Wii


After a decade of demand, indeed!  Capcom announced today that Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is in fact in development for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.  No release date was provided but the trailer (below) offers a few tidbits of information.  The art style from the new Street Fighter IV series appears to be the palette from which Capcom will develop this title.  This makes sense given the architecture and code for SFIV is already in place and this should help the developer cut down on development time and costs.  Capcom has suggested this title will boast an amazing number of fighters, so all the better that they’re working off of existing code.

This also means the game will not follow the HD 2-D renditions that SNK Playmore has taken with the King of Fighters series.  Based on how long these hand-drawn games seem to take (recall the HD version for SF2?), and given games like BlazBlue have pretty much trumped whatever Capcom could do here, the move to 3-D for the next generation of Marvel vs. Capcom seems the appropriate direction to take.

No doubt this game should do very well upon release.  Hopefully, Capcom won’t take that opportunity to milk the gamers (just imagine all the downloadable un-locking the company could tag on) or offer a slightly downgraded version to later release Super Duper Rejuvenated Marvel vs. Capcom 3: The Definitive Edition, followed by the Actual Super Duper Revival Marvel vs. Capcom 3: The Real One We Should Sold You in the First Place Edition.

Then again, this is Capcom we’re talking about so expect at least one more release after this one; odds are MvC3 will hit later this year or early next year.  I had vowed not to buy a PS3 or 360 (I rarely game much nowadays), but seeing this announcement and as a long-time lover of fighting games (low time commitment titles are my staple — and well, fighting games are about as low-commitment as you can get), I don’t see I can restrain myself from wanting this game 🙂

Of course, I’m already pining a Wii purchase, if only for Tatsunoko vs. Capcom.

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iphone-ea

So amidst the hours and hours of studying for my law school exams, I felt I’d take a short breather and share my thoughts on all the commotion abuzz over Wall Street chatter that tech innovator (or as I prefer to call them, “slick re-packager”) Apple might be eying a takeover of Electronic Arts (“EA”).  Michael Pachter went on record to call the notion, “retarded,” which is not exactly the way I would have put it, but at least he’s using layman terms.  Of course, all of this is just chatter, but that hasn’t stopped blogs such as Joystiq and Kotaku from reporting on it.  A brief perusal of the comments and messages shows most readers are either in the “WTF?” or “no way!” camp.  Granted, the very thought of Apple running EA doesn’t necessarily cross most gamers’ minds; but then again, no one thought Final Fantasy maker Square Enix could successfully marry its franchise with Walt Disney, either.

Yeah, that analogy isn’t exactly fair (or entirely relevant).  The point is an Apple-EA merger (or takeover) isn’t exactly as wild or as far-fetched an idea as many think.  The focus of the Internet community seems to be on the dreaded notion of Apple “exclusivizing” EA properties, such as Madden or Tiger Woods Golf on the iPhone or on iTunes.  Or, that Apple will force EA to waste resources on MAC game development.  Much of this misses the point, however.  Apple didn’t get where it is today by making unreasonable decisions.  Steve Jobs is an avid supporter of dropping barriers to access (remember the whole DRM speech from 2007?), and he sits with the Disney board of directors, and let’s face it, few companies have embraced the digital generation as well as Disney has (its recent hulu.com stake is just one example of how Disney understands that digital worlds are not primed for content control freaks).  Mr. Jobs undeniably plays a strong influence in encouraging these sorts of decisions.  I doubt any Apple-led EA would seriously alter how EA distributes or targets its content to gamers.  Madden will still be across consoles.  So then what would an Apple-led EA likely do or mean to the industry?  Here are a couple possibilities:

1)  A more casual EA

And by “casual,” I don’t mean EA’s (terribly misguided and nonchalant) approach to marketing new franchises (Dead Space and Mirror’s Edge, I’m looking at you two).  Apple is likely to encourage EA to develop games better tuned for mass appeal, similar to how Activision succeeded (and is now “sequeling” to death) in the Guitar Heroes games.  EA may actually put more beef (and not just pep talk) behind its Wii-dedicated teams to deliver more titles similar to Boom Blox.  Along with this approach, an Apple-led EA would develop more flash-oriented titles for iTunes, iPhone, and (yes) for Xbox Live and PlayStation Network.    Would this mean more portable games over console titles?  That answer is not entirely clear.  Given the audience composition of the 360 and PS3, we’d probably see fewer EA titles outside of the traditional sports franchises.  Apple may prefer EA focus new franchises towards the Wii and DS(i).

