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ODST's won the day, but was September a turning point for Sony in the war?

ODST's won the day, but was September a turning point for Sony in the war?

The NPD Group’s US Video Game Report for September just hit my inbox last night, and it may be an early indicator of the exciting fourth quarter predicted by some pretty smart cats.  We saw increases across most categories from September ’08’s numbers, but not enough to pull the year-on-year numbers out of their recession doldrums.  However, Sony’s got several reasons to smile, in spite of Halo 3: ODST nabbing the top spot on this month’s Software Top 10:

Rank Title Platform Units
1 HALO 3:ODST 360 1.52M
2 WII SPORTS RESORT WII 442.9K
3 MADDEN NFL 10 360 289.6K
4 MARIO & LUIGI:BOWSER’S INSIDE STORY DS 258.1K
5 THE BEATLES:ROCK BAND 360 254.0K
6 MADDEN NFL 10 PS3 246.5K
7 MARVEL:ULTIMATE ALLIANCE 2 360 236.0K
8 BATMAN:ARKHAM ASYLUM PS3 212.5K
9 GUITAR HERO 5 360 210.8K
10 THE BEATLES:ROCK BAND WII 208.6K

Yes, there are only two PS3 titles in the top 10 this month, but looking at this list, you can practically see the purchase behavior!  Madden and Arkham Asylum both shipped to decent numbers on the PS3  in August, but not enough to overtake their respective Xbox 360 counterparts.  These particular games’ second month in the Top 10, despite the PS3’s much smaller installed base, is a clear indicator of a positive trend in hardware sales for Sony.  More casual gamers that only buy one or two pieces of software a year religiously get Madden, and strong word of mouth among hardcore gamers (not to mention a pretty good ad campaign) for Arkham Asylum has made that a must-have title for anyone just purchasing a current gen system.  So gamers that were holding out for a price drop seem to be gravitating towards the PS3, and they’ve essentially created their own hardware bundle in the process.

The price drop and slim hardware proved to be exactly the 1-2 punch Sony needed.  Take it away, NPD analyst Anita Frazier!

“Compared to last September, the PS3 was the big winner, more than doubling last year’s sales.  This portrays a very strong consumer reaction to the price decrease as August and September both realized a lift of more than 70% over the prior month.  This is the first month that the PS3 has captured the top spot in console hardware sales.”

It’ll be interesting to see if Microsoft rolls out a new hardware bundle or retailer discount for the holiday.  This very well could be the PS3’s year.

In other news, this month’s NPD report saw Wii Fit fall out of the Top 10 for the first time since its introduction 15 months ago.  Of course, it was immediately replaced in the Top 10 by Wii sports Resort.  But for a $90 game to spend 15 months in the Top 10, where even a soft month has the floor somewhere around 200K units, is impressive.  Just like the home crowd standing up for their starter during his 7th inning exit, I’ve got to salute Nintendo on this one.  Well done.standing o

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a_christmas_storyWith today’s The Beatles: Rock Band launch, I can’t help but wonder if all the cards are already on the table for what could be a very interesting Christmas’ “console war.”

Sony’s slim hardware redesign was a non-starter for me, until they blinked first and threw in a matching slimmer price point.  Microsoft followed suit almost immediately, discontinuing the Pro SKU and making the Elite model their $300 go-to.  Both good decisions.  While the Wii’s still got them both on price*, it’s a much slimmer gap now that’s more than bridged by the feature sets.

A lot of major third party releases have been pushed back into early 2010, and the ones that are still on the calendar are mostly multiplatform – The Beatles: Rock Band chief among them.  Microsoft will get another Halo title in ODST this holiday, as Playstation fans finally get their hands on Gran Turismo 5.  So we’ll have (at least) one more year where these two boxes duke it out on a fairly even playing field.

Xbox still has a more cohesive online experience, but the Playstation 3’s installed base is finally at the point where you can jump into a well-populated game at any time of day.  While I’m sure the price adjustment was a tough pill to swallow for Sony brass, they’re now offering the best value-for-dollar in gaming hardware (PS3 buyers get a Blu-Ray player while new Xbox 360 owners still need to cough up another $100 to make the thing wireless).

