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Game on for Sony PS3 in Xbox's backyard

Three years into the great console war — the battle for billions of entertainment dollars spent on video gaming — Sony’s PlayStation 3 lags far behind Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Nintendo’s quirky Wii.

Chances of a Sony turnaround seem less likely than ever, given the weak economy and the PS3’s relatively huge price tag — at $400, its entry-level price is double that of the Xbox.

But if it’s going to happen, if the gaming goliath is to regain its footing, it may do so with help from a bunch of engineers in Seattle, many of whom left Microsoft to build their games in studios not far from Xbox headquarters.

It takes more than a few studios to change the game, so to speak, and Sony develops games around the world. But it has high hopes for potential blockbusters to emerge in coming months from the studios in Redmond and Bellevue it has acquired or partnered with in recent years.

“The bottom line is we go where the talent is, and it just so happens that a couple of our big ones are coming out of the Seattle area in the upcoming months,” said Scott Rohde, San Diego-based vice president of studios at Sony Computer Entertainment America.

These game shops have kept a relatively low profile even as the Seattle area’s reputation as a world hub for game development has grown.

It’s a different story in the gaming world, however, where previews of their upcoming titles have won critical acclaim. The excitement comes in part because the studios are creating entirely new games, pushing the technical capabilities of the platform and introducing characters and stories that may become tomorrow’s movies and comic books.

Summer action title

The lineup begins with “inFamous” from Sucker Punch Productions in Bellevue. The game, going on sale May 26, revolves around Cole, a messenger in a gritty metropolis who develops superpowers after a huge explosion. Cole can use electricity like a weapon, shooting bolts of energy from his hands as he battles criminals who overrun the quarantined city.

It’s an “open world” game, meaning players freely roam throughout the crime-infested city, the same model used by the hit “Grand Theft Auto” series.

Coming in the fall is “MAG” — short for “massive action game” — from Zipper Interactive, a Sony-owned studio in Redmond. The military-themed shooting game is played online, with realistic mercenary battles involving up to 256 players at once.

Zipper’s 150 employees include ex-Microsoft talent, but the company was started by Boeing veteran Brian Soderberg, who previously built simulators for the military, and Jim Bosler, whose background includes time at Egghead Software, an early software retailer that had stores across the country.

Then in 2010, the Bellevue studio of Sony’s online entertainment group is scheduled to release “The Agency,” a spy-themed online game that can be played on either a PS3 or a PC. Players assume the identity of a globe-trotting spy and ally themselves with operatives, who continue working on missions even when a player takes a break from the game.

Preview beta versions of “MAG” and “The Agency” could be available sooner. Sony plans to highlight all three, and provide more details, in early June during the industry’s leading trade show, the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3.

Big bets on innovation

Spending tens of millions on these new entertainment franchises is “a completely gutsy move on Sony’s part,” said Chris Zimmerman, who left Microsoft with three friends in 1997 to start Sucker Punch, whose 60 employees make games exclusively for Sony.

“The easiest thing to do is just turn the crank, create another version of whatever you did last, until people stop buying it,” he explained during a funky Capitol Hill cocktail party thrown last week to showcase “inFamous.”

“Sony’s been really brave in saying that’s not enough … we don’t just want to do the same games over and over again; we want to do some new stuff, and we’re willing to invest to do it,” he said. “It really is cool — a lot of that has come out of Seattle.”

Call it irony or karmic retribution, but this comes as Microsoft has whittled down the once-formidable in-house game studio that it built first to advance PC gaming and then to launch its Xbox business. (A Microsoft spokesman noted the company had a strong lineup the past two years, and said announcements of new games are being held until E3.)

Outsourcing game development has helped the Xbox business finally become profitable, but it gives Sony bragging rights and competitive advantages — theoretically.

Microsoft still has a big lead over Sony. In the U.S., Xbox has outsold the PS3 2-to-1. Through March, according to NPD research, it sold 15 million 360s, compared with 7.5 million PS3s (Nintendo’s Wii, at 19.6 million, leads both). Globally, 21 million PS3s and 28 million Xbox 360s have been sold, according to the companies.

Hard-core hits

One reason for the gap is that Microsoft won over 13- to 24-year-old hard-core gamers with the Xbox and a couple of blockbuster shooting franchises made exclusively for it: “Halo” and “Gears of War.” Microsoft also built a superior online network — Xbox Live — on which Xbox owners spend an average of eight hours a week playing mostly raucous action games.

The Sony games coming out of Seattle are aimed directly at this demographic, and they’re likely to be hits.

But they won’t be enough for Sony to retake its lead of the console business, according to Michael Pachter, research director at Wedbush Morgan Securities in Los Angeles.

“They’re not getting it back by launching games that are three years after ‘Gears of War’ and ‘Halo’ — it’s late,” he said.

Pachter thinks Sony should be focusing on the other console maker with offices in Redmond — Nintendo.

“Right now Sony needs to figure out how to get Wii owners to buy a PS3, and Wii owners aren’t waiting for hard-core shooters or ‘Grand Theft Auto’-type games as an excuse to buy a console.”

Spinoff potential

Even if the new Sony games fail to budge the PS3 out of third place, there are other ways they may influence popular culture.

Sucker Punch’s “inFamous,” in particular, seems likely to end up as a movie.

“I wouldn’t say there’s a deal, but I wouldn’t say those conversations haven’t at least gotten somewhere,” said Brian Fleming, another Sucker Punch co-founder.

Technology developed by the local studios also will contribute to future games. Both Sucker Punch and Zipper built new game platforms, or engines, that can be used as the foundation for new titles. The network architecture that Zipper built to support “MAG” is also likely to help Sony develop other massive-scale online games, while “The Agency” team is figuring out how to bridge online play between PCs and the PS3.

“We’re lucky we can continue to do these big titles,” Soderberg said, adding that Sony’s backing “gives us the luxury to continue to dream up new ideas and now and then take a risk and come up with something new and exciting.”

Matt Wilson, a former Microsoft game developer heading Sony Online Entertainment’s 100-person Bellevue studio, said the platform wars are mostly a distraction.

“First and foremost it’s the game — our goal is to make a great game,”‘ he said. “That’s all we should be worried about.”

Brier Dudley: 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com

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