his B.A. in Drama from the University of Virginia.

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