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Kristen Kreuk as … Chun-Li?! Wha?!

After a long hiatus… I’m back to post. There has been quite a drought in new posts and that’s because of two words: Law School. After making one of the most monumental (and may I say very expensive) shifts in my life, the notion of writing about videogames unfortunately took a literal backseat. Life as a 1L is tough — but while the workload and hours are long the satisfaction of being back in an academic setting is invigorating in many ways. Sure, life as a student after years in the work force is sometimes daunting but I wouldn’t trade a day to have come earlier. IMHO, the perspective I have from having a professional career before law school gives me mental freedom, patience, and discipline. Freedom to think about other things, patience to learn, and discipline to master. I suppose in some ways, it’s like tackling a new videogame.

New posts will probably come slower but rest assured the Green Pipe remains active. There have certainly been some major developments in the industry since my last few rants. Most notable are three:

1. The slow but sure rise of the PS3 (which BTW I talked about a long time ago). Sony’s console is starting to gain momentum but unlike EGM, which seemed quick to reverse opinion in its recent cover story, I’m not entirely sold that this PS3 comeback will be the equivalent of Gandalf’s march upon the Two Towers at the end of the second LOTR movie. Without a doubt, there are some key software releases coming this year, MGS4 the obvious poster child. But while I’m excited about this game, I think this is an example of the industry clamoring over a game the majority of the public doesn’t care as much about. The Metal Gear series saw its high-days with MGS2; fact is MGS3 never really caught on in terms of sales. Some argue that it was because the title was coached between GTA and Halo 2, but that to me sounds like a copout. If Metal Gear is so big and popular, it should have kept its own. After all, it wasn’t as if the coverage and advertising was any less (I can recall the barrage of MGS3 ads in countless magazines). That’s why MGS4 isn’t likely to put up the numbers of Halo 2 or 3. I’d even hint that MGS4 may not move as many consoles as people want to believe. Solid Snake doesn’t scream the same cool mystique that Master Chief embodies, and well, even Sony and Konami together can’t quite match the powerhouse marketing force that is Microsoft. And if MGS4 doesn’t move the needle that much, then is PS3 really the comeback kid? Maybe still. But I’d position PS3’s rise as more of an indication of how weak the 360 remains — in other words, it’s not that the PS3 is getting better, it’s actually that the 360 isn’t really striking a Toyota! momentum. More on that in future posts.

2. Oh, HD-DVD, we hardly knew ye’. I think it was quite apparent the format started out with a peg-leg when the 360 opted against making it the console’s format of choice. Face it, the outcome of this war might have been very different if there were 5-10MM 360 equipped with HD-DVD playback. Movie studios – the fickle giants that they are – might have seen better HD-DVD sales over Blu-Ray (an almost given since 360 would have been on the market longer) and kept its support with the format. Sony’s climb then would have been steeper, and hey, may be those price points on the PS3 would have dropped even faster.

Of course, one can look at MS’ decision now and insist it was a “smart” move. What if HD-DVD still lost? Then the 360 would be toast. That argument certainly has merit and as a company wanting to put out a game console, I suppose the last thing it needs is an achilles heel that isn’t even tied to content. There is a long list of reasons why HD-DVD probably would have lost even if 360 supported it out of the gate. But then again, there are also a lot of maybes that suggest HD-DVD could have put up a formidable fight if MS had acted otherwise. We’ll never know. Regardless how you feel, the truth is the next 360 will probably run on a Sony-owned format. There is admittedly something both ironic and humbling in that prospect. Competitors on the outside, sleeping together on the inside; who says there’s no drama and infidelity in the gaming world?

