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After a tough E3, it’s curtains for the PS3

I came to L.A. a Sony fan, sure that the creator of today’s leading game machine would rock E3 and continue its dominance into the next generation. They’ve got everything, after all – a rabid and ever-growing fan base, a technological upper hand, and some of the most popular software franchises in the industry. A week ago, PlayStation 3 had all the momentum.

Tonight, I’m writing its obituary.


First, it was a series of self-inflicted embarrassments at Monday’s Sony press conference. Then the doors opened to the Electronic Entertainment Expo, and gamers got a bitter taste of how underwhelming the PS3’s software lineup is so far. By Friday, you could walk up to the Sony booth and play without standing in line. The wait for the Nintendo Wii was four hours long.

Any of these problems by itself wouldn’t have been enough to sink E3 for Sony. A few underdeveloped games, that’s to be expected. A public-relations blunder, it could have been worse. But when it all hits at once, and Nintendo is putting on the show of the century 20 yards away, you start to wonder who’s still going to want a PS3 in the fall.

I’ll detail the problems with the PlayStation 3 here – there are quite a few, and almost all of them have been worsened by this week’s conference, the biggest gaming-industry event of the year. There has been some foreshadowing, particularly to high prices and lagging development, but now the harsh reality has set in. Unless things change, and fast, Sony faces a tough holiday season and a disastrous 2007.

The main sticking point – the part that makes everything else worse – is the PS3’s price. Sony has borrowed Microsoft’s two-tier price structure, and the low-end system will sell for $499. It’s far more than any game console (though I’ve heard that the NeoGeo was more expensive back in the day), and if you want the version with more hard drive space, wifi, memory stick slots and HDMI output, it’ll cost you $100 more. For all intents and purposes, we’re looking at a $600 PS3. This is bad, bad news.

And not just because my PC cost less. It’s horrible because the Xbox 360 and its fabulous second round of games will be $200 cheaper and in greater supply. It’s awful because Nintendo Wii, the best console of the generation, could beat the PS3 to stores and debut at $250. If the PS3 was twice the system of the Wii, or even slightly better than the 360, it might not be such a bad deal. But the truth is that it’s neither of those things. To paraphrase Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto, the PS3 is going to mean less fun and more money for quite some time.

And if the games I played at E3 are any indication, I mean a lot less fun. The two best games on PS3 were Heavenly Sword and Resistance: Fall of Man, a medieval adventure game and a shoot-‘em-up. Both look great and will probably be fun when they’re done. They were accompanied by eight games that mean nothing to me. Even Warhawk, the only game to incorporate PS3’s tilt-controller function, is only 30 percent complete – and it was announced at E3 2005. Throughout the Sony booth, I would have believed I was playing a PS2 game… or a Dreamcast game. So far, it’s all the same stuff with a bunch of extra polygons.

That’s where Nintendo comes in. By the second day of the expo, the gamers had spoken with their feet. When I scouted out the Wii line at 11 a.m., it circled the entire Nintendo booth, wove through a dark no-man’s-land where kids camped out and ate greasy snacks, and emerged on the other side of the building, where it almost spilled out the emergency exit doors. A few hours later, Nintendo officials closed the line because they were worried people would be waiting until the convention center closed at 6 p.m.

Security estimated there were up to 2,000 people in the line. I spoke to people who waited for four hours, and heard other estimates closer to six. Nintendo’s display was cordoned off to control traffic, but that’s not why the line was so long. Inside were live, guided Wii demonstrations of 27 playable games. And all of them were more fun than anything on the PlayStation 3.

There is a reason this system used to be called the Revolution. The motion-sensing controller (not to be confused with Sony’s cheap knock-off) works like a charm and introduces an entirely new world of games. Instead of mashing buttons, I swing the controller like a tennis racket to return a serve. I played golf, I went fishing, and I guided a speeding hedgehog through a maze of spikes and enemies, all with a wave of my hand. It was amazing.

Everyone wanted the Wii because the Wii makes you smile. When you make a putt by actually making a putt, it doesn’t matter if the graphics look like a cartoon. Nintendo has removed itself from the world of “gaming” and started making games again. They exist not for the great graphics or the Cell processors – we play them for the fun.

That’s the simple, elegant formula that will make the Wii the top console in the world by the end of next year. Hardcore gamers care about graphics, and hardcore movie collectors might someday care about Blu-ray. But those things don’t really matter. The Wii trumps it all with something very simple: the love of a game.

(And don’t forget that it’s half the price.)

When PS3 hits the North American market on November 17, Sony is in for trouble. Microsoft will be hitting hard with exclusive games like Gears of War, an incredible shooter developed by the team behind Unreal, and probably Halo 3 as well. Nintendo, which is far ahead of Sony in development, will probably release the Wii a few weeks before the PS3. (The Wii console seems to be finished; the PS3 games I played were still running on dev kits. The PS3 “console” is still an empty case.)

That means Sony will be third to the market, and the games they release will be graphically inferior to the Xbox 360’s and inspirationally inferior to the Nintendo Wii’s. Why, then, would anyone drop $499 on the lamest option? Maybe if they run out of Wiis, Best Buy can sell some PlayStation 3s. But as for me, I’ll be in the four-hour line.

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