Here come the next-gen video games

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When the next-generation video game consoles -- Sony's PlayStation 3 (PS3) and Nintendo's Wii -- hit store shelves in November, it'll be the software that fuels sales. A console without great games is a console no one wants to own.

Deciding which games to release as "launch titles" may not be rocket science, but the selection process does require plenty of strategic thinking, say publishers, especially because of the various trade-offs involved.

For instance, while launch titles have far less competition and tend to have extended shelf lives as more and more hardware units come into the market, the games sell to a much smaller installed base than for the previous generation of consoles. On the other hand, because the "attach rate" of software-to-hardware is extremely high at launch, even though there are fewer gamers on the hardware, they buy more games per person in a short period of time.

Similarly, launch titles need to appeal to "core gamers" -- not the mass market -- because they are the exuberant early adopters willing to rush out and spend whatever the not-inexpensive next-gen consoles cost.

But while the expectations of such gamers may be higher than those of others, launch titles are created by developers who are just becoming familiar with the intricacies of the new technologies, which can have negative effects on a game's quality. And the games are sometimes rushed to meet deadlines. As a result, launch titles are frequently reclassified as "launch window titles" when they are rescheduled for release weeks and sometimes months after the console releases.

At Activision, executive vp Robin Kaminsky stresses the importance of "being there" when the excitement about the new consoles is at its peak and when there isn't a more extensive catalog of titles on the new platform from which to choose: "Typically, people who buy the new hardware buy three games along with it -- and you want yours to be at least one of them," she says.

She subscribes to the theory that launch titles are blessed with extended shelf lives, recalling how Activision's "Call Of Duty 2" for the Xbox 360 retained its $59.99 price point from its launch last November to the beginning of this month. The game has remained in the Top 10 in terms of sales during the entire period.

"Because there are always new consumers coming into the marketplace for the new hardware, if yours is one of the best games, you can sell it at a higher price," she says. "In absolute dollar revenue terms, you can do really, really well."

Which is why publishers have spent months gearing up for the big day, trying to cover all their bases by having hot titles for both of the next-gen consoles, and promising that the new games will show off the strengths of each of the two systems.

Asked to choose just two of their most exciting "launch" or "launch window" titles -- one for the PS3 and one for the Wii -- a handful of the leading video game publishers didn't hesitate with their responses.

Activision selected "Call Of Duty 3" for the PS3 -- a first-person action game for teens selling for $59.99 and available Nov. 17 -- and "Tony Hawk's Downhill Jam" for the Wii -- an action/sports game priced at $49.99 and available Nov. 7. (Typically games for the Wii are being priced by all publishers at $10 less than those for the PS3.)

According to Activision, "Call Of Duty 3" (pictured at right)shows off the PS3's shader technology, which is designed to add greater depth and create more realistic graphics, such as the creases and folds in the fabric of the soldiers' uniforms. And "Downhill Jam" leverages the Wii's new motion-sensing controller in order to adjust the direction and speed of the skateboard.

The former also comes in Wii, Microsoft Xbox 360 and Xbox, and PlayStation 2 (PS2) versions, and the latter is also available for the Nintendo DS handheld.

"We believe in building big brands and big franchises," explains Kaminsky. "For example, our 'Tony Hawk' franchise is a billion-dollar business and this is the eighth title we've launched in that series. By taking our franchises to every viable platform, we maximize our business by simply touching and relating to more people."

Other Activision launch titles include "Call Of Duty 3" for Wii, "Marvel: Ultimate Alliance" for both PS3 and Wii, and "Tony Hawk's Project 8" for PS3.

Focusing on its sports games, Electronic Arts selected "Fight Night Round 3" for the PS3 and "Madden NFL 07" for the Wii as its two most exciting next-gen titles. The former, a boxing game, will sell for $59.95 when it ships to retailers on Dec. 12, while the "Madden" football simulation for Wii will sell for $49.99 when it releases day-and-date with the console on Nov. 19.

A highlight of "Fight Night" (right) is the new "Get In The Ring" mode which, taking advantage of the PS3's improved graphics and sounds, allows gamers to experience the fight through the eyes of a boxer. Visual and audio effects -- such as restricted vision that mimics eye swelling, and ear ringing, flashes of bright light, color shifts, and blurring -- have been added to simulate the feeling of getting punched.

In "Madden," new FreeMotion controls introduce the ability to throw like the pros as well as hike, catch, juke, and stiff arm. For example, in order to pass, the player makes a throwing gesture and, to snap the ball, one pulls up on the controller.

Other next-gen games from EA include "Def Jam: Icon," "Need For Speed Carbon," "Madden NFL 07," and "Army Of Two," all for PS3, plus Wii versions of games from the "Need For Speed," "Harry Potter," "Tiger Woods PGA Tour," "SSX," and "The Godfather" franchises. (Release dates aren't yet available.)

Konami's only launch window title is an action/adventure game scheduled for year-end release called "Elebits" for the Wii. It's a unique game of hide-and-seek with players searching for mischievous little creatures that are the source of the world's power. The innovative Wii controller is used to push, pull, lift, and throw anything in the environment.

