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Microsoft benches sports games

Turn out the lights; party's over for unit that created mainstream-sports games for Xbox. Seventy-six workers lose jobs.

Microsoft has closed the division that created mainstream-sports games for its Xbox console, laying off 76 employees as a result, a company representative confirmed Friday.

The software giant recently shut down its Sports Game Studio in Redmond, Wash., spokeswoman Molly O'Donnell said. The studio produced first-party team sports titles for the Xbox, including the "NFL Fever" football series, "NBA Inside Drive" basketball and "NHL Rivals" hockey. A separate studio in Utah that develops individual sports games, such as the "Amped" snowboarding title, is not affected by the cuts, she said.

O'Donnell said the move is part of an overall shift of development resources, as the Xbox market has matured. Instead of sinking money into "me, too" titles, Microsoft is focusing on big-ticket games such as the upcoming shooter "Halo 2," expected to provoke a surge in Xbox sales.

"Microsoft Game Studios is focusing its overall mission," O'Donnell said. "The third-party developers are doing a great job, and they're filling the pipeline up with great games throughout the genres. So internally, we're focusing more on games that are epic in scale and platform-defining."

Sports games are a particularly tough market to crack, given the dominance of "Madden NFL" and other titles from leading publisher Electronic Arts, which made peace with Microsoft earlier this year by agreeing to support the Xbox Live online game service.

Self-developed titles are critical for game console makers to distinguish themselves from rivals and have been instrumental in Nintendo's success. Microsoft, which produced the biggest Xbox hit to date with the original "Halo," has attempted to beef up its in-house game resources by buying up major developers, such as Britain's Rare.