Console makers promote 'connected gaming'

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Every gamer, or parent of a gamer, who intends to buy one of the two higher-priced next-gen video consoles faces the same question -- go Sony or go Microsoft?

Selecting a console used to be merely a question of which had the better graphics, which had more games that were the most fun, which had a price tag that made the most sense.

But both console makers are using today's online technologies to promote the "stickiness" of their brand. Buyers ought to choose well; once they've bought a Microsoft Xbox 360 or a Sony PlayStation3, with their brand new "connected gaming" features, the manufacturers have made it harder than ever to make the leap to the competing brand.

Of course "connected gaming" doesn't appeal to everyone. There are still those players who eschew contact with other gamers, who enjoy sitting quietly by themselves, hoping to beat their last high score just the way gamers everywhere did before the advent of the Internet.

These days, however, the number of solo gamers are few and far between -- or so claim Microsoft and Sony, which are both out to promote their version of "connected gaming."

Last month, Microsoft announced its "Games For Windows LIVE" initiative and, this month, that it would enable Xbox 360 gamers to use its popular MS instant messenger service to communicate with each other.

Similarly, last month, Sony announced its "PlayStation3 HOME," a sort of virtual reality service that fosters communal gameplay.

"There are still a few video games out there that are stubbornly trying to remain solo events," says Michael Lafferty, senior editor at GameZone.com, who focuses on online gameplay. "Like 'Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.' But they tend to be only marginally successful. Today, gamers tend to want to hook up online for competition against their peers. Whether that's because the console makers are stimulating interest in connected gameplay or because the makers are reacting to gamers' preferences, well, it's a chicken-and-egg situation."

Of the new offerings by the two console makers, Lafferty believes Microsoft has the edge. That's because on May 8, when Microsoft releases the Windows Vista version of its hit Xbox first-person shooter "Halo 2," personal computer gamers will be able to play head-to-head with Xbox 360 gamers on the Xbox LIVE online service.

It's the very first time that "cross-platform" gameplay -- meaning between a personal computer and a console machine -- will become available.

"If it works the way it's supposed to, there are going to be an awful lot of gamers who are going to be very excited about this new feature," says Lafferty.

Shortly after the release of "Halo 2," in June will come a cross-platform version of "Shadowrun," a first-person shooter that will enable 16 players to battle for control using modern weaponry and ancient magic. And then, later in the year, there will be a cross-platform version of the classic card game "Uno."

But new technologies rarely come without a price -- a gold membership to the Xbox LIVE service which allows multiplayer gaming is $49.95 a year. And the cross-platform play is only available to PC gamers whose computers have the new Vista operating system; if they have XP or older operating systems, they're out of luck.

"Microsoft recognizes that there's a new generation of gamers who care deeply about collaboration and social interaction and doings things with their friends," says Aaron Greenberg, Microsoft's group product manager for Xbox 360 and Xbox LIVE. "I think that speaks to all the Web 2.0 stuff and the YouTube boom, which has translated into the video game space. It's no longer about playing by yourself but about how do I play with my friends and stay connected to my community of friends even if I'm not gaming with them. Our research tells us that they want a unified experience across all of their games, to be able to know what their friends are playing, to be able to send cross-game invites, to have voice integration on every game, to be able to manage their list of friends and be able to interact with them via voice or text massaging or even video chats. And that's why we are facilitating that with our new services. I mean, there are 200 million people out there playing games on their PC; why not allow the console gamers to connect to them?"

In May, mobile gamers, too, will be able to enter the mix. Beginning the week of May 7, Microsoft will add the capabilities of Windows Live Messenger (formerly known as "MSN Messenger") to the Xbox 360, allowing gamers on the next-gen console to send "instant messages" to Windows-based PCs as well as Windows Mobile-powered devices.

"I can be on my phone and have a group text chat with a person who's on his PC and a person who's on their Xbox 360," adds Greenberg. "We haven't extended gaming to the cell phone yet but, over time, as more developers get their hands on our tools, I'm sure all three platforms will be able to compete against each other on some casual game, like a 'Bejeweled.' I just don't have the exact timing for that yet."