EA wouldn’t leave console gaming behind.  Apple knows Madden and EA Sports is the bread and butter of the company.  Forcing such titles to appear only on Apple platforms would just be nonsensical, if not short of stupid.  It would be like buying a multi-billion dollar company just to run it into the ground, or an $80,000 Ferrari just to send it over a cliff, and –well—even Jobs has to answer to his shareholders.  Multi-platform support would very much continue.  We might see a nice blending between iTunes and Madden (think of all those music downloads!) or even extras built into the iPhone version (but none of these are likely to be serious alterations to the current model.  In other words, an Apple-led EA isn’t going to result in marquee franchises jumping ship.  What it more than likely will mean is more games targeted to moderate and casual gamers.  But honestly, that’s a winning strategy for EA and every other gaming company out there, so even if Apple didn’t takeover EA, this is a shift we should be seeing across the landscape.  The big difference with an Apple-led EA?  My guess is better navigation and more targeted, efficient management.

2)  Following the Casual, for a Change

Why is there a shift happening in the industry?  Or, as famed God of War creator David Jaffe mentioned on GameTrailers.com, why should the industry perhaps rethink its dedication to the hardcore?  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out where these sentiments are coming from.

There are dozens of rumors about Microsoft and Sony introducing motion-sensing controllers (which is a rather sad and ultimately pointless endeavor, BTW – that could be a whole post by itself), and major publishers this generation are ALL suffering because PS3 and 360 adoption penetration isn’t making up for development costs and other major investments.  The economy has something to do with it; but this goes deeper than the economy (besides, gaming has fared well during this recession).

Both Sony and Microsoft squarely aimed their consoles at the hardcore; this despite the cold-hard truth that the hardcore is the minority (and possibly a shrinking one), stronger in voice only because they’re so loud (and yeah, boisterously obnoxious).  The decision to cater to that crowd served well in previous generations.  It’s sort of like trickle down “coolness” (which doesn’t ordinarily apply to us nerds, BTW).  The hardcore adopt a console first and determine what kinds of games people like.  The industry follows them and the masses are influenced by the hardcore to buy and like the games the hardcore enjoy, and the process repeats itself every 5 to 6 years.  It’s sort of like the film industry bothering with all those “enchanting” indie films to charm the “hardcore” for recognition and praise.

This time around, a three-letter word changed – nay, bomb-shelled – the process: Wii.  It essentially gave the casual a different place to go; they didn’t have to listen to the hardcore or follow the games they played.  A truly alternative option opened up and the casuals basically left (even moderates followed after Sony announced its $599 price tag).  For Sony and Microsoft, that desertion has proved painful and potentially console-ending (Pachter predicted the end of consoles – probably one more generation to go but may be).  For their supporting developers, that desertion has resulted in millions of un-recouped expenses.  Few are risking anything on PS3 and the 360, and that’s likely why both manufacturers are introducing waggle-ware to (re)open a line of communication to the casual gamers.  Is it too late?  Almost assuredly yes (not to mention this splits an already small user-base – who’ll bother with these contraptions outside first party developers – and it’s not as if they have any more time to be spending on other games since the consoles can’t produce enough AAA titles like it used to without heavy-duty costs).  By now, no casual gamer is ever going to see a PS3 or 360 as anything but hardcore gaming consoles, especially when the Wii remains an attractive alternative.

EA has been – yes – a victim of that desertion this time around.  Madden can only save it so many times, and even EA knows the future is far from secure (Madden retires, Tiger brand is slowly becoming Tony Hawk: redux, and the NFL is rethinking its license deal).  The maxim, “giant today, puny tomorrow,” is as applicable to GameStop and Blockbuster as it is to EA.

