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Software support wanes for GameCube

Publishers of video game software say they're taking a second look at the console as industry support for Nintendo ebbs.

LOS ANGELES--Is three a crowd?

Publishers of video game software are starting to talk as if that might be the case, with support waning for Nintendo in the three-way fight for survival in the lucrative game console business.

Software executives interviewed at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) trade show here said they're reconsidering the number of titles they plan to produce for Nintendo's GameCube in the wake of declining sales for the console. Total GameCube sales for Nintendo's recently concluded fiscal year fell dramatically short of company estimates, and sales have been particularly off in Europe, traditionally a weak spot for Nintendo.

Vivendi Universal Games, the interactive entertainment arm of the French media conglomerate, will produce fewer GameCube titles this year, as industry support for the console wanes, said Phillip O'Neil, senior vice president for sales and marketing.

"We're really focusing on Sony and Microsoft," O'Neil said, referring to those companies' PlayStation 2 and Xbox consoles. "We'd like nothing more than to have three strong platforms. That was our hope when this console cycle started, that it would be a 1+1+1=3 equation. But it's starting to look more like 1+1+1=1 1/2."

Kathy Vrabeck, executive vice president of No. 2 games publisher Activision, was also concerned about the GameCube's position in the market.

"I think it's good for the industry as a whole if you have three strong players, but that's not the direction it's going," Vrabeck said. "We're really not seeing substantial steps from Nintendo to reverse that trend, especially in Europe."

Nintendo executives were unusually candid about the GameCube's disappointing sales record in the comapny's E3 press conference Tuesday. But company leaders insisted then and in subsequent interviews that they're doing what it takes to get the console back on track. They pointed to sales figures from the past few months showing a substantial rebound in GameCube sales, fueled by the release of a new game featuring Nintendo's landmark Zelda character.

"One of the problems was we just had too much time between our big software launches," Perrin Kaplan, vice president of marketing for Nintendo of America, said in an interview. "People got tired of waiting. We're not going to let that happen again."

Nintendo also hopes to continue its domination of the handheld gaming market with a batch of new titles that connect software for the GameCube and the portable Game Boy Advance player.

"The idea of connectivity between the GameCube and Game Boy Advance really creates a whole new style of game play, and it's something only Nintendo can do," Kaplan said.

Believers include Electronic Arts, the leading independent game publisher. EA Vice President Jeff Brown said one encouraging sign of Nintendo's commitment to turn the GameCube business around is the company's newfound interest in working with outside developers. Of the three console makers, Nintendo traditionally has depended the most on self-published content.

"They're really reaching out, for a change," Brown said. "Our developers have had more conversations with Nintendo in the last two months than they probably did in the two years before that."

Microsoft's Xbox sales edge is thin, Brown added, and Nintendo understands the game business too well to give up on the console market.

"Hardware is in their DNA," he said. "I think these guys have a really good chance to become the big come-from-behind story we all talk about at the end of the year."