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Sony to Enter Video Download Game

Interesting story in the Journal today about Sony's plans to offer a video-download service via its Playstation 3 and Playstation Portable gaming systems (full story after the jump). The market is set to pop, big time, hitting as much as $7 billion in the U.S. by 2010.

Sony and Microsoft, of course, have been bullish about positioning their consoles as the home entertainment hubs of the future. While covering E3 this year for Spectrum, I was surprised that more people didn't pick up on Microsoft's pact with Disney to offer HD movie downloads via Xbox Live, the X360's online service.

Sony to Challenge Apple

In TV, Movie Downloads

CEO Stringer Sees Video

As Key to Reclaiming

By YUKARI IWATANI KANE, WALL STREET JOURNAL

September 4, 2007; Page B1

TOKYO -- Two years after taking the helm of Sony Corp., Chief Executive Howard Stringer is quietly preparing a big move to expand the company and challenge rival Apple Inc. in an area that has thus far promised more than it has delivered: video-downloading services.

People familiar with the situation say Mr. Stringer is planning to use Sony's technology-packed PlayStation 3 and PlayStation Portable videogame machines, along with its Bravia high-definition televisions, to develop products and services to let users download television shows and movies, similar to the way they download music and videos using Apple's iTunes store and iPods. A Sony spokesman declined to comment on the company's strategy.

As Internet connections have become faster, analysts have expected the next big potential market to be in downloading movies and television shows. Some analysts believe it could be significantly larger than the digital music market. Park Associates, a market-research and consulting firm, estimates that annual revenue from Internet video, including ad-based and user-paid services, could exceed $7 billion in the U.S. alone by 2010.

Apple offers video-compatible iPod devices and the iPhone, along with downloadable television shows, music videos and movies for purchase on its iTunes Store. But analysts say there's no clear winner yet and the market is up for grabs.

"The real key is going to be who is providing the best high-definition experience for viewers," says Kurt Scherf, a Park Associates analyst who studied this market. He adds that companies ranging from electronics makers to cable companies and content providers are all experimenting now in search of the best strategy.

Establishing a dominant position in this area is crucial for Sony, whose Walkman music devices lost out to Apple's iPods when Sony failed to launch compelling music-downloading software. The move could also help boost lagging sales of the PS3 and PSP videogame devices. The PS3, in particular, has been a big disappointment even though Sony made a large investment in its development to build a state-of-the-art machine.

Sony, which has spent the last few years restructuring, has already been moving in this direction. Just last week, the company unveiled a Walkman for the U.S. market that for the first time can play movie trailers and music videos in addition to listening to music. In a sign that Sony might have given up at least for now on trying to beat Apple in music, it also said it was phasing out its music download service called Connect and that the latest Walkmans would use Microsoft Corp.'s Windows Media software.

Earlier this year, Sony introduced a module for its U.S. television models that can download Internet content. It will roll out a similar device in Japan this fall that will let consumers download videos from a number of Internet services. Meanwhile, Sony's PlayStation unit last month launched new features for the PS3 and PSP in Europe that let consumers use their game machines to record television shows onto their PS3s and transfer them onto their PSPs.

But it faces huge challenges in this market. For a start, it will be competing with some of the most powerful names in global business. In addition to Apple, Microsoft has also been positioning its competing Xbox 360 device to be used for video downloading. Internet companies, as well as television and movie studios, cable companies and mobile operators, are jockeying for a piece of the action.

Apple's set-top device called Apple TV, which lets users play music and video from their computer-based iTunes library, has not been selling strongly since it went on sale earlier this year, analysts say. Since introducing video on iTunes in October 2005, Apple saw a big increase in video downloads for the first year, but analysts say the number has tapered off recently. In response, an Apple spokeswoman said, "We're the No. 1 video download store."

Still, industry observers say Sony has one possible advantage in its quest to a major player in the video downloading market: Content companies like movie studios may be wary of the way Apple dominated the digital music market, and may be more encouraged to work with another company, especially one that owns a movie studio of its own and understands their concerns. Last week, a dispute erupted into public view between Apple and one of its biggest suppliers of television shows, General Electric Co.'s NBC Universal, over pricing of television episodes and other issues. As a result, Apple has vowed not to sell NBC programs from the coming season starting this month.

"We've been saying for years that if there's a company that can marry all this emerging content to products that people want, it's Sony that's going to make it happen," says Parks Associates analyst Mr. Scherf.

The foray into video downloading will be a crucial test for Mr. Stringer, who has succeeded in slashing costs at Sony but must now prove he can also find new areas of growth. Since the failure of the Walkman to beat the iPod, Sony has been struggling to come up with a new product that defines the industry standard in innovation.

It is also a test of whether Mr. Stringer has succeeded in taming Sony's fiercely independent corporate culture. In the past, the company has struggled to get its various units to cooperate with each other. An area like video downloading would require extremely close teamwork among the electronics, movie and videogame units.