So where does Apple fit in?  Well, Apple is in far better position to embrace the casual than either Sony or Microsoft; it essentially has the audience but doesn’t quite have the content.  Apple is no content provider or producer, but it certainly knows how to sell what it has.  Apple is very good at branding itself and its merchandise.  EA used to be good at this, but now it is all over the place (Army of Two? Spore? Burnout? Mass Effect? What?).  Face it, as visually oriented as gaming is, gamemakers aren’t very good marketers.  We can all count the dozens of great games that never got advertised or advertised well (Psychonauts anyone?).  Apple can help in that department; Apple can also help EA better understand what the casual market is looking for, and drive “simplicity” into EA’s early designs and development stages.  This probably doesn’t calm those fears of the hardcore, but since when did the hardcore ever care about EA?  To most of us, EA represents the Wal-Mart of the industry.  A console industry with fewer EA Games is hardly worth crying to home about.  Now, if this were Capcom, we’d all be bawling.

3)  Leveraging the Future

Ultimately, all that I’ve written references the immediate few years post an Apple takeover.  If this were to happen, Apple is clearly eying the future, and that is where an Apple-led EA could in fact change the very landscape of gaming from where we see it today.

If digital downloads is in fact where gaming is headed (and there are some doubts on this, or at least how far away it is), then an Apple-led EA would be primed to lead the charge.  Apple knows the download industry and may want to firmly establish itself as the premier “iTunes” for gaming before someone else gets too big or too entrenched in gamers’ minds.  That sort of mindshare starts with the masses, and boy does Apple have the masses.

On the other hand, if there is any speculation about digital downloads being the future, an Apple-led EA might do its darnedest to force the intersection, or get all of us there sooner than we expected.  The leverage, innovation, and content between Apple and EA would certainly be sufficient to get the job done, presuming it had the right leadership and multi-year business plan. In this sense, the real people who should be freaking out about this is GameStop CEO J Paul Raines – digital downloads will probably do to GameStop what $1 rentals and Netflix has done to Blockbuster.

With EA at its belt, Apple becomes far more than just a technology company and it would certainly provide it more leverage to push its platforms and its ideas.  Right now, anything Apple makes is at the mercy of the content providers, meaning if Apple doesn’t always play nice, then they can go elsewhere.  If Apple itself builds the content, then it gets easier to launch new ideas because there is support (and in business, big support is necessary to be followed by other support).  Threatening to withhold EA content from others would give Apple ample leverage in putting together the future of, say, digital downloads.

And that’s the end of my rant.  Back to exam studying.

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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Whatever your  opinions might be about Nintendo or the Wii, there is no questioning the system’s intuitive mechanics and its amazing ability to bring gaming to everyone.  Matt Clark, whose brother Stephen was born with Cerebral Palsy – disabling him from walking or talking, posted the heart-warming photo above to his Flickr Photostream.  You can see the sheer happiness Stephen is having as he plays a Wii game with his family.  A beautiful, touching moment.  You go, Stephen!

PS3 and the Wii

You have to appreciate great journalism — and few newspapers dish out consistent quality like the New York Times (the Washington Post is probably the closest, and don’t even think about mentioning the WSJ. That paper and NYT don’t belong in the same sentence). The NYT provided a piece on the State of Videogames the other day, and it’s a nice read — much to the delight of Wii fans, Sony continues to absorb a barrage of negative publicity, and the situations made worse by idiotic comments from Sony Reps that either make no sense or are SO deliberately PR spin that they’d make Tony Snow proud. GameSpot kindly posted these comments from the NYT — without the rest of the article, they are akin to when Atari Reps insisted floundering Jaguar sales were not a reflection of apathy but of consumers wanting to hold out for 2-3 more killer apps. And some of us who use it as a paperweight are still waiting on those killer apps.

To gamers, the fact that Wii outsold the PS3 during the holidays is not news — after all, Sony barely got enough machines out the door after several production delays. Nintendo, on the other hand, didn’t run into that problem — and I think that’s primarily because the Wii’s infrastructure is indeed GameCube’s on steroids. I don’t mean that as a dent to the Wii (so fanboys stay at bay!); come on, it’s a technological fact based on the specs and many 3rd party developers have expressed the same sentiment.

So should Sony be running scared about now? The answer? “Not yet.” Sony is right to say this is a marathon, not a sprint. However, a little anxiety is healthy, and may help take Sony’s hubris down a few notches. While economists always try to predict markets, the fact is markets are unpredictable, and that alone is why Sony should be a little worried about recent trends. While the past suggest console penetration ranks can be altered, that window has gotten smaller and smaller each generation. Sony’s troubled leap from the gate might have done enough damage to keep PS3 down for a long time, and given most consumers don’t spend $600 on consoles until the Holidays, that means Sony will have an even harder time moving hardware while 360 and Wii continue to sell and grow their libraries. Sometimes, being an “impulse buy,” as Sony describes the Wii, isn’t such a bad thing.

