Powerful new game console adds DVD, Net capabilities

Friday, October 27th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

By Victor Godinez / The Dallas Morning News

It's here.

Sony's much-ballyhooed PlayStation 2 video game console was officially released Thursday throughout the United States, and Sony hopes it will usher in a new era in home entertainment.

With PlayStation 2, Sony seeks to not only continue the dominance it established in the gaming world with its original PlayStation, but to make the PlayStation 2 the nexus of consumers' home entertainment systems – thanks to the ability to play DVD movies and, eventually, access the Internet.

At the heart of the 128-bit PlayStation 2 is a central processor that Sony calls the "Emotion Engine."

The term is meant to convey that the PlayStation 2, or PS2, is so technically sophisticated that the games developed for it will evoke the sort of emotional response usually associated with motion pictures.

Will it deliver? Nathan Op, 14, thinks so.

"It's going to be totally awesome," he says. Nathan and his friends were browsing through displays of PlayStation 2 games recently at Software Etc. at Vista Ridge Mall in Lewisville. Although a Sega Dreamcast game on display caught their eyes, PlayStation 2 was clearly the focus of their attention.

Nathan's friend Mitchell Sims, 13, says he hopes his parents will get him a PlayStation 2 for his birthday, which falls on Christmas Day. He hasn't pre-ordered a unit, though.

"I'm just going to try and get one and hope my parents buy it," he says.

His parents may have a tough battle ahead of them. Sony has announced that instead of having 1 million units on shelves initially, it will have only 500,000. Sony blamed the shortfall on component shortages. Whatever the reason, the units will probably be hard to find until after the holiday shopping season.

"Long term, I don't think it's going to have a big effect because by the end of the Christmas period, there are going to be as many PS2s as there were going to be out there anyway," says John Davison, editor in chief of the video gaming magazine Electronic Gaming Monthly.

"There will be nearly a million and a half by New Year's, most of which, I expect, will have been sold," he says. "They're not just going to be in the channel. They're going to be in people's hands."

Even before Sony officially acknowledged the existence of the PlayStation 2 in March 1999, rumors about the company's new system and its Emotion Engine circulated in print and online. That may have driven consumer expectations beyond what the first generation of games designed for the console can deliver, experts say.

"There are people who would love to say that Sony's PlayStation 2 is not 'all that,'" says Jeff Brown, a spokesman for Electronic Arts, one of the major developers creating games for the console. "I've seen it. It is all that. It is an enormous breakthrough from the current technology."

Best is yet to come

However, he notes that the first games for any platform usually take just the first step in discovering and harnessing a system's full potential.

"If you look at the PlayStation games today compared to five years ago when the PlayStation came out, it doesn't look like they're being played on the same system," says Dan Dematteo, president of video and computer game retailer Babbage's Etc. Once game makers learn how to program for a new console, the games are "superior and they'll get better."

"In terms of just the technology and the games, I think some of the early stuff isn't that much of a jump up from Dreamcast," says Mr. Davison. "But there's some stuff coming out that's going to be in kind of the second wave of games that are a big step forward."

Mr. Davison points to the upcoming release of Gran Turismo 3, the PS2 sequel to the hugely popular Gran Turismo racing franchise on the original PlayStation, as a hint of the technical achievement that the PlayStation 2 will ultimately boast.

"That's noticeably better than anything the Dreamcast can do," he says. "The next watershed moment will be next summer when Metal Gear 2 hits because that's being developed the way Sony intended people to develop for PS2."

That programming involves the complicated manipulation and understanding of mathematical equations called algorithms, which will make possible more detailed graphics and fluid animation.

Currently, game programmers create images out of geometrical shapes called polygons. Programmers simply piece together pre-programmed polygons into a shape that looks like an NFL football player, a spaceship or a dragon, for example.

Polygons are fairly easy to manipulate in comparison to the complex algorithms required to push the PlayStation 2 to its technological limits, and many programmers have had difficulty learning to use the algorithms quickly and efficiently.

"The people who are having trouble developing for PlayStation 2 are the ones who did not take time to learn the system and are the ones who are trying to cut corners in order to build titles fast," says Mr. Brown, the Electronic Arts spokesman.

"I think once they kind of change their mindset in the way they develop for it, it's going to be like: 'It's fine, it's great, it does all this fantastic stuff,'" says Mr. Davison. "But I think short term, everyone wants to get their game out for the system launch, especially one as big as PS2."

There are 26 games across a variety of genres being released Thursday for the PlayStation 2, and Sony expects 50 to be available by Christmas. Games for the original PlayStation will also work on the new platform.

By comparison, the Nintendo 64 console debuted in 1996 in the United States with only a handful of games.

Some of the premiere launch games to keep an eye out for – should you be lucky enough to snag a console – are the racing game Ridge Racer V, the fighting game Tekken Tag Tournament, the football game Madden NFL 2001, the snowboarding game SSX and the role-playing game Orphen (see reviews on Page 5F). Most PS2 games run $50.

On the horizon, NBA Live 2001 and the much-anticipated Star Wars Starfighter will hit stores in December, and Gran Turismo 3 is set for release in early 2001.

Although the rush to get those 26 games into stores has perhaps resulted in developers cutting corners and delivering software that is not as stunning as consumers expect, Sony and other game companies have several years to perfect their product, says Matt Gravett, an analyst for PC Data.

"It's always hard to live up to this kind of hype," he says. "Very few things do.

"The thing that Sony has going for it – and this is different from things like movies – is that PlayStation 2 is here for the next five years probably, and because of that, there are going to be hundreds and hundreds of games that come out," Mr. Gravett says.

