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Sony's surge: (Pizza) pie in the sky?

Will the Sony PlayStation II become the nerve center of the digital lifestyle, plunging into the home to supplant the PC? It depends on what you think of root beer by the pitcher.

Will the Sony PlayStation II become the nerve center of the digital lifestyle, plunging into the home to supplant the PC and vanquish the Microsoft/Intel duopoly? It depends on what you think of root beer by the pitcher.

Let me explain.

PlayStation II, coming to the United States next year, is already being touted as the device that will knock the computing powers for a loop. The system claims to deliver superior graphics and computing power over conventional PCs for half to one-tenth of the price. It will be able to hook up to the Internet, probably be capable of intercepting digital TV programs, and will contain recordable CD or DVD drives so you can steal music from the Web more easily than ever before.

And, perhaps more importantly, the device will likely serve as a sort-of Trojan horse for all things Sony. Want to view digital pictures? Simple. Take the Memory Stick--a bit of flash memory conceived by Sony--from the back of your digital camera and plop it into the PlayStation. Interactive TV programs with fluid Web links built in? Those developed by Sony Entertainment will no doubt come streaming across. In one sneaky move, Sony becomes the creator and gatekeeper of futuristic digital entertainment. Royalties roll in.

But back to the root beer question.

When you boil it down, the PlayStation II is what it says it is: a console for playing electronic games. And, in many respects, electronic gaming is like gun control: Either you love it or hate it.

Some can play games for hours. (You may have seen them playing Quake all day in your office.) Others, after a few kick-boxing matches, realize they can't eat enough "energy pills" to vanquish Yotus the avenger and hang it up before getting to Level 2.

Growing up in the '70s, the yes/no question surrounding electronic games was pretty much decided by the environment. And that was Red Vest Pizza (not its real name).

Red Vest was one of those chain pizza parlors. They sported an "Olde Town" sort of theme and played Three Stooges movies on Saturday afternoons. Outside, the place always came with a mechanical horse, and the employees let you steal all the mustard and ketchup packets your fourth-grade heart desired. The pizza typically stunk, but the soda was a bargain: Rather than sell individual glasses, these places pioneered the concept of washing out beer pitchers and filling them with soda.

But beneath the wholesome barbershop-quartet motif and gallons of root beer lurked the whiff of petty criminality. Red Vest Pizza was always dark, even in the middle of the day. The ambiance drew shady roofing contractors, men with tattoos and visible armpit hair, and women who beat on the cigarette machine. When I look back on it, it was a weird scene--kids having a birthday party in a back room, and guys selling boxes of stolen steaks out of their trunks in the parking lot.

What drew the shady roofers? Pong. Also, that other pioneer, Pac Man. Space Invaders, Super Donkey Kong, and that spaceship game where you blew up asteroids. The roofers would wrestle these machines for hours and then leave to play foosball at Pub n' Sub.

Kids would play, too, but it was a divided group. Some, such as my brother and Joe Reinkemeyer, could spill out rolls of quarters and not be bored. I, on the other hand, never got the fever. Check that, I never got the fever beyond Pong, which was essentially a real game translated to electronic formats.

The other games, the man-vs.-machine games, by contrast, held little attraction. What's the point of continuing, after all, if after zapping one electronic ape, another one heaving a barrel will follow shortly? How can a sword be more powerful than a crossbow, which is the coolest weapon ever devised?

It all seemed like one senseless succession of slaughter against a vast, repetitive, unimaginative bureaucracy. Eventually, racing games that pitted one person against another came out, but it remained a futile "what next" sort of experience. Admittedly, I stunk, but dissatisfaction reigned.

And then there were the lunkheads, putting down quarters on the machine for next game. I gazed into the future, and it wore a "I'm Hers, Because She Deserves the Best" T-shirt.

Shift forward two decades, however, and the same dichotomy applies. A substantial segment of the population will be fascinated by the PlayStation II and the wired home. Others will find the whole digital experience lacking. Sometimes, if it's entertainment, it really isn't.

Sony might get the first group, but will they get the second?