This scenario might be improved if demand for PS3 was still high, but that craze has clearly come and gone. PS3s are now sitting on most store shelves for weeks before they are claimed. In fact, stores in my area have them in ample supply — and no one is buying them. Of course, a system is only as good as its games, so Sony is hoping exclusives will show PS3’s muscle in the coming months. Unfortunately, there is cause to worry in this department, too.

How “good” (and I mean visually for now) games will be and for which system they release for depend in large part on penetration. All these rumors about MGS4 going 360 and Ubi Soft dropping Assassin’s exclusivity are happening because PS3’s penetration numbers are falling well short. It doesn’t help that PS3’s development costs a whole bunch more than 360’s, and that the software backing the system is notoriously complicated. You know it’s pretty bad when Hideo Kojima goes on record to say the PS3 architecture is outright confusing.

Exclusive titles drive console purchases — it’s what has kept Nintendo in the game and the reason why Microsoft wines and dines Japanese developers on a weekly basis. Without killer exclusives, differentiation in the console market is hard. Perhaps in this sense, Sony is right — its real competitor is the 360, not the Wii (Though I’d argue that either way, it loses ground). As more publishers/developers decide to include 360 versions, what will happen is graphics downscaling; PS2’s huge penetration meant Xbox ports looked decidedly less stellar (since the games were being made first for PS2 and then for the Xbox). Poetic justice may exist because the 360 looks like it’ll be returning the favor this generation. If Microsoft keeps a penetration lead, there won’t be enough to make consumers fork over the extra $200-$300. Most gamers will settle for a 360 and see the few games they don’t get as a wash since Microsoft has its own killer exclusives. Sony’s decision to ignore the Wii might prove fatal in this scenario. Like what Ross Perot did to Bush, Sr. and what Nadir did to Gore, Wii might swing in to steal Japan’s market, which will compel developers there to hop on board Nintendo’s development train. That’ll mean PS3’s edge in the Japanese market (the one place 360 can’t break into) could be gone or at least diminished. With fewer games coming out of Japan, more pressure would be applied to Sony’s 1st party teams. That wouldn’t be ideal. Sony would be draining more funds to make more games — and that’ll be a losing proposition. Look back at PSX and PS2 — all of Sony’s best games came from 3rd party exclusives. While Sony has made some headway with its own titles, the fact is SCEA, SCEJ, and 989 can’t compete alongside HAL, Bungie, or Lionhead.

What this would mean is the end of Sony’s grand strategy …

The purpose of the PS3 is essentially twofold: (1) populate CELL and (2) win a format licensing war — let’s be frank about this. Sure, there will be DMC4, Heavenly Sword, and FF13 — but that’s not Stinger’s ultimate point now, is it? The reason Ps3 is so expensive is because the Co. spent billions in R&D to build those two elements. The PS3 is the frontline in making sure Sony not only recoups the investments, but profits many times over. Without enough PS3s in households, the CELL will remain expensive to produce, and the same will hold true for Blu-Ray discs and players. If Sony has to cut prices deeper to move PS3s then it might win the format war, but the time it’ll take to get back in black will be seriously lengthened, not to mention the jaunting reality that disc-based delivery might very well be gone next-gen, which would render Blu-Rays defunct right when Sony breaks even. Now you know why Stinger’s supporters are walking around like they have ants in their pants.

The irony in all this is that Sony’s consumer electronics and movie divisions are now as rosy as ever. What once were seen as the laggers dragging down the whole Sony empire are now what save Sony’s earnings report. The PlayStation division, on the other hand, is now looking more and more like the reason why Sony’s profit margins will be squeezed for years to come.

The now netorious Wiinha Chip (Is it real?)