I’m looking forward to a well played, late generation holiday throwdown that will really put the consumers in the driver seat and rely heavily on Sony and Microsoft’s multichannel marketing effort, and maybe some cool pack-in deals.  Game.  On.

*NOTE: I know both the Xbox 360 and PS3 have limited-feature SKUs that fall below the Wii’s $250 price point, but let’s talk about the systems gamers actually want to buy here.

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While I didn’t get out to last week’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E³), I was really glad to see the show return to the more recognizable “under the big top” format.  At a time when just about everyone is forced to cut costs wherever possible, it was nice to see some of the industry’s big hitters pull out all the stops once again.  At the very least, it gave us all a lot more to watch than the very weird “editorial speed dating in office parks” feel of the last two years.

This year’s show was poised for success from the start – we’re far enough into this console generation that most developers understand how to get the most out of the hardware, but we’re not quite to the point where everyone expects to see new all-new consoles unveiled.  E³ 2005 was the most boring show I’ve been to, with the big reveal of the PS3 and all the tech demos and non-games that came with it.  This year was mostly focused on the games.  Be sure to check out the big honkin’ E³ coverage summaries over at Kotaku and Joystiq, just in case you missed anything.  Read on for my highlights (and a few not-so-highlights) from the big keynotes of the show.

MICROSOFT

beatles RB sullivanThe Good: M-soft came out strong right out of the gate with The Beatles: Rock Band.  They managed to have Paul McCartney and Ringo Star onstage, turning an otherwise ho-hum demo into a newsworthy event for even non-game press.  Perhaps most importantly, they created the most newsworthy event of the show for non-enthusiast press, and managed to have the surviving Beatles on stage with all sorts of Xbox branding behind them.  It’s a multiplatform title – in fact, the first Rock Band to ship day and date on the Wii as well as the PS3 and 360.  But Microsoft has managed to “own” this game in the minds of exactly the type of casual gamers that will eat up The Beatles: Rock Band — and a system to play it on.

The Bad: Microsoft managed to grab headlines with their project Natal camera system.  Essentially, at-home, real-time motion capture for gesture controls in games.  It looks like it works pretty well, and is much easier to set up than Microsoft’s earlier efforts with the Live Vision camera.  But I still can’t get excited about applying that technology to games.  I guess time will tell, as no release date or even a price point are in sight yet.

The Rest: All in all, Microsoft had a strong showing with those two reveals, and then a lot of smaller, fan service announcements.  The first ever Final Fantasy game on Xbox, a Metal Gear Solid multiplatform title, and a ton of sequels to familiar Xbox franchises rounded out their hour.

NINTENDO

The Good: Last year, the enthusiast press felt abondoned by Nintendo, with their keynote centered around Wii Motion Plus and the pack-in game, Wii Sports Resort.  This year, they made sure to take care of the hardcore set, with ample stage time given to a new Metroid game by Tecmo’s Team Ninja, The return of Mario Galaxy, and the very classic feeling New Super Mario Bros. finally brought to the big screen as a fun coop game for up to 4 players.  Charming, timeless IP goes a long way toward keeping the Big N in good graces with their loyal fans, and they delivered quite a bit of love for them this year.

wii_vitality_1The Bad: The Wii Vitality Sensor is… puzzling at best.  I’m an unabashed Nintendo fan, and I stand by the notion that failures along the way like the Virtual Boy are essential for a company to foster the free thinking brand of R&D that could deliver the Wii unto us.  But the idea of a peripheral that pinches you on the finger so it can get a read on your pulse… I just can’t see the application here into anything that would make a fun game.  I’ve been wrong before and I really hope I am in this case, but Nintendo certainly didn’t help its cause by not even really demoing this at the show.

The Rest: I was honestly hoping for a little more of a preview of what’s coming down the pipe for DSiWare and WiiWare.  They’re both underutilized networks on the best-selling pieces of hardware out there.  Beyond that, 6 new exercises and 15 minigames added to Wii Fit Plus doesn’t sound like very much new content to me.  I’d prefer to see them deliver more exercises throughout the year as DLC.

