Cybernaut 

Microsoft bids for game superiority

In the console market, the Microsoft Xbox is in the basement with a total of about 14 million units sold to date, and every single one of those systems was sold at a loss – and the cut is getting deeper and deeper and Microsoft announced plans to shave another $30 US off the price of a console to $149 US.

Even the Nintendo GameCube is doing better, despite the fact that it’s totally underpowered compared to the competition, and doesn’t double as a DVD player. There are now more than 15 million GameCube’s on the market, and it’s outselling the competition with a low price of $99 US.

The Sony Playstation 2 is still the king with over 70 million units in circulation around the world.

But Microsoft has an ace up its sleeve, not to mention more than $60 billion of mad money in the bank for times like these.

The next generation Xbox 2 is expected to hit the shelves in late 2005. They have the jump on Playstation 3, which is not expected to hit the market until mid-2006. The Nintendo GameCube 2 is expected late 2005 or early 2006, and is expected to be a much more capable with an IBM CPU, NEC’s DRAM memory and a DVD player.

Getting the jump on the competition is a smooth move for Microsoft, but that’s just the icing on the cake. The cake itself is something more substantial as the Redmond, Washington-based company – already world famous for its anti-competitive practices – seeks to corner the game production software industry with a new set of tools. It’s safe to assume that these tools wouldn’t work on Playstation 3 or GameCube 2 consoles.

This week Microsoft unveiled a new software development platform that promises to cut the costs and time associated with game development by automating a lot of the coding.

The new platform is called XNA.

"Software will be the single most important force in digital entertainment over the next decade," said Microsoft founder, chief executive and chief software architect Bill Gates. "XNA underscores Microsoft’s commitment to the game industry and our desire to work with partners to take the industry to the next level."

It currently costs around $10 million to develop the average game, although the leading titles can exceed $50 million. With more than 100 million consoles out there and games selling for $50 to $80 Canadian, the more popular titles can make hundreds of millions and sometimes billions of dollars. The game industry as a whole does better than Hollywood.

Microsoft is betting that game developers will embrace XNA to cut their costs and development times – some games do flop – and that XNA will enable more smaller companies with good ideas but little capital to enter the gaming market.

XNA will also create a PC standard that will enable Xbox and PC users to play the same games online. The Xbox joystick will also be able to be used on PC’s.

It’s a bold gamble for market share, and if Microsoft is successful then their competition in the console market better do some quick thinking if they want to stay in the game. Playstation 3 and GameCube 2 better be damn good.

Psychiatric couch potatoes

Speaking of games, the University of Quebec is looking seriously at the potential of using video games and virtual reality worlds to treat debilitating phobias, empowering patients while offering a cheaper and more enjoyable alternative to the shrink.

Virtual Reality equipment is already used to help people face their fears, such as the fear of flying and the fear of wide open spaces. People who are social recluses or are battling addictions have been steered into Internet chat rooms for years where they are encouraged to converse anonymously with strangers and join support groups.

The idea to use video games to tackle fears is the next step. A fraction of the cost of VR machines, PC games may be just as effective for some patients.

Two of the games currently used are Half Life, where killing spiders helps people battle arachnophobia, and Unreal Tournament, which is used to treat people with a fear of heights or claustrophobia. Both games allow users to create levels and custom tournaments that relate to specific phobias.

The experience really comes to life with the use of head-mounted displays and head-tracking sensors that are already available to hardcore video game junkies.

Now gamers can add "therapy" to their long list of self-justifications, along with hand-eye-co-ordination, logic and brain development, and memory skills.

Game Over all about the cameos

While we’re still on the subject of games, may I draw your attention to a new television show on UPN called Game Over. The same network that brought us Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Mullets, America’s Next Top Model, and 80 different shows featuring Wayan’s siblings, and a whole lot of wrestling has introduced a new 3D computer-animated sitcom called Game Over.

The show is all about the Smashenburns family, a group of cast members from various video games, and the world they live in when they’re off-duty. The parents, Rip and Raquel Smashenburn, are voiced capably by Seinfeld’s Puddy, Pattrick Warburton, and Charlie’s Angel Lucy Lui, and the plot lines mix traditional sitcom stories with video game culture.

The highlight for many gamers, however, will be the cameo appearances from well-known video game characters. Crash Bandicoot, Abe from "Abe’s Odyssey", has already appeared, and rumour has it that Lara Croft will appear in a future episode.

Game Over (www.upn.com/shows/game_over/) is on Friday’s at 8 p.m.

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