Video-game makers will choose sides on digital battlefield

Sunday, November 18, 2001

Associated Press/Gino Domenico

Actor William Shatner, 70, posed in a restaurant at New York's Parker Meridian hotel. He was promoting his role as host for two UPN "Iron Chef USA" specials.The Associated Press

Nintendo's GameCube and Microsoft's Xbox herald themselves as the latest in video game evolution.

But many third-party game developers see the competition among the two new consoles and Sony's year-old PlayStation2 as the real study in Darwinism -- and it is the game makers who may ultimately decide which consoles survive.

Game designer Steven Rechtschaffner, for one, is convinced "the games sell the consoles".

Rechtschaffner's "SSX Tricky" snowboarding adventure is one of several titles, including football simulator "Madden NFL 2002" and cartoony crash-up derby "The Simpsons: Road Rage," that Electronic Arts is releasing for all three systems.

By hedging their bets, EA and other third-party game manufacturers limit their risk while waiting to see which consoles players will favor.

"We don't have to automatically develop for every console out there," said company spokeswoman Trudy Miller. "All of these consoles will sell out for Christmas this year, but the real challenge will be to sell 10 million by next year."

If game developers pull away from a flagging system, its library of games stagnates -- which tends to drive away even more potential buyers.

Nintendo vanquished Atari and Colecovision in the 1980s. More recently, Sega's troubled Dreamcast system fell victim to Sony's PlayStation1 and Nintendo's N64.

Ironically, industry veteran Nintendo has become the most vulnerable in the new competition.

Sony's head start

With a year's head start, Sony has already entrenched itself by selling nearly 20 million PlayStation2 consoles.

Most third-party gamers expect PlayStation2 to be the core of their business this year and some have dedicated exclusive games to it, such as Konami's "Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty" and EA's "007: Agent Under Fire."

That leaves the fight mainly between the $299 Xbox and the $199 GameCube, with Xbox promising 15-20 launch titles while GameCube has only five to seven.

Nintendo has found itself fighting not only for consumers, but also for game developers.

It has responded by focusing mainly on younger game players with family-friendly third-party software such as Sega's 3-D maze game "Super Monkey Ball" and Ubi Soft's "Disney's Tarzan Untamed."

Japanese game maker Konami, which developed the series of "Castlevania" monster-hunting games for Nintendo's previous systems, plans no immediate releases for GameCube. But it does have the action flight adventure "AirForce Delta Storm" ready for the launch of Xbox.

"It takes time to learn how to develop for a hardware system ... and there was some shortage of development kits," said Konami spokesman Chris Kramer. "Microsoft was very proactive about getting development kits out there everywhere."

TDK Mediactive, which produced the Xbox game "Shrek" based on the popular animated comedy, had the same problem, according to CEO Vincent Bitetti

"We thought 'Shrek' would skew toward Nintendo's younger audience and figured GameCube would be a better fit, but we had to do the game in a very compressed period of time and could not get the GameCube development systems," Bitetti said.

Seamus Blackley, a former game designer and founding force behind Xbox, said he knew that if he could snag the interest of disgruntled third-party game developers consumers would follow.

"When we went to the publishers early on and found they were used to being told 'how it is' within the industry," Blackley added. "We said, 'What do you want from us?"'

The designers, like many artists, said they wanted more creative liberties.

Detailed images

The Xbox utilized a PC-caliber processor and separate graphics chips to calculate shadows and reflection, which helped the developers create intricately detailed images without drawing resources away from character movement and artificial intelligence.

For instance, that enabled Konami designers to pack "AirForce Delta Storm" with more than 50 missions and nearly 70 different jet designs.

Even if it does fall somewhat short of its rivals, GameCube also offers a significant leap forward in graphic technology that some designers prefer.

"GameCube is great at rendering multiple levels of transparencies," Rechtschaffner said. "That's a big help when you're covering a world in snow and ice."

Nintendo's main concession to third-party game makers came in the physical form of the games themselves.

The company has traditionally used bulky cartridges to store games, which cost publishers nearly twice as much as the CD-sized discs used by PlayStation2 and Xbox. The cartridges also took longer to make, which led consumers to complain that Nintendo didn't supply new games fast enough.

Nintendo tried to appease the publishers by designing GameCube to use mini-discs, which are about half the diameter of a CD, Nintendo marketing executive George Harrison said.

"We see this as a way of leveling the playing field," he added.

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