And *finally* 3. the meteoric rise of Nintendo Gamecube 2.0 … I mean, the Wii. I’m actually not at all surprised by the Wii’s success, and I think many of us who follow games closely knew Nintendo had a hit in the making, though even I’m taken aback by the level of success the House of Mario has reached in the past 4-6 mos. Everyone keeps asking whether Wii can sustain the momentum and I’m not so sure that’s the right question we should be debating. The real question should be broader, as in can the entire industry sustain the momentum it has with the casual gamer? Because that’s the real issue; the Wii has done a phenomenal job in enlarging the gaming circle, but can Nintendo AND its competitors reap the rewards and keep them there? That’s a very tough question, and it’s interesting to see all the companies trying to woo the casual market at this year’s GDC. The community arcade from MS to WiiWare from Nintendo are good moves, but there are real questions as to whether the industry is taking the time to ensure that casual gamers understand all this (remember who we’re dealing with here) and there are serious questions about what these moves are doing to each company’s bread and butter. For Nintendo, it’s the loyalists who want only to play Zelda, Mario and Metroid — Is a bigger remake of SSBM and SM Galaxy enough? For MS, do its Halo faithful really care that Xbox can render board games in HD? And do Sony players really want to see and interact with pimple-faced teens and moms singing Britney songs via SingStar? It’s a tough scale to balance, and with limited resources, the gambles each camp is making is definitely one reason why we’re seeing fewer releases *we* (and I say we as in mainstay gamers) care about. And it may also explain the increasing “clone effect”. Flip through a game magazine today and you may have to do a doubletake to make sure you’re looking at more than two games from two genres: racing and FPS. There’s nothing like saving money when multiple titles can be released running on the same engines and the same third-party renderware. It’s a telling sign something’s up. Is it the trend for the future? Hard to say for sure. If the Wii movement continues, it might be. Whether that’s necessarily a bad thing is once again the wrong question. The question is whether the pool of hardcore or moderate gamers keep up the giant’s share of profits. If many of us fall out and start to lose interest (come on, how many Resistance sequels do I really need?), then the console audience may truly change once again over the next 5 years. By the time the next set of consoles rollout, don’t be surprised if everyone takes a Wii approach in terms of technology.

Finally, I can’t help but at least mention that Kristen Kreuk of Smallville “fame”will play Chun-Li in the upcoming Street Fighter film. If you saw DOA and could at least appreciate the martial arts action, I suppose you’ll enjoy this film. I have a hard time believing it’ll be as bad as the first Street Fighter film with Jean Claude (and Kylie Minogue as … Cammy?!). But I have to admit, it’ll be hard for this new film to beat out one of my all-time favorite lines from that flick; it’s when Jean Claude (who plays Guile, BTW) says: I’m going to kick Bison’s ass so hard the next Bison-wannabe is gonna feel it.

Any line as MacBaine-ish as that will just sound weird coming out of Kreuk’s mouth. At least she looks the part (above).

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As console sales go, the PS3 is getting manhandled by the Nintendo Wii and DS. Even in Japan, Sony’s supposed stronghold, the Wii is outselling the Ps3 by a ratio of 5:1. Recent Japanese-centric releases have closed the margin in recent weeks, but Sony execs are clearly troubled by what they see as a week-by-week descent from grace.

That probably explains the sudden flurry of rumors about a PS3 price-cut. While Sony and some analysts continue to deny such a cut would happen, a leaked Circuit City ad shows the PS3 at $100 less (from $599 to $499) the week of July 15. As sales go, it would be highly unusual for a national chain to sell the PS3 for that much less than its competitors, not to mention the legality behind it given the Supreme Courts’ latest economically senseless ruling.

The question now is whether a $100 price drop can turn the tide on Sony’s faltering division, and thus far, the answer — at least for the US market — seems to be “no”. From the eyes of the consumer, the $499 price tag isn’t new — in fact, Sony offered a slightly less advanced version of the PS3 for that price on release so to the average consumer, this price drop, even if it’s for the higher-end model, may seem almost invisible. If you weren’t going to bite at $500 before, the addition of 40GB and memory card slots isn’t likely to radically change your opinion. This thus far unspoken reality may explain why despite the price cut, most gamer boards and blogs aren’t all that thrilled.

What will be interesting is Microsoft’s response. Although the spotlight has been on Sony, the fact is the 360 has had its fair share of lackluster sales. With the sure-fire hit, Halo 3, due Sept. 25, there’s little incentive for Microsoft to drop the price but not doing so may steal some of the thunder away from its booth. A Halo 3 or some other packaged deal might be a clever way to spoil Sony’s announcement without formally introducing a price cut.

Of course, in either instance, the winner is still Nintendo. Sony will now surely be bleeding dollars well past the usual 3-year marker for console profitability, and the tug-of-war for hardcore gamers (who, btw, apparently drive most of this industry) between Sony and Microsoft is keeping both preoccupied enough to practically ignore the larger picture. All in awhile, the DS and the Wii are cleaning up the house. Who would have thought Nintendo would ever — even for a moment — be worth more than Sony?

Expect an all-out war at mini-E3 this year. Sony will try to push its remaining exclusives (Uncharted, Heavenly Sword, Final Fantasy XIII, Tekken 6, Metal Gear Solid 4) and tout its blu-ray technology. Problem is 3 out of the 5 big titles are now 2008 and the blu-ray advantage hasn’t demonstrated its worth quite yet. Microsoft will ride Master Chief as far as he can take them, but it also has Mass Effect, Beautiful Katamari and Too Human. Problem with the 360 is that beyond that, it doesn’t have much more.

