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Tuesday, May 17, 2005 - Page updated at 12:41 p.m.

Sony promptly trumps Xbox

Seattle Times technology reporter

Enlarge this photoKEVORK DJANSEZIAN / AP

Ken Kutaragi, president of Sony PlayStation group, hails a prototype of the new Playstation 3 computer entertainment system during a news conference yesterday in Culver City, Calif.

LOS ANGELES — After a week of seeing Microsoft steal the video-game spotlight, Sony roared back yesterday with news that its next-generation video-game console, the PlayStation 3, will be available next spring.

"PlayStation 3 has a powerful machine under the hood," Kaz Hirai, president and chief executive of Sony Computer Entertainment of America, said at a widely attended media briefing.

The console, Sony's entry in what is expected to be a bruising console war, will be able to play games made for the original PlayStation and the PlayStation 2.

Also yesterday, Microsoft said its next-generation system, the Xbox 360, will be able to play some games made for the original Xbox console, but not all of them.

Neither company would say how much their systems would cost nor when exactly they would be released.

The companies made their announcements at Electronic Entertainment Exposition, the annual video-game-industry conference familiarly known as E3 that runs this week in Los Angeles.

Sony unveiled its PlayStation 3 at the end of a two-hour briefing that covered the technical details of the machine and disclosed some of the games that will run on the system.

Microsoft's Xbox 360 console is expected to go on sale in November, several months before Sony's PS3 makes it to stores. Microsoft gains some advantage by hitting stores first, but the additional time gives Sony a chance to leapfrog the Xbox 360's technology and other features.

Sony said yesterday that its console will be more impressive than the Xbox 360, and that its processor, developed by IBM, will be twice as fast.

"We have developed the world's most powerful cell processor, which is going to be applied in our next-generation system," said Ken Kutaragi, president and chief executive of the Sony PlayStation group. The 3.2-gigahertz processor, dubbed Cell, was developed jointly with IBM and Toshiba.


A worker passes a show logo in the lobby of the Electronic Entertainment Exposition in Los Angeles

The system will be able to support up to seven controllers, connected wirelessly through Bluetooth technology, compared with four wireless controllers for the Xbox 360.

Like Microsoft, Sony lightened the color of its new console and smoothed the design, giving the system a slightly rounded shape. The company showed the PS3 in three colors: black, white and silver.

To demonstrate the machine's processing and graphics power, Sony showed numerous videos, including reproduced scenes from the movie "Spider-Man 2."

Electronic Arts President Larry Probst showed a boxing game, called "EA Sports Fight Night," that his company is developing for the PS3.

Yoichi Wada, president of developer Square Enix, showed "Final Fantasy XII," the latest game in the popular franchise, which is being developed for the PlayStation 2.

Microsoft said yesterday that the Xbox 360 will be able to play certain games made for the original Xbox system — a feature called backwards compatibility that Xbox users have been clamoring for.

The company will start by making its most popular games, "Halo" and "Halo 2," compatible with the Xbox 360. It will then work down the list of its best-sellers, with a goal to eventually connect them all.

Backwards compatibility is often a checkbox feature for new video-game consoles, but it became a difficult technical challenge when Microsoft overhauled the engine powering the Xbox 360 from that used in the original Xbox. The company switched to IBM from Intel for its processing chip and to ATI from Nvidia for its graphics processor.

The new setup means that Microsoft can't flip a switch in the Xbox 360 and make all of the Xbox games compatible. Instead, it needs to work on each game individually, which takes time and money. The company has licensed some technology from Nvidia in order to make the backwards compatibility feasible.

The company also announced its first-ever partnership with Square Enix, the developer of the popular "Final Fantasy" video game series. Square will release "Final Fantasy XI" for the Xbox 360, and give the game a vast presence on Microsoft's Xbox Live online gaming service.

"Final Fantasy XI" is not a new game and a curious choice for Microsoft to place so much emphasis on at E3. The PlayStation 2 version of the game came out more than a year ago, and a PC version went on sale the year before that. Just a few hours earlier, Square had showed off the successor to the game at Sony's briefing.

Microsoft said the Xbox 360 version will have the same storyline as its predecessors, but will be optimized for high-definition viewing and for the Xbox Live service. It will be able to run on the console's 20-gigabyte hard drive.

More than 160 games are in development for the Xbox 360, Microsoft said, and anywhere from 25 to 40 of them will likely be released this calendar year. Peter Moore, a corporate vice president with the Xbox division, has said that the optimum launch portfolio would be 15 titles. That leaves from 10 to 25 new games for the holidays.

The titles currently in development include "Blue Dragon," a role-playing game from Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of the "Final Fantasy" series; and "Call of Duty 2," a sequel to a war game from Activision. Game developer Electronic Arts is working on sports games for the Xbox 360, including "Madden NFL 06" and "FIFA 06."

Microsoft also unveiled two games being developed by Rare, a studio in the United Kingdom that Microsoft purchased in 2002. Those include "Perfect Dark Zero," the prequel to the Nintendo N64 game "Perfect Dark," and "Kameo: Elements of Power," a new role-playing game.

The company also said that its Xbox Live service will have 2 million paid subscribers by the end of June.

Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or kpeterson@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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