Every console maker dreads two words, and those words are “mod chip”. Thus far, Nintendo has gone the extra mile (sometimes arguably to the detriment of its success) to stop hackers from modding its systems. The N64 was the last cartridge-based console, which drove up publisher costs so much that it’s often used as the reason why then-Squaresoft abandoned Nintendo for the fledgling Sony PSOne (or as geeks call it, the PSX). The GameCube then used proprietary Panasonic-developed mini-dvd rom, which again foiled most attempts to mod the machine, since the discs were not widely distributed and the GCN could not play regular sized discs (the Panasonic Q was likely halted from a stateside release to prevent widespread modding).

When it was announced the Wii would play regular sized DVDs, you have to think there were some basement hackers cheering and smiling. It didn’t take Hackers long to get the job done. The Wiinja (we REALLY have to stop with these stupid puns) has supposedly KOed the security of the Wii. In a video posted on YouTube (above), you can witness the player using what appears to be burned DVD Roms to play Wii games.

Should this be authentic, this now makes the entire library of Gamecube titles available to hackers the world over. For now, let’s presume this video is authentic and that the Wiinja chip is indeed real. The immediate reaction by Nintendo (and its loyal followers) might be to engage in direct legal battle to stop the modding as soon as possible. Nintendo might seek to release firmware updates to block its usage (much like how MS has sought to stop modding by id’ing it through its uber-popular Live service). This route may work, but given how few of Nintendo’s consumers are probably online in the first place, and the company’s relative inexperience in that department, it may not be the road to take.

Confronting modding is an interesting business in the videogame world. Undeniably, it creates a piracy channel for those willing to find games in the underground, but to look at modding as a means to an illegal activity is missing an entirely different side of the coin. Ken Kutaragi, the former head of Sony’s gaming division and father of the PlayStation, probably made a lot of publishing execs angry when he suggested that modding “helps” PlayStation more than it hurts it. And he’s right; as the console manufacturer, modding might indeed help early on. For Nintendo, it might do for the Wii what I think it did for the PSOne — and that’s rope in the hardcore and disbelievers.

PSOne was modded not long after its debut and some will admit that played quite a role in keeping the console afloat until FF7 royally crowned the console with then-obscene penetration growth. The Wii, for its success, is bringing in new gamers, but there is a hardcore that still refuses to pick up the console. The modding might just help the Wii capture that audience. Let’s face it, the only gamers who mod are the hardcore. Most consumers, the ones Nintendo goes after, probably have never heard of modding, let alone the notion of taking apart your console to weld something inside it. These are the same folks who would give you the oddest expression when you tell them, “Don’t send your iPod to Apple. Just buy a cheap iPod battery to replace the one inside it.”

Modders include gaming’s elite — and by that I mean the people who influence decisions. No editor of respectable gaming publications will admit to it, but most do indeed have modded consoles and even burned games. While I have seen no graph trying to map the value they bring, I don’t think it’s a far-fetched argumenbt to say their positive conversations do more good than damage to a console company. And we all know that in the world of consoles, penetration is the key to success. If you have enough of an installed base, the percentage of modders will be pretty much negligible — one of the reasons I believe why Sony doesn’t really go after them.

Also, modders often get their hands on games not released stateside, and post reviews of them far before they do. Games like Ikaruga for Dreamcast arguably made it to the US on GameCube because of the mod penetration in the States, which kept conversation about the title alive well after Sega’s little beauty bit the dust. Speaking of the DC, that’s one console where modding probably did hurt the machine more than help it. Sega, also a viable publisher, was hurt financially by pirated titles. But I would argue the industry dynamics of 1999 up through the PS2 launch is markedly different than the Wii scenario; from target audience to system gameplay, the Wii presents a starker contrast from its competition than the DC did from PS2.

It should be noted Nintendo has a long-standing history of scouring the underground to hunt down hackers and piraters. This is a company that actually went after people modding its long dead NES Roms, and even sent out nasty emails to people who posted pictures of its classic franchises. Given Nintendo sells those games now for what I think are still ludricously high prices, it’ll be interesting to see how the “new” Iwata-driven Nintendo goes about this modding development. Iwata, a tech-geek himself, might see this the same way as Kutaragi does, and if so, we might see the Big N go quiet on this issue — and how 180 would that be? In less than a year, Nintendo goes from 3rd place to sucker-punching the entire gaming industry, and then shifts from an over-protective, closed circle to a pentration-crazy, who-cares-about-modding stance. If this happens, “Crazy Ken” might not be so crazy anymore.