GTA4, DMC4, and SC4 — now all multi-platform will probably lead the chatterbox, but it will be Nintendo’s Wii that has the most to gain or lose. The Press will want to see whether that fancy-pants remote can do more than replicate fishing games and golf. If the DS is any indication, then Nintendo should wow its audiences with Metroid Prime 3, Super Mario Galaxy and Super Smash Bros. Brawl — all 3 are set for release this year. If the Wii can establish why it should remain relevant at this parade, then look for it to remain dominant through the holidays.

Me, I only care about one game, and it’s a remake of sorts. Bloody Capcom has *finally* given us 2-D gamers the gem we’ve always wanted.

Here are some other potential announcements I suspect will be part of each company’s press meetings:

Sony:

(1) HOME will be pushed into 2008 but become a central component of Sony’s push to capture the mainstream gamer — good luck with that non-mainstream pricetag.

(2) The ailing PSP will see a redesign — likely thinner with a built-in hard-disk. Unfortunately, Sony will keep saying its already defunct UMD format is still alive and “popular”.

Microsoft

(1) Look for more Sony exclusives to jump ship. The most talked-about one is likely to be Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid 4 and Namco’s Tekken 6. The only one that probably won’t quite make it over is Square-Enix’s Final Fantasy 13 but something tells me 360 is going to get something Square — may be a derivative of the FF universe akin to Crystal Chronicles. After all, how else are developers going to recoup costs — the PS3 penetration numbers are simply nowhere near the Wii’s or 360’s, and won’t be anytime soon.

(2) And while talking exclusives, prepare for an onslaught of US companies declaring them on the 360. Microsoft’s push for its Games on Windows platform will finally see some benefit as PC titles will migrate over to the 360, bolstering the company’s already dominant LIVE service.

(3) There are rumors Microsoft might be getting into the handheld fight but that’s a tough one to call. Rumors of MS stealing former PSP and Gameboy designers has floated around the Net for some time but that end-result was the Zune. With the games division poised to turn its FIRST ever profit (remember the orig. Xbox never made a dime — costing Microsoft an estimated $3.5bn), it makes little sense for the Redmond-based powerhouse to bleed more dollars and scare off its true believers (aka Wall Street investors). Sorry, no dice here.

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Covers of gaming magazines are riddled with stories proclaiming the supposed demise of the PlayStation 3. This past year, nearly every major publication (EGM, GamePro) and even the niche ones (Hardcore Gamer, Play) are surmising over the potentially self-destructive road Sony has taken with its newest console iteration. Whether the topic relates to the forced implementation of the Blu-ray format or the lack of new software, there certainly appears to be no end to the death knell conversation surrounding the PS3. To be fair, a due amount of the criticism is justified; Sony has — for better or worse — made this generation’s console more about its bid to win a format war than about producing new games. And, as is common with market leaders in this industry, it has turned an almost Nintendo-like stance on its third party developers — preferring to have its brand demand respect rather than reaching out and assisting in deciphering what some publishers are declaring the most complex programming system since the Sega Saturn.

But these types of follies are by no means anything new, and although the Nintendo Wii has trounced the PS3 in the first round of competition, it’s hard to say whether this trend will continue — in fact, I think more signs are beginning to point towards Sony retaking a substantial piece of the pie in the next twelve to eighteen months. What are some of these key signs? Read on, gamers:

Post-Halo Syndrome: No one doubts that Halo 3 will sell systems but whether the third outing by Master Chief will bring in hordes of new 360 players remains a BIG question mark. As sequels go, there are probably no safer bets than Halo 3 but with the sheer flood of FPS games and look-alikes on the market, sales for Bungie’s core title might not meet the bombshell expectations some analysts are projecting. Most consumers do equate XBOX with Halo, but will new consumers be willing to pay over $300 just to play it? Microsoft certainly needs them to. The 360, despite a steady stream of purchasers, is not particularly “hot” amongst gamers — and the release periods both before and after Halo look like a casual/moderate gamer’s nightmare: that is, a desert of nothing. While we’ll see what Microsoft has up its sleeve at mini-E3, thus far 360 fanboys have to be disappointed by the lack of capitalization by Microsoft on Sony’s missteps. And sadly, there isn’t much to get excited about, either. While a few third party games have defected to 360, games like ‘Beautiful Katamari’ probably isn’t going to save the console from the reaper in countries such as Japan.

