WEEKEND EDITION: Video-game Wars Heat Up With Explosive 2008 Titles
That's when "Grand Theft Auto IV" will hit store shelves -- likely on its way to racking up sales of 10 million units or more by the end of the year, according to most estimates.
But game fanatics worried about spoiling their Christmas by mid-spring needn't worry. Compared to last year, 2008 will see a large slate of popular video game franchises spread throughout the year, along with some highly anticipated new properties that are designed to finally showcase the full capabilities of next- generation consoles such as the PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii.
The strong slate of releases should cool worries that the video game sector
set its own bar too high in 2007, which racked up a record
Strong demand for video games is also fueling a surge of deal making in the
Cutting-edge games slated for release this year are also expected to fuel the
long-running war between next-generation consoles -- primarily between
"I think we're going to see 20% sales growth this year. But more important
than software [game] sales is that we haven't really seen big hardware sales
Pachter says that this year is still relatively early in the next-generation
console cycle. The PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii hit the market in
"This year is going to be huge, but not as big as 2009, and probably not as big as 2010," he said.
Higher quality, lower prices?
Though the next-generation consoles deliver the highest quality gaming experience yet, pressure continues on hardware makers to lower their prices.
Analysts widely expect console makers to cut their prices again this year, at
least on the PS3 and 360. Pachter said consoles will have to get closer to the
Last year's star, however, was the Nintendo Wii, which sold about 6.3 million units and has moved another 706,000 in the first two months of this year. The console remains virtually sold out at most retailers more than a year after its launch, and analysts expect the shortage will continue through much of this year.
"I anticipate the Wii hardware system will be supply constrained going into the holiday season," said Jesse Divnich, analyst for the simExchange, an online prediction market focused on the video game business.
A Grand Theft kick-off
March has already seen some big releases. French game publisher Ubisoft released "Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six: Vegas 2" earlier this month.
A big release came from Nintendo with "Super Smash Bros. Brawl" -- an exclusive title for the Wii. Despite a release date delayed by a month, the game sold more and 1.4 million units in the U.S. in its first week, setting a new record for Nintendo, according to the company.
However, the big kick-off title for the year will be "Grand Theft Auto IV," developed by Take-Two's Rockstar Games unit. The latest version in the popular urban shooter franchise will be the first developed for next-gen consoles such as the PS3 and 360 and is expected to offer top-of-the-line effects and features that can take advantage of those systems' capabilities.
"I don't think there's any question that 'Grand Theft Auto IV' will be big," said Doug Creutz of Cowen & Co.
Optimizing the game took longer than Take-Two expected. GTA IV was originally slated for release during last year's holiday season, but the company delayed the launch after finding that "certain elements of development proved to be more time-intensive than expected."
A lot is riding on the release. Primarily, the management of Take-Two is
hoping strong sales of the game can help it squeeze a higher price out of its
suitor EA. Take-Two has rejected EA's previous bids, stating that it will not
negotiate a deal before the
The game is also expected to be a major hardware seller for both the PS3 and
the Xbox 360. No version is expected for the Nintendo Wii. As an urban-based
shooter game, it faces little direct competition until the fall release of "
Saints Row 2" from
The Force gets 'Unleashed'
Big summer titles will include a highly anticipated release from the "Star
Wars" franchise. Dubbed "Star Wars: The Force Unleashed," the storyline of the
game covers the period between the original movie trilogy and the three prequels
-- a period that has so far been off limits to books, TV shows and other games
controlled by creator
In the game, players assume the role of a secret apprentice to Darth Vader, who ends up fighting both good guys and villains from the "Star Wars" universe. Developers at Lucas' video game unit -- LucasArts -- say the game advances the " Star Wars" story in a far more significant way than previous game titles from the series.
Haden Blackman, head of the development team for "The Force Unleashed," drew
an overflow crowd at the recent Game Developers Conference in
Among other features, "The Force Unleashed" employs an artificial intelligence system called Euphoria, which is designed to simulate a character's central nervous system to make reactions within the game more realistic.
The game will also serve as a showcase for the capabilities of next-generation platforms like the PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360, Blackman said.
"Graphically, the game looks like you're in a Star Wars movie," Blackman said in an interview. "It's the first time I think people are really going to feel immersed in a Star Wars film, and that's really due in a lot of ways to the power of these platforms."
See video preview of "The Force Unleashed."
"The Force Unleashed" will also be available for the Wii as well as for hand-
held devices from Nintendo and
"As the game platforms get more advanced, the development cycle is going to get tougher," Blackman said.
Ratings from game critics may make a big difference for the game. Several previous "Star Wars" releases have averaged scores in the low 80's from the site Metacritic, which compiles game reviews from different publications. The highest rated Star Wars game is a title called "Knights of the Old Republic" for the original Xbox, which garnered a Metacritic score of 94.
Besides "Star Wars,"
Building your own game
At least two major releases this year will offer game users more than just a
chance to play. "Spore" from EA and "Little Big Planet" from
EA has been working on "Spore" with Maxis, the studio behind the mega-popular "Sims" franchise. The game allows players to create their own personal universe and populate it with creatures -- also player-created -- who then evolve to different stages of life.
The game also brings a social-networking element to gaming. Though not a massive multi-player game like "World of Warcraft," players of "Spore" can move through worlds created by other players. The game has a heavy online element, which is why the first version being launched in September will be limited to the PC rather than the next-generation consoles.
"What we've done here is we've created a social network within a game," said
The title will also be available for Nintendo's handheld DS console, and Bradshaw added that it will eventually migrate onto other platforms as well. " We'll evolve it into different territories. I would look at this as first version," she said.
Another game aimed at the user-generated crowd is "Little Big Planet," a title from British studio Media Molecule being developed exclusively for the PlayStation 3. Players can use their characters to create their environments.
Early previews of the game have generated significant buzz in the gaming community. The title is also slated for release in early September.
"Little Big Planet to me is huge. Hardcore gamers will like it, but it also
has a big mass-market appeal," said
Shooting to win
The key category for appealing to the core gamer audience is the first-person
shooter, and 2008 will see plenty of big releases -- though none may end up
matching "Halo 3" from
LucasArts is also planning for an autumn launch of an original title called "
Fracture," which is set in a period in the future when the
Wii keeping the pace
While much of the focus on game titles for the year centers around the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, analysts caution that Nintendo will remain a major force. The Wii has handily outsold the other next-generation consoles since its launch, and the device remains hard to find in U.S. retail outlets.
To address the shortage,
"We increased our production twice last year," Franklin said. "But never before has a system sold as much in a short period of time."
Besides "Super Smash Bros. Brawl," which has gotten the Wii off to s strong start for the year, a likely popular title will be a version of the racing game "Mario Kart" for the Wii. This game will make use of the Wii Wheel, a steering wheel-shaped wireless controller that works with the Wii's motion-sensor control system.
Analysts are particularly interested in "Wii Fit," which hits stores in mid- May. This game makes use of the Wii Board, a platform that hooks up to the system and allows players to control the game through running, jumping and other physical activities. The game itself will feature activities such as yoga and skiing.
"Don't overlook the Wii this year," said IDC analyst Pidgeon. "Because the graphics are lower resolution than the other systems, developers have to make games that are great to play. It's something you can't get from the competition."
(END) Dow Jones Newswires