Let the Games Begin
Tomorrow's Release of Sony PlayStation 3 Gets Console Wars Off and Running

By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 16, 2006

Inside the Circuit City in Rockville sits a stack of 100 PlayStation 3 gaming consoles. Outside the store, far more than 100 people are camped on the sidewalk -- the first person arrived Monday -- waiting to get their hands on one.

The PS3 -- Sony's response to Microsoft's year-old Xbox 360 -- goes on sale tomorrow morning, 48 hours before the Nintendo Wii also hits the shelves.

This is the most-anticipated weekend of the year for video game fans, as the three big names in gaming gear up for a console war that not only renews a long-fought battle for a place in the living room but also looks to entice folks who otherwise might not be interested in video games. The PS3 costs as much as $600, but Sony's supply is so small that the cutting-edge multimedia device is expected to sell out across the country within hours, possibly minutes.

Talk to the folks in line and you get a few different reasons for why they are there. Some want to be among the first to play what they hope will be the best version of Madden ever. Others are excited about the built-in Blu-ray disc player, one of the competing formats that promises crystal-clear versions of DVD movies that will play on their high-definition sets.

And a good-size chunk of this line wants to sell one of these devices on eBay or Craigslist for a couple of thousand dollars, helping to offset the sort of sore back you get from sleeping on the ground for three nights.

If you haven't pre-ordered -- or if you're reading this from somewhere other than a sidewalk outside an electronics store -- you're likely out of luck.

Nintendo's new Wii console goes on sale Sunday at a relatively inexpensive $250. But like the PS3, the Wii (pronounced We) is being featured on auctions all over the Internet. While Sony and Microsoft are in an arms race for bragging rights to the most powerful machine, Nintendo is playing a slightly different game.

The Wii console is less of a technological powerhouse but allows players to interact with games in a new way -- by waving their arms and hands rather than pushing buttons on a controller. In a boxing game, for example, players make punching motions with the system's wireless controllers; in a bowling game, players make an underhand throwing motion.

Though die-hard fans may snatch up every unit Nintendo and Sony can put out this year, the two companies are hoping that their new products will eventually reach beyond this crowd and help introduce a more mainstream audience to video games. And so is Microsoft, the early mover in the console wars this time around with last year's debut of the Xbox 360.

To try to attract consumers in the mainstream market who don't, as yet, care much about games, console makers are loading their machines with the latest, cutting-edge technology -- from graphics processors that deliver high-definition visuals to Internet connections that allow the console to extend beyond its comfort zone of playing a game.

Sure, owners can surf the Web and play each other online, but that's a given these days. It's the new uses of the Web connection -- like adding new features to existing consoles on the fly -- that will differentiate one device from the other.

Starting next week, for example, the Xbox 360 will be able to download full-length movies and TV shows to their consoles in high definition. That wasn't a feature that was advertised when the unit came out last year.

P.J. McNeal, an analyst with American Technology Research, thinks that consumers will pick up the new consoles at a faster rate than they did with the prior generation of games, but not because there's excitement around one particular game or multimedia feature. This time, there are a lot more video game fans in the world.

"It's a big business," he said.

Other analysts disagree. Sony's console has usually been the most mainstream device, but it doesn't have such a mainstream price tag this time around, said Michael Pachter, analyst at Wedbush Morgan.

Pachter points out a couple of other factors that may inhibit the PS3's first year of sales. To deliver the best experience, the PlayStation 3 needs to be connected to a high-definition TV set -- and that's something that not most people have yet.

Likewise, the company assumes that Blu-ray will become the next standard for high-definition movie playback. Rival Microsoft, meanwhile, has put forward a competing format called HD DVD.

Pachter predicts fewer consoles will be sold this coming year than the first year of the last console race. "There aren't enough hard-core gamers with unlimited funds to support that kind of sell-through," he said.

For Sony, the PS3 is going to be a long-term race -- and one that has already had a few stumbles. The Blu-ray technology, for example, is a big reason the console costs so much and was partly to blame for the launch being delayed from its original spring date. It's also the culprit for the inventory shortages this year.

The last PlayStation easily won that round of the console war, but it had the advantage with a year's jump-start on the first Xbox. This time around, as the PS3 heads to the starting line, the Xbox 360 is just starting to hit its stride with a healthy catalogue of games, and a relatively more affordable $300 or $400 price tag. Microsoft expects to have sold 10 million units of the device by year's end.

Sony, by comparison, has said it will have only 400,000 units available in the United States when the PS3 launches tomorrow, and expects to sell 2 million worldwide by year's end. Nintendo has not specified how many Wii consoles it will make available in the United States, but has said it will have provided retailers with 4 million units, worldwide, by year's end.

On the Circuit City line, meanwhile, the countdown continued. Most of the temporary neighbors, parked outside their tents, seemed friendly with each other, but there was a little uncertainty down toward the end.

Michael and Valerie Torres of Bethesda had been waiting around since Tuesday afternoon. Michael works as a researcher at the National Institutes of Health and has a flexible work schedule; the couple just got a high-definition TV and they wanted a Blu-ray player to go with it. The PS3 is an expensive game console, but it's also the cheapest Blu-ray player on the market.

A Circuit City employee who came by Tuesday night told them that they were 78th and 79th on the list. They were worried that people would try to squeeze in front of them, but they were surprisingly mellow about the prospect, given that they've essentially been living on the street this week just to get a game console.

"We're just enjoying the experience," he said. "If we don't get one, whatever."

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