By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 12, 2007
SANTA MONICA, Calif., July 11 -- For many analysts and fans, Nintendo was something of an afterthought at the video game industry's annual E3 trade show in recent years.
But after a blockbuster launch of its Wii console and its ongoing dominance in the portable game market with its mobile DS handheld game console, the company that brought the world Mario and Zelda is now the company that others are trying to catch.
Nintendo's competitors, meanwhile, are playing an expensive round of brinksmanship with each other to win back some of the attention. This week Sony cut the price on its PlayStation 3 console by $100. Microsoft recently announced an expanded warranty program for the Xbox 360 console, which could cost the company more than $1 billion.
Neither Microsoft nor Sony is making money in the game industry, since both are selling their consoles at below cost in their attempt to boost interest. Nintendo, meanwhile, which introduced the $249 Wii six months ago, can barely keep up with demand for the profitable product.
Microsoft and Sony even scaled back their annual parties at the E3 show. In years past, Microsoft held events at such glamorous Los Angeles venues as the Orpheum Theater, the Shrine Auditorium and Grauman's Chinese Theater. This year, its event was at a Santa Monica high school. Sony, which previously held events that featured such concert acts as Macy Gray and Beck, settled for a low-key sushi shindig this year.
Nintendo says it is not paying a lot of attention to Sony or Microsoft.
Reggie Fils-Aime, president of Nintendo of America, said the bigger question was how to get the non-gamers of the world interested in Nintendo systems.
"There are 24 hours in every day, and only a small time is available for leisure," he said at a news conference Wednesday. "We intend to steal more of that time for video games."
Fils-Aime, as expected, showed off some more Mario and Zelda game titles, the franchises for which Nintendo is most famous. His focus, however, was on how Nintendo products have won fans among senior citizens and women at levels well above the norm in the young-male-dominated industry.
For years, as the video game industry battled for dominance in the living room, the best graphics typically beat the competition. The popularity of the Wii's motion-detecting controllers has changed that notion, popularizing the life-like simulation of games, not their high-end computing aspect.
As a result, game companies are now trying to think of new ways to get players feeling like they are inside the game, designing realistic add-ons.
The Wii balance board, for example, lets players lean one way or another to control their game characters. The board is to be part of Wii Fit, the fitness program that Nintendo has in the works, illustrating that the "Wii workout" craze among those trying to get in shape by swinging fake rackets has only just begun.
The rock-star simulation game Guitar Hero has built its success on a true-to-life model of games. In addition to its original plastic guitar, the game's designers this year showed off a version featuring a drum-kit component and also a microphone that measures the pitch of a singer's voice.
At first glance, a team of four people playing the new Guitar Hero set looks like a real rock band -- at least until someone makes a musical mistake that brings the game to a halt, as Microsoft Vice President Peter Moore did a couple of times this week during his demonstration.
Guitar Hero originally became a hit on Sony's PlayStation 2, but it will soon be available on Nintendo.
Sony, which won the last round of console wars by a wide margin, has been struggling with an image problem among gamers. Demand for the PS3 , which flew off retail store shelves after its launch last year, has died down.
At the show, Sony has staked some of its hopes on a game it hopes will help it reclaim some of its old buzz. The game, Killzone 2, a realistic-looking combat game, met with praise from some bloggers and attendees.
In years past, the E3 trade show won a reputation among gamers as being an extravaganza where game companies battled for people's attention with stunts, scantily clad women and ear-splitting product booths.
This year's version has greatly been toned down. The Washington-based Entertainment Software Association, which runs E3, hopes a smaller version of the show would focus more attention on the business of games.
ESA President Michael Gallagher said the battle between Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo was too early to call. It's like playing a game, he said -- things can change quickly.
"It's a little early in this race to declare a winner or a loser," he said. "All it takes is one compelling title."