Third Party Loyalty: Yes, Kutaragi is out, but that doesn’t mean Sony’s lost its allegiance with core Japanese developers. While I do think MGS4 will eventually hit the 360, I think we’ll see something similar to the delayed release of MGS2 Substance. There is no way Final Fantasy XIII will show up on the 360 — though if the franchise does defect, expect to see more sidebar titles pop up on the Wii/DS first. SquEnix is too tied to Sony’s castle to move this title to its direct competitor. This doesn’t mean SquEnix won’t release 360 games, however. I expect new titles such as The Last Remnant to be cross-platform releases; it’s a business, after all, and SquEnix needs all the help it can get to establish a name for itself outside FF and Dragon Quest. While I realize a lot of gamers get all up in arms about the PS3 losing exclusives, I think many are asking the wrong question. It’s not so much about losing 3rd party exclusivity as it is how well do the PS3 and 360 stack up when the 3rd parties are no longer an impact?

First/Second Parties Wrap Up: Sony’s core teams are FINALLY bringing out some of the games that will help define its system in the eyes of consumers. Two of the biggest games coming soon are HEAVENLY SWORD and insomniac’s UNCHARTED. Both not only look stellar, but also potentially different enough in style and direction to cast the PS3 as a console of choice. Sony’s knack for the cinematic should be lightyears ahead of Microsoft’s and I suspect we’ll get a nice view of that when these two gems ship. I admit though that while UNCHARTED will probably play like a dream, I still have some doubts over Ninja Theory’s gameplay design for HEAVENLY SWORD — though even it merely mimics God of War’s schema and innovates on nothing more than graphics, Sony still has a heart-stopper heroine it can flaunt in front of its core male demo.

Whether Sony’s first parties are better than 360’s is arguable — though I’d say PS3’s are probably better. Microsoft seems to be loaded with critical guns but not commerical ones. Lionhead and Silicon Knights are no Sucker Punch and Insomniac; and Rareware is nothing more than a shadow of its former self. Sure, 360 has Bungie but after Halo, Bungie might be a one-trick pony.

Price Gap Probably Gone: CEO Stringer made it clear that the PS3 needs a price refinement and CEOs don’t go around saying things like that unless they’re serious about doing it. Although sales of the PS3 are slow, a huge barrier to entry right now is the price tag. When PS3 can hit the $400 price mark, it’s likely to sell thousands more than the 360 per month. If the price difference becomes marginal — something I suspect will happen in the next two to four months, Microsoft might be surprised to find how quickly the ratio of 360 to PS3 units flip over. Will the PS3 be the market leader by the end of 2008 — probably not; I think the Wii will keep its lead for one more year. However, by the end of 2009, PS3 should have surpassed the Wii as the console of choice for gamers.

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No Sony PR person will admit it, but the PS3 is continuing to face major hurdles (high component costs, emulation troubles, been there-done that games, dwindling exclusive support), and while it’s unclear whether any of these will derail Sony’s dominance, it seems assured that this next-gen race will stay tight for some time. Today, Sony quietly announced that it was launching a $599.99 standalone Blu-Ray. Quietly because the implications of such a release might say something about how Sony feels about the PS3 and its prospects.

This could be silent admittance by CEO Howard Stringer that when it comes to future revenue potential, Blu-Ray matters most to the bottomline, and not the company’s gaming division. Whether the PS3 bellies up or down, Blu-Ray HAS to win. The momentum is certainly there, with Blu-Ray sales outpacing HD-DVD 3:1. This move might be to maintain the momentum and keep Blu-Ray charging ahead. At this rate, it’s hard to see how HD-DVD can win, though I still contend that virtual consoles (like the one on Wii and LIVE) and downloading will eventually make this format war relatively pointless and not much of a revenue stream by the time someone actually wins.

But at what cost is Sony willing to keep it going? One has to believe the stand-alone player will eventually drop below the PS3 price point, and when that happens, the huge “value” argument Sony used to put forth is gone. The PS3 will need to stand on its own two feet. And judging by this annoucement, higher-ups at Sony don’t seem interested in giving the PS3 that much more time.

I’m actually quite surprised the Co. made the standalone price drop so fast; I figured it’d wait at least until one more holiday season to drive PS3 penetration.

But the continuing negativity clouding the new console might be finally breaking even Japan’s iron will. Let’s face the facts, demand is all but gone, and exlusives are disappearing fast (the most recent losses include Sega’s Virtua Fighter 5 and Virtua Tennis). Even remaining exclusives aren’t causing much of a stir (1Up’s recent discussion of DMC4 was hardly one of glowing enthusiasm), and mounting rumors that Kojima’s MGS4 is secretly 360-bound aren’t helping matter.

If anything, this move solidifies that for Sony, PlayStation or no PlayStation, this race is ultimately about besting Toshiba’s HD-DVD. The CELL processor will live on through its Vaio line, and will be profitable. But relying on the PS3 alone to sell Blu-Ray appears now to be too great a risk, and given the current situation, you can’t blame them.