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In console smackdown, games are next punch

Gamers may be attracted by swank new features in next-gen consoles, but they say cool games will drive their choice.

Gaming
After months of rumors and leaks, the critical details on new video game consoles from Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo have been released in all their number-crunching splendor.

But for all the hype over floating point performance, wireless this and teraflop that, gamers and analysts alike have a consistent message for the hardware giants: It's the games, stupid.

The high-profile unveiling of Microsoft's Xbox 360, Sony's PlayStation 3 and Nintendo's Revolution in the last week made it clear that the next generation of games will be incredibly sophisticated, with high-definition graphics and myriad Net and wireless-based multiplayer options.

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What's new:
Now that the next-generation consoles have made their big entrance, game developers are racing to create titles to share the spotlight.

Bottom line:
It's too soon to tell which console will reign supreme, but some developers and gamers are already choosing sides.

More stories on the new consoles

Attention now turns to developers, who are racing to create games that tout the systems' new features. Their products will ultimately determine the success of the platforms, analysts say.

"It will all be about who delivers the broadest titles," said Jupiter Research analyst Michael Gartenberg. "That's how these wars are won."

In the wake of the consoles' unveiling, some developers are already leaning toward one platform.

"I was shocked by how powerful the new consoles are," said Julian Eggebrecht, president of the San Rafael, Calif.-based game development company Factor 5. "They should really free our development."

Eggebrecht said his company--which developed "Star Wars: Rogue Squadron" for Nintendo's GameCube--would create games exclusively for Sony's upcoming PlayStation 3.

The choice boiled down to performance, Eggebrecht said at E3 in Los Angeles. His company has worked with Microsoft's Xbox 360, but found PlayStation 3's 3.2GHz Cell chip offered more processing power. The additional performance allows the gang at Factor 5 to more easily simulate the real world for a better game experience, he said.

Players: Show us the games
While gamers, too, are eyeing next-gen console features with anticipation, much of the talk online and off is about how specific games will meet expectations.

Matthew Freestone, a Utah-based Xbox owner, says nothing from Sony or Nintendo has made him ready to ditch his Microsoft loyalties. He's a "Halo" fan, and said that title will almost certainly keep him in the Redmond fold.

"Sony really doesn't have a game like 'Halo' that makes the console a must-own," Freestone said in a phone interview. "It always comes back to the must-have game."

Aaron McBride, a Los Angeles-area Nintendo GameCube owner, says he's interested in taking a look at Sony's new PlayStation 3. Games are the reason.

"I'm leaning toward the PS3, which is a big deal because I've always been a Nintendo guy," McBride said over IM. "I felt a little burned by the lack of games for the GC (GameCube), and I don't see anything that makes me think that won't happen again with the Revolution."

In contrast, Manchester, U.K., resident Rachel Wild said she's most likely to stay with Nintendo into the next generation, precisely because of the titles the company supports, such as "Animal Crossing."

"The PS3 looks cool, and I like the idea of good graphics and all that, but there's no point having prettiness without fun games," she said in an instant-message chat. "I'm not a big fan of PlayStation's lineup."

Given gamers' widely varying preferences and the differing appeals of the companies, it's too early to pick a winner in the console horse race. There may well be room for all three in the market, analysts said.

"It's always about content," said IDC analyst Schelley Olhava.

Laying down the bets
The three companies' console unveilings represented the first public shots fired in a war for the hearts and minds of gamers--and the critical position as electronic hub in living rooms increasingly focused on high-tech entertainment.

The companies' ambitions differ. But a few early lessons can be garnered from their coming-out parties.

Microsoft is betting heavily on integrating its new Xbox 360 into a broad home-entertainment system linked with other Windows devices such as the Media Center PC. It's betting on high-definition game content, a strategy that dovetails with its drive to have Windows Media accepted as a high-definition video standard, as well as a powerful online gaming component.

Moreover, the software company will have critical months to itself in the market, including this year's holiday shopping season, and hopes to use that time to establish a lead.

Sony's console, which won't reach the market until spring 2006, is the sports car of the bunch. The company is hoping that high-performance features that outstrip Microsoft in speed and other areas will persuade gamers to hold off a few months to wait for a PlayStation 3.

The company currently has a dominant market share, with 43 percent of U.S. sales at the end of 2004, compared with Microsoft's 19 percent and Nintendo's 14 percent. By offering full compatibility with PlayStation 2 games, it hopes to retain that huge audience's loyalty in spite of Microsoft's marketing.

Nintendo, which has released fewer precise specifications than the others about its new machine, code-named Revolution, is betting on the company's history. As with rivals, it will boost speed and graphics performance, but it's touting the player's ability to play virtually all the games from the company's long history by tapping into a new downloadable game service.

John Borland reported from San Francisco and Richard Shim reported from Los Angeles.

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