Mr. Stringer has recently appointed executives with a track record of cooperation. One is Kazuo Hirai, the new head of the PlayStation group, who in June succeeded Ken Kutaragi, the headstrong creator of the PlayStation. Mr. Stringer also expanded the role of an electronics executive, Katsumi Ihara, who Sony officials say understands the importance of integrating compelling software with good hardware.

People familiar with the situation say Mr. Stringer has been laying the groundwork in recent months to shift the company's focus to video downloading. For example, they say he decided to end Sony's unsuccessful efforts to challenge Apple in the music-downloading business in order to focus on the new strategy. In May, Mr. Stringer quietly decided to shut down the unit that was charged with creating a portable music player and online music service. Sony said Thursday that the service would be phased out and the latest Walkmans would use Microsoft's Windows Media software.

The people privy to Sony's plans also say Mr. Stringer, over the protests of some executives, personally enforced a decision to adopt certain digital rights management software that will eventually be used in all of Sony's products. That is an indication of how serious he is about making sure the company's various units come together to make this strategy a success, they say.

Bioshock I

I like Bioshock. I really do. It's got touch and detail galore. The combat is simple but satisfying. The hacking games are fun if repetitive. The camera research conceit is cool and interesting. The sound is simply incredible. The environments are richly detailed and painstakingly beautiful. The voice-work and writing are extremely professional. The artwork is amusing and fits the time-period well. All the trappings are spot on, in short, and the gameplay is solid. In fact, the game is extremely addictive. It's hard to put down.

I have to agree with Harry T., however, in that, as an older gamer, I've become quite jaded towars the "comic book" style stories and settings that pervade our industry's offerings. Indeed, while Bioshock's narrative is relatively complex, it is certainly not deep or particularly believable. I've read review after review noting the "adult" themes of the game and I'm starting to feel that the term is being denuded of its power in game criticism.

"Adult", in this context, refers to strong language, sexual content and visceral gore as well as a level of horror/creepiness sure to give young children nightmares. "Adult" does not refer to complex character development, complex moral issues, believable characters and scenarios, interesting relationships or the incorporation of the larger human poignancies against which all great art at least brushes up.

This fact doesn't destroy the game, however; Bioshock is a very good game. It is not a revolution, though. And I don't believe it is high art.

In my next few posts, I want to bring up some of the games that did what Bioshock does and received significantly less critical acclaim, despite pushing the craft of game design to entirely new levels.

Fragging for Dollars

Back in the day, you'd blast someone in a first person shooter for fun. Now, thanks to a new game and company called Kwari, you can do it for cold hard cash.

The game, now in beta, raises the stakes by letting players put up their own money in each match. With every kill, you get cash from your prey - and vice versa. There are also jackpot prizes that can be earned by, say, collecting keys or carrying a special item - the Pill - for a given period of time without getting slaughtered.

While the company touts that the game is "using some of the most advanced technology available to ensure total financial infallibility fused with benchmark playability," imagine the field day hackers are going to have with this. Cheating has always been a massive problem in multiplayer games - just as company's like Valve, creators of Half-Life, who have been battling the gamer underworld for years.

Still, it's an interesting proposition - Texas Hold 'em for Generation Halo.

National Security: The Video Game?

News from ABC this week about Ground Truth: a Federally-funded and developed video game that may be used for national security training.

The game is being developed by a computer engineer at Sandia National Labs, a nuclear research facility in New Mexico. So far, it has cost a reported $600,000. It's expected to be completed in three years. At that point, it may be deployed by a government agency such as the Department of Homeland Security.

The irony is this: Sandia National Labs, the place of development, has been besieged by security breaches of its own. I wrote an extensive story about a Sandia technician who spent her days at work cyberstalking the lead singer of the rock band, Linkin Park. And, while reporting that piece, I learned more about the astonishing tale of Shawn Carpenter, a network security analyst at Sandia, who was fired after alerting his superiors to a hacker attack. Carpenter was later awarded $4.3 million for wrongful termination. I'm all in favor of video game training, but maybe Sandia should stop playing around and work on more pressing problems of its own.

Perhaps the first lukewarm Bioshock review

Bioshock is tearing it up among game magazines, garnering an average score of 96% according to GameRankings.com. A game comes along every couple of years that gets such universal praise, and 2007 may be the Year of Bioshock. It is a very good game, but as I play it, there are many things that nag at me. I don't really have empathy for anyone in the game, and empathy is what's required in order to be drawn into the story.

Of course, as I get older, I am less tolerant of some of the comic-book storytelling conventions of my youth, where it didn't matter who hollowed out that volcano so the mad scientist could have a secret base inside, or who sews up the super-hero's spandex, but as I approach my fourth decade of reading and watching all of this stuff, I've encountered enough good fiction that does try for a cohesive and explainable world, that the unexplained conventional stuff leaves me a little cold.