SONY

The Good: Team Ico revealed The Last Guardian, the sequel to Ico and Shadow of the Colossus. True to form, this one will be a PS3 exclusive, and looks to be hauntingly beautiful.  I will probably buy it on launch day, and cry at least once by the time I beat it.  So will you, if you happen to have a soul and a PS3.

The Bad: Sony’s gesture control (was this a requirement to present his year!?) just seems way too early to show to the public, and I’m willing to bet they wouldn’t have if Microsoft hadn’t made such a big splash with Natal.

The Rest: I’m intrigued by the PSP Go.  That tiny form factor looks to solve a lot of the issues the original design (and subsequent iterations) had to deal with, but not all.  The screen’s still not protected in your pocket, which is a much bigger deal to me than the fact that there’s only one analog nub.  Sorry, FPS fans.

It’s puzzling to me that the PSP, which has had such a hard time reaching any audience other than teenage boys is the first to market with a download-only portable system.  Not to mention, one with a $250 price tag at launch.  If they don’t market the Go hardware the right way, they could be left with a diminishing audience that feels burned about all the useless UMD’s they bought to go with their original hardware.

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1Up's mockup of the new PSP design

1Up's mockup of the new PSP design

1Up .com has become the first legitimate outlet to publish the news of a new PSP hardware iteration that, among other significant design changes, ditches the UMD drive in favor of a download-only format that uses an internal flash drive and (of course) Sony MemorySticks for storage.  If you’re scoring at home, UMD (Universal Media Disc) is a proprietary Sony disc format created for the PSP.

The 1Up piece comes on the heels of an apparent slip-up in either editing or scheduled posting for the @1Up podcast that let the cat out of the bag.  Sony’s refused to comment, but they’re allegedly announcing the whole shebang at E3.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read the “PSP without UMD” rumor over the years, but it really seemed to gain steam in recent months.  When David Perry swore very publicly and vehemently in late February that we would see it soon, it was finally very easy to see why it might be for real this time.  We’ve had Sony telling us that PSP would see an earnest commitment to development, with big franchises like Rock Band and Little Big Planet on the way.  And once Loco Roco 2 was announced as download only, it seemed like the final nail in UMD’s coffin.

Looks like I’d better find an eager buyer for my UMD copy of Jerry Maguire, stat!

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Following the always-timely Stephen Totilo’s Multiplayer Twitter feed, I caught the news just a couple minutes ago about Will Wright leaving EA Maxis to commit fully to his multimedia IP think tank, Stupid Fun Club. For the record, Totilo was seven minutes ahead of EA’s official Twitter.

stupid fun club logoI’m not entirely surprised with the move. DRM controversy aside, Spore made a tremendous splash with critics and consumers alike, and it really felt like the culmination of everything he’s done in the Sim lineage.  There were elements of big sellers like The Sims and SimCity in there, and even some of the quirkier titles like SimFarm, SimAnt and SimEarth. I don’t really see a need for Spore 2, and I’m willing to bet Wright feels the same way.  Then again, when has that stopped anyone?

Without a doubt, Wright can say he was with EA during a transformative period for the company.  EA bought Maxis in ’97, so you’ve got the rise of Sony and the PlayStation brand, and EA’s embracing that technology to become an undisputed superpower in development during that time.  The advancement of Western development and evntual industry shift to cater to US-centric tastes.  The PR backlash against “big, bad EA” and the EA Spouse Livejournal giving a voice to the workforce rights issue that could no longer be ignored.  The end of Sega as a hardware manufacturer (catalyzed by EA’s lack of support for the Dreamcast) and the entrance of Microsoft on the console scene.  Countless top personnel moves, exclusive licensing deals won (NFL) and lost (MLB), and the will-they-won’t-they? circus of EA’s move to acquire Take2.

Will Wright managed to keep himself and his studio remarkably clear of everything that went down at the parent company during that time.  They managed to stick to resonable release schedules and get quality games to market every few years.  EA has a stake Stupid Fun Club, and it sounds like they retain rights of first refusal on their videogame projects.  I hope it works out well for all involved, and am really excited to see what their first projects look like.

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nintendo-ds-lite

I’ve been traveling a ton lately, so I’ve been neglecting the blog (lame, I know) and playing a LOT of games on the DS and PSP.  And I’ve been having a blast.

