Three tribes go to war
The shots have been fired and the factions involved are getting ever more brutal in their assaults. Coverage of the war is unmissable: shop windows are sporting prices with vicious slashes through them and everywhere propaganda invites recruits to spend more time sat in front of a TV with their sweaty hands clamped around a joy pad, and less time doing anything else.
The console war, as it has been dubbed, is truly under way. As prices get lower, the end benefit is generally to the consumer rather than the retailer. However, as the AV industry has gone to show the real profits lie not just in the boxes that sit under the telly, but the accessories that go with them.
Currently rampaging over the world is Sony's PlayStation 2 unit, with around 30 million of these black boxes wriggling their way into homes across the planet. Having the drop on its opponents has prompted Kaz Hirai, president of Sony Computer Entertainment of America to state: "Officially, the console wars are over." And further price cuts have prompted yet another surge in sales.
Last to the party was Nintendo, and is currently playing catch-up with Sony, and to a lesser extent, Microsoft. However, the machine is not as powerful as its American counterpart--though those in the Nintendo camp are confident that that will not affect their chances. David Gosen, managing director of Nintendo Europe believes that it is the software not the hardware which is most important.
"Ultimately, the consumer will decide which company is successful. The key determinant is the quality of the games. It's not about the technology, or how many polygons it can shift across the screen, it is about the gaming experience," says Mr Gosen.
Sales of the X-Box, although perceived as sluggish at first, have been boosted to help it reach three-and-a-half million units worldwide. Nonetheless, Microsoft marketing director John O'Rourke vows not to let a similar situation arise again: "Playstation has had a one year head start on X-Box. I can tell you that next time the competition won't get a one year head start on us."
With this in mind, Microsoft is pouring a significant amount of its $2 billion investment into X-Box live, dedicated to broadband gaming.
The new on-line gaming service will launch in North America, Europe and Japan in the autumn. Sixty games companies have committed to create games for X-Box live and at least 50 X-Box Live enabled games are planned for release by the end of the year.
X-Box Live will be an all-in-one service using the system's built-in hard drive and Ethernet port to allow play straight out of the box.
In terms of accessories, items such as the Communicator headset will enable players--possibly thousands of miles apart--to talk to each other while competing together in the same game.
Indeed, this years Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles saw on-line gaming being touted as the next big thing for consoles, with Sony and Nintendo expressing desires to move into this section of the market.
These two companies will be selling a network adaptor that will allow the PlayStation2 and the GameCube to connect to the web through dial up and broadband internet services. Having said that, there are those in the industry who feel that the time may not be right for consoles to wire up to the world wide web.
"On-line gaming is a parlour trick at E3 this year," states Jeff Brown, Vice president of corporate communications for game publisher Electronic Arts. "This is not a real business. This is not going to be a real business until 2004 or 2005 and by then you're going to have a new generation of consoles."
Such a view is upheld by Bruno Bonnell, chief executive of publisher Infogrames, who believes that on-line gaming will not be catching on until more homes have broadband Internet service, which is why he is taking a slower approach.
"We don't want to start too early, too big. We just don't think there is a business there yet."
Other accessories soon to be available include Linux kits for PlayStation2. The kit allows games developers to gain experience on the console and hobbyists to experiment with Linux on relatively inexpensive hardware. It costs 155 [pounds sterling] and consists of a specially tailored version of Linux together with the hardware needed to turn the computer into a full computer, though buyers still need to provide a compatible monitor.
Besides Linux, the pack contains a hard disk, keyboard, mouse, monitor lead and network interface.
PS2 owners should then be able to connect their console to a home network or to the internet if they have a broadband connection with a network socket. Efforts are also under way to develop a version of Linux that will run on the X-Box.