In the Bioshock, how many people built such a huge, underwater city? How many people are left there? Does the world at-large know about it? Was there news, and tourism? How did people become citizens of this city? Did this disaster just happen? It doesn't feel like it, yet there are normal people still down there. Why did the hero just stab himself in the arm with a giant hypo from a broken vending machine? Would you do that, if you were wandering around a desolate ghost town?

I don't have the right sort of space-opera state of mind to really accept the premise, and if you don't do that, it's still Doom, like every other FPS. Zombies jumping around, and door-key puzzles. The environments are very well done, the overall visual design is very interesting, but ultimately I'm not drawn in. I have played (and made) perhaps too many FPS games for me to not look on them with a jaundiced eye. I just feel like "story" has been mistaken for "elaborate set design", and the actual narrative elements were given less attention than they needed, to really explain the Bioshock world. Which is a shame, because if I believed in Rapture, then I would really be on the Bioshock bandwagon.

I give it a B+ out of 10.

Mtisubishi's 3D Blu-ray goggles

Amid all the smack-talk between the warring formats of HD DVD and Blu-ray, Mitsubishi weighs in with some interesting Blu-ray development. This week, the company demoed a new Blu-ray player that, along with a special pair of goggles, brings 3D to DLP televisions and projectors. There's also talk of integrating the technology with a console gaming system.

Of course just the uttering of the word "goggles" is enough to turn any gamer's stomach. The vaporware dream of immersive Lawnmower Man style gaming has been just that (remember Dactyl Nightmare?). The key is not just making the gimmicky glasses, but creating smart games that support it.

Virtual Sex Suit

Having grown up in Tampa, I can personally attest to the uncanny level of weirdness that comes out out that town and state. Freaky Florida at its best. Exhibit A: the strange case of the stolen virtual sex bot.

Kevin Alderman, whom AP describes as a "46-year-old entrepreneur," wrote some code - in the scripting language of the Second Life virtual world - that allows residents to animate their avatars in a variety of sexual positions. Now he's suing the person behind an avatar named Volkov Catteneo for allegedly busting open the copy-protection and selling the randy wares on the Second Life black market.

Yes, this is funny: the sort of stuff you'd read in a Kurt Vonnegut novel. But of course it's also sort of a big deal. As virtual worlds grow more sophisticated, the stuff users are creating is maturing in tune. That means there will be more cases of piracy and theft, with more money at stake. The article quotes an intellectual-property attorney who says, "Virtually every aspect of real life is getting duplicated, and all the laws that can be applied to the real world are being applied in 'Second Life."

BioShock: Halo Killer?

The other day, I got my copy of the new game BioShock. It was bad timing. My wife was going out for the night, leaving me home with plenty of time to play. And I played. What a game! I'd seen it a few weeks before at E3, but several hours of hands-on action gave me a new perspective/feel. This is one of the most original shooters ever, and raises the bar for the genre. Halo 3 take note.

So much for the usual bombed-out cityscapes and narrow corridors. The game takes place in an underwater utopia-turned-dystopia that's Citizen Kane meets Atlantis .(with a twisted dose of Alice in Wonderland thrown in). A wealthy mogul tried to build a submerged paradise that, of course, went horribly awry. Now biologically-enhanced mutants rule the domain. Yeah, you've got the guns and health packs, but you also can slam a hypodermic needle into your palm and launch plasma bolts from your fingertips. Cool. All-in-all, a completely original spin on the splattercore titles we're used to. The best games don't just work your adrenal glands, they transport you into a world you've never seen. BioShock transports.

Xbox Feels the Heat

I've blogged a few times about Microsoft's $1.8 billion screw-up - Xbox malfunctions that are causing droves of repairs.

Geeks have been wondering why/how the company could have made such an error. Now a trusty Spectrum editor points out one possible clue: an investigation by Nikkei Electronics into the Xbox 360's heat radiation system.

Could this be the culprit? Read on.

Broken, Shmoken

The New York Times has a story today about how gamers could (allegedly) care less about their faulty Xbox machines. Xbox malfunctions have become a serious problem in recent months. In fact, according to the piece, Microsoft "has set aside $1.1 billion for repairs, a figure that suggests to industry analysts that the problem could affect a third of the 11.6 million 360s already in the hands of consumers."

I'm skeptical about this story. Case in point: my buddy, Mike. His Xbox machine broke down, and rather than deal with the hassles of repair, he went out and bought a Wii. Gamers are impatient. And while some diehards will suffer repairs to play their favorite game, there's a tipping point of players who will look at the snafu as an opportunity to try out another console.

$1.1 billion for repairs?!? The story here isn't about the loyalists willing to endure the pain; fanboys are always ready to go to great lengths for their passions. The question I'd like to hear answered is: how and why a company like Microsoft could make such a gargantuan mistake.

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IEEE Spectrum’s gaming blog was retired in 2010, but it is preserved here for archival reference.

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