"So it's sort of like Sony and these publishers have second and third and fourth chances throughout the years to really create what makes the system good, and that's the games."

Whether or not the launch titles take full advantage of the PS2's power, many retailers expect PlayStation 2 consoles to fly off the shelves.

"We have demand for five times what we will have," says Mr. Dematteo of Babbage's. "I've been in this business for 15 years, and this is clearly a high-water mark in terms of consumer interest and desirability. It's clearly going to be the Cabbage Patch thing this Christmas, if you can get it."

Babbage's took more than 200,000 preorders, equivalent to nearly half of all the PlayStation 2s available at launch, in its 960 stores nationwide, Mr. Dematteo says.

"There will definitely be a shortage through Christmas, no question," he says. "Sony has said [it will have] 1.3 million units by Christmas, and that is going to leave the market at least 1 million short of demand."

Dreamcast by default

Supply will catch up to demand somewhere near the end of January, Mr. Dematteo says, meaning that many parents may have to turn elsewhere if they're planning on sticking a next-generation video game console under the Christmas tree.

Sega, with its rival Dreamcast system, is likely to be the short-term beneficiary of the Sony shortage, most say, although Sony is ultimately expected to win the war.

"It kind of leaves a little bit of a crack for Sega to pick up a few pieces," says Mr. Gravett, the PC Data analyst. "Also, people may have a little sticker shock at $300, and they'll see Dreamcast at $150 and think that's a fair price. I think those are the pieces that Sega hopes to get."

"Sony said that they think they can get to 100 million units in the four- to five-year life span of this thing," says Electronic Arts' Mr. Brown. "We are confident they can do it. Say what you will, Sony is very, very good at marketing consumer electronics."

Sega's Dreamcast was released Sept. 9, 1999, and sold more than half a million units within two weeks. It sold 1.5 million units by the end of 1999, greatly exceeding Sega's most optimistic expectations.

Despite the shortage of PlayStation 2 units at launch, Sony expects to easily match Sega's initial three-month number of sales, despite a price tag $100 higher than what Sega had. Sony could sell 3 million PlayStation 2s before Christmas without breaking a sweat if it had the units available, retailers and analysts say.

"The original PlayStation came out at $299," Mr. Dematteo notes. "The Dreamcast came out last year at $199, but this is a DVD player also. For a lot of consumers, this is going to be their first DVD player."

While Sony may not be marketing the DVD aspect of the console much right now, that will probably change once the first wave of hard-core gamers has acquired it and Sony tries to entice new buyers.

Besides offering DVD capabilities, Sony hopes to turn the PS2 into a high-speed Internet device that will allow people to surf the Web on their TV, type out e-mail with a keyboard plugged into the USB port on the console and play games online against competitors around the world.

"Someone like Sony, I think, can do that since they are in other businesses than gaming," says Mr. Gravett. "They have movies, they have music that people can buy and distribute and download. I think out of the gate, they want it to be thought of as a game system.

"But it doesn't seem like that much of a stretch, and to me it makes perfect sense to have this thing be all-inclusive."

Sega was the first to test the online waters with its recently introduced SegaNet online gaming environment, but most expect that online gaming via consoles won't take off until faster broadband Internet service becomes widely adopted.

Mr. Dematteo is quick to point out, though, that DVD functionality, which is available immediately with PlayStation 2, is probably not on most consumers' minds right now.

"The hard-core gamers, which is where the demand is coming from right now, are really into gaming," he says. "The only reason they buy something is because it delivers gaming that is far superior to what they have. Having said that, having it play DVDs is just a nice add-on."

So you've preordered your system or gambled that you'll be able to buy one at a store that didn't take preorders, such as Wal-Mart or Best Buy, and you're waiting to plunk down hundreds of dollars for a PlayStation 2. Is it worth it?

Right now, some of the available games are quite good, some are OK and some are perfect examples of how a company, such as Capcom, shovels a third-rate game, such as Street Fighter 3, out the door just to say it was there at ground zero.

Even the good games are not without flaws and look little better than they do on Sega's much cheaper Dreamcast.

Finally, no video game console manufacturer has ever had the dominant system for two generations in a row.

Nintendo got the ball rolling with its 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985, then Sega briefly claimed the throne with its 16-bit Genesis in the early and mid-1990s. Finally, Sony, with its 32-bit PlayStation, was the standard bearer for the close of the millennium.

Most expect Sony to defend its title as king of the console realm despite the suspect quality of some of the early games.

"I think they stand a better chance than anyone has in the past unless Nintendo or Microsoft pull something incredible out of their hats [with new consoles], say for $150, and everybody in the world develops for it," says Mr. Davison of Electronic Gaming Monthly.

"PlayStation is ingrained in people's brains the way Nintendo used to be. I think it's probably more ingrained than Nintendo used to be, and they're going to really benefit from that," he says.

What's ahead

Nintendo has developed a platform called GameCube, and Microsoft is working on the Xbox.

Even if Sony's current crop of games doesn't seem a quantum leap beyond previous technology, future games will probably take video games to new heights.

"There's a lot of history behind that," says Mr. Brown. "Every time a new generation of platform has come out, the developers build into it."

And if you're waiting for the price to drop, don't expect Sony to do so during the middle of a supply shortage and with competition from Nintendo and Microsoft nearly a year off.

"A lot of it is going to depend on exactly when Microsoft's Xbox comes out and what price it hits at," says Mr. Davison. "If Sony can sell 100,000 [consoles per week] for $300, then they'll keep doing it for as long as they can."

Not to mention, all the major developers have committed in a big way to PlayStation 2. If the first generation of games rivals second- and third-generation Dreamcast games, the PS2 has a long, lustrous career ahead of it.

At least until PlayStation 3.