With Microsoft busying itself with expanding its gaming network, is there any possibility that a PC gamer might one day be able to compete against a gamer on a Sony PlayStation3 console?

Greenberg doesn't rule it out, but says that the decision to connect the Microsoft Windows operating system with the Sony gaming software would have to come from Sony.

"Sony doesn't yet have a unified online gaming service the way we do," he notes. "I'm not sure they'd see the benefit of connecting with us; they have other priorities, I'm sure."

That is, indeed, the case. "It won't come as a huge surprise to anyone," says Peter Dille, Sony senior VP of marketing, "that we have no plans at this point to connect to Windows."

Instead, Sony's focus is on readying its real-time, networked, 3-D avatar-based community, which it has dubbed "HOME" and which it intends to launch in the late summer-early fall time period.

"HOME" is not, in itself, a game, but is expected to put gamers into a "Sims"-like setting in which they can interact, join online games, communicate, share content and even build and show off their personal spaces.

Imagine creating your own 3-D character which would inhabit a sleek, modern indoor space that features common areas, retail shops, game lobbies and customizable personal apartments. That so-called avatar would be able to communicate with others through text, audio, and video chat, and could share video, pictures and music content stored on the gamer's PlayStation3 hard drive.

Best of all, there will be no charge for "HOME," which will be available via a free download from the PlayStation Store this fall.

Comparing "HOME" to Microsoft's online offerings, Dille notes that "first and foremost, we are not just offering games, but a great online environment for playing online games as well as building community. Because our competitor launched with its next-gen console a year ahead of us, people assume that our online service would match theirs feature by feature. But we're known for taking a bit of a different approach than the rest of the market, and I think 'HOME' is a great example of that."

But there will also be similarities. Sony intends for its newest games to award players with points for unlocking various in-game milestones, taking a cue from the extremely popular "Achievement Points" that are currently a hallmark of Xbox 360 games.

"Gaming is all about competition, about getting to the next level, about finishing the game, about finding items that other gamers didn't find, about ultimately earning the respect of other gamers," says Dille. "Previously, you were rewarded just with bragging rights; but we intend to make the reward very tangible with trophies that you can display in your 'HOME' trophy room. No, we won't be calling them Achievement Points."

Sony also intends to expand the interactivity among its various platforms -- the PlayStation2, PlayStation3 and the portable PSP -- by including cell phone gamers as well. Sony has signed a deal with T-Mobile that, beginning in the fall, allows that carrier's customers to connect to Sony's PSP and play games head-to-head via their phones free of charge for six months. After that period, they can opt to pay T-Mobile for that service if they choose. Currently there are no plans to expand the agreement to other cell phone carriers.

While there is no fee to gamers to participate in "HOME," Sony perceives the online space as a prime opportunity to market other content to gamers.

"For example, there will be theaters in 'HOME' where we could promote, say, the new 'Spider-Man' movie from Sony Pictures," says Dille. "Or, on the numerous Sony Bravia LCD screens scattered around 'HOME,' we could show the upcoming release of a new game like, say, 'Little Big Planet.' And we might be able to sell upgrades to gamers' 'HOME' apartments, perhaps themed decorating kits, or T-shirts and jackets that their avatars might wear online. This will be a marketer's dream, a very, very exciting opportunity for us from a marketing perspective."

But whether "HOME" will be equally as exciting to gamers depends a lot on what motivates gamers to go online, says GameZone's Lafferty.

"Personally, I go to play games -- and to play them with other people," he explains. "If I want to communicate, I'd rather do that with people within the realm of a massively multiplayer game where we are actually doing something together and not just standing around and chatting. 'HOME' is an interesting concept but I'll need to see if it's anything more than an interactive visual cyber chat room."

Which brings gamers back full circle to the dilemma of deciding which next-gen console to buy.

"Now that consoles cost $500 and $600 each, there's no longer an opportunity for most families to buy one of each," notes Lafferty. "So they need to choose carefully the one that best meets their expectations. That's one of the reasons why consoles have become so multi-functional. They need to play not only games but also be home entertainment centers. Essentially Microsoft and Sony have come to the realization that if they're going to charge so much for their consoles, they'd better be more than just game machines."

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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