There’s just something very lo-fi and fun about whipping out a handheld when you have a few extra minutes – no need to log in to Live or see what the guys on your friends list are playing.  It really takes me back to the days of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Dr. Mario on the original GameBoy, in the backseat of my parents’ car.tmnt

This generation of handhelds is nearing its fifth year on the market, and I honestly don’t see them being phased out anytime soon – especially considering the current economic climate.  They’ve each been refreshed with newer hardware iterations over the last few years, and Nintendo’s upping the ante yet again with the DSi.  They’ve both had their time in the Rising Sun, with every new Pokemon and Monster Hunter Portable title somehow enticing millions of new hardware purchases upon release.

The PSP certainly had a hot launch year in the ‘States, but a series of odd hardware bundles and some barren years in the games department have put the very slick, sexy piece of hardware in a compromising position.

The DS has proven to be quite the cash cow for Nintendo on both sides of the Pacific.  A raft of too-cute kids’ games and shovelware may be a bit of a turnoff for hardcore gamers, but they’ve been duelly served with loving ports of SNES hits and great exclusives like the Pheonix Wright series – not to mention Nintendo’s own stable of tremendous IP.

Personally, I’ve always hoped for the best for the PSP.  It’s a really great piece of hardware, and the more recent versions have improved upon the battery life and tweaked some of the screen issues.  Playing through God of War: Chains of Olympus and GTA: Liberty City Stories shows what this system is capable of, and I feel more like a disappointed T-ball coach than an angry gamer when I see another lackluster season for the PSP come and go.

A flurry of good news for PSP owners broke late last week, with Sony’s John Koller revealing the (better late than never) PSP arrival of Little Big Planet, Assasin’s Creed, and the Rock Band franchise.

jerry_maguire-1In a seperate interview, Koller (friends call him “the faucet” ’cause he dispenses cool) confirmed that they’re pursuing developer Ready at Dawn for more PSP games.  That would be awesome because RaD’s Daxter and GoW: Chains of Olympus are two of the system’s shining stars.  Koller finished up his whirlwind media day with a pinky-swear to the entire community that Sony’s not bailing on the UMD format. That’s really awesome for me.  I have a UMD copy of Jerry Maguire and NEED Sony to stay with that format, or I may be forced to buy my 6th copy of that movie.

complete

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As I’ve written before, Sony’s big draw for me (and many others) during the original Playstation era was the level of respect they had for the audience.  Ridge Racer, Tekken, Wipeout, and the Resident Evil series all made their home debut on the system, and all elevated their respective genre to new heights.  Sony marketed to a slightly older audience (remember ‘UR Not E‘?) and introduced an exciting brand of popcorn entertainment.

Fast forward to this Valentine’s Day, and Sony offered up ThatGameCompany’s latest ambitious think-piece, Flower.  For the record, I LOVE this game.  The design is breathtaking, with no HUD and a minimalist control scheme.  The music is subtle and, at times, even a bit somber.   In my short time with the game, it made me think about how our planet functions, mankind’s impact on it, why the movie The Iron Giant is underappreciated, and how various faith’s interpretation of God are different.  Like any good pice of art in any medium, Flower makes you THINK.

It scratches itches that I didn’t even know I had, and makes me want to DEMAND a full apology from Roger Ebert on behalf of theentire industry.  But the million dollar question is, “how many people will really dig this game?”  Perhaps more importantly, “how many people need to buy (and like) Flower for it to be a success?”  Between this game, and PSN exclusives like Echocrome and FlOw, and weird avatar chat/meeting space Home, I can’t help but wonder if Sony may be getting too arty for it’s own good.  It came up in this month’s EDGE Magazine review of Prototype, and I think it’s a valid point.  After all, art that pushes the envelope to an extreme will almost always have a high point of entry that limits commercial success.

Microsoft has exclusive GTA4 content, Gears of War and the HALO franchise to satisfy precisely the type of gamer that Sony connected with over the last two console generations.  Third parties like EA and Ubisoft certainly keep that audience entertained on Sony’s big black box, but I can’t really see Little Big Planet connecting with them.  And with a big gulf in hardware prices in this economy, can Sony afford to let such a big audience go?

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