Next year, Konami's most-awaited title will be "Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns Of The Patriots" for the PS3, the latest in the popular tactical espionage series. Advanced gameplay will include an "OctoCamo" mechanic which allows Snake, the main character, to seamlessly blend into the environment, providing him with the means to more easily stalk his enemies. No release date is available.

All of Nintendo's games are developed, of course, for its own Wii console, the most visible of which will be "Wii Sports" which comes packaged with the system. Designed to show off the Wii's controller, the collection of five different sports -- bowling, golf, baseball, tennis, and boxing -- uses the Wii Remote to simulate, for example, a bat, golf club, or racket. Players control the action using the same motions they would use if they were playing the sports for real.

Nintendo's other "most exciting" launch title is the latest in the long-running "Zelda" series, "The Legend Of Zelda: Twilight Princess." The action/adventure game, which will go for $49.99, lets players use the motion-sensitive Wii Remote and Nunchuk controllers as their sword and shield. Instead of pressing a button to swing a sword, players literally swing the Wii Remote. Similarly they can shoot a bow-and-arrow or fish using the same motions they would use with an actual weapon or rod and reel.

Similarly, all of Sony Computer Entertainment's launch titles are for its own PS3 system. High up on the "must have" list, says Sony, are "NBA '07," a basketball game for the entire family that runs in high-def at 60 frames per second. Not only can the player take advantage of the PS3's motion-sensor controller to perform jukes, crossovers, and spin moves, but the game enables downloading of five scenarios each week from real NBA games so they can be replayed inside of "NBA '07."

Sony's other "most exciting" release for the PS3 is "Resistance: Fall Of Man" (right), a Mature-rated, first-person shooter that permits up to 40 online players simultaneously, said to have the largest multiplayer support ever in a console game. Set in a frightening, alternate world, the story rewrites the 20th century, pitting the U.S. and Britain against a horrific species of unknown origin that has overrun Russia and all of Europe.

Prices for both games haven't been announced yet.

While THQ wasn't saying anything about its PS3 launch window titles, it identified "SpongeBob Squarepants: Creature From The Krusty Krab" as its most exciting Wii game. Selling for $49, the action/adventure game uses the Wii controller both as a flight control stick and, when flipped on its side, a steering wheel for a realistic driving experience. And, after every level, players are rewarded by being able to use the controllers as if they were any of eight different musical instruments to play rock songs along with SpongeBob and his friends.

Ubisoft has perhaps the largest collection of launch and launch window titles, headed up by "Red Steel" for the Wii and "Rainbow Six Vegas" for the PS3.

"Red Steel," a Teen-rated, first-person action launch title that will sell for $49.99, enables gamers to use the Wii controller to simulate an arsenal of firearms and other weapons. In the game's storyline, your fiancee has been kidnapped and the only way to save her is to journey from Los Angeles to Japan in order to confront the Tokyo underworld.

With "Rainbow Six Vegas" (right), the long-running Tom Clancy franchise comes to next-gen, showing off its most impressive graphics to-date. The Mature-rated tactical shooter, which will sell for $59.99, has a terrorist siege sending Las Vegas into chaos with only the Rainbow Six counter-terrorist forces capable of saving the day.

In addition, Ubisoft's PS3 entries include the Teen-rated air combat simulation "Blazing Angels: Squadrons Of WW II" as a launch title and, later on, "Haze," "Brothers In Arms Hells Highway," and "Assassin's Creed."

On its Wii agenda, there are eight launch titles: "Blazing Angels: Squadrons Of WW II," the first-person action shooter "Far Cry Vengeance," the Everyone-rated racing game "GT Pro Series," the Everyone-rated kids adventure "Open Season," the Teen-rated truck racer "Monster 4X4 World Circuit," the Everyone-rated action-adventure "Rayman Raving Rabbids," and the Mature-rated spy action game "Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell Double Agent."

The video games industry frequently talks about a "killer app" (or "application") -- the one title that is in such demand that gamers will buy a particular console simply to play it. In 2001, for instance, it is generally accepted that "Halo: Combat Evolved" drove sales of Microsoft's Xbox system. But, with the PS3 and Wii on the launch pad, there doesn't seem to be a killer app in sight for either system.

"I think there's some really good software coming out," observes Activision's Kaminsky, "with some very highly anticipated titles. But I don't know if there's one identifiable killer app poised to drive sales."

Perhaps higher on the list of publishers' concerns is whether Sony and Nintendo will manufacture enough consoles to satisfy consumer demand. Typically, new consoles tend to be in short supply, the result of inadequate manufacturing resources or intentional efforts to create demand -- or both. For example, last year when there weren't enough Microsoft Xbox 360s to go around, publishers found themselves with too many Xbox 360 games and not enough consumers who had bought the system.

Will the same scenario hurt the publishers of PS3 and Wii games?

"We always hope that more hardware will be available instead of less," notes Activision's Kaminsky. "But we try to be realistic. We're aware of how many units Sony and Nintendo say they're going to ship and we benchmark against prior launch cycles. Let's just say that we were hurt after the Xbox 360 launch; we would have sold more had there been more hardware. But we're doing our best once again to plan to have the right games and the right number of games. When a consumer buys the new hardware, we want them to buy us too."

Paul "The Game Master" Hyman was the editor-in-chief of CMP Media's GamePower. He's covered the games industry for over a dozen years. His columns for The Reporter run exclusively on the Web site.
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