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Can Microsoft turn into Sony quickly enough?

Shane Kim, head of Microsoft Game Studios (MGS), was in Australia earlier this week, and although he never outright said it, left me with the distinct impression that Microsoft wants to be more like Sony in the gaming space.

Shane Kim, head of Microsoft Game Studios (MGS), was in Australia earlier this week, and although he never outright said it, left me with the distinct impression that Microsoft wants to be more like Sony in the gaming space.

Someone so high up the food chain in Microsoft would, of course, never utter such a thing about their closest competitor in the videogame world. But if you read between the lines of this news story we posted about Kim's visit, it's clear that Microsoft wants its library of titles for the Xbox 360 to look more like the PlayStation 2's than the original Xbox's.

Kim wants more family-friendly titles and peripheral-based games coming out for the next generation of Xbox, the 360. The original Xbox had a reputation for being a "hardcore" system -- Kim says Microsoft wants to soften that image to allow more casual and family gamers into the Xbox 360 fold. And before some of you uber-gamers scream that the Xbox was never "hardcore", I mean hardcore for a console. PC gamers who measure their happiness in frame rates and six-monthly upgrade cycles still retain the title of "most hardcore gamers on the planet".

Nintendo has the family and kid-friendly thing down pat, but when it comes to the greatest diversity in game genres and style, Sony's PlayStation 2 is the hands down winner. It has plenty of games for the young ones in its massive library, plus some innovative titles that have brought in plenty of non-traditional gamers (such as the various Singstars, EyeToy and Buzz games). Plus it still has plenty of "adult" titles -- Grand Theft Auto, anyone?

Kim says widening the 360's potential audience is crucial if Microsoft is to achieve its stated aim of being number one in gaming consoles in this next generation. Little wonder, then, that Kim has pegged the upcoming Viva Pinata as "the most important title" on MGS' portfolio this year. This is an eye-opening admission, especially considering that 2006 will also see the release of such anticipated 360 games as Gears of War, Bioware's next RPG Mass Effect, and quite possibly a little thing called Halo 3.

And it won't be just Microsoft who'll be looking closely at how Viva Pinata fares when it's released at the end of this year. Third-party developers will be keen to see just how much success this new genre of game (new for Xbox, that is) garners before they start to offer their own family-friendly or peripheral-based titles. They need to see that Xbox 360 owners are willing to buy games like Viva Pinata before they commit.

Which is where Sony with its PlayStation 3 may have an advantage. Despite coming to market almost a year behind the 360 (it will be released globally in November 2006), Sony and third party games publishers would already be confident that prospective PS3 owners are just the type to buy karaoke games, or kiddie platformers, or exercise programs, or any other type of "non-traditional" game (if the experiences with PS2 owners are anything to go by). You can bet that Sony is already planning to take its success with Singstar, EyeToy and Buzz onto their next generation platform.

Microsoft needs to work fast at expanding its library of games if it hopes to be a match against the upcoming PlayStation 3 in the family-friendly space. No wonder Microsoft has pinned so much on Viva Pinata (pun intended).

Is Microsoft doing the right thing by aiming for a broader audience of gamers for the 360? Tell us your thoughts at cnet@cnet.com.au.