At the Toys "R" Us across the street from the "TRL" studios in New York's Times Square is a Wii banner so huge it overshadows the giant Ferris wheel inside the front door. Log onto YouTube and you can watch the first American commercials for PlayStation 3.
It's about that time.
One month from Tuesday (October 17), PlayStation 3 will arrive in stores in North America. Two days later, the Wii will go on sale. When those consoles hit the streets, how much will gaming change? And what questions about the new machines still need to be answered before then?
In the next month a few things are sure to happen. For starters, Sony will show a little more of its hand at a PS3 press event happening this week in San Francisco. Look for the company to finally reveal what games will launch with the system on November 17. Also in line for an unveiling is the system's online service, which Sony has promised will trump Xbox Live but has yet to publicly show in action.
Another sure thing: In less than a month, games for PS3 and Wii will come out, with no systems sold to play them on. It happens every launch. "Super Monkey Ball" came out for GameCube before that console was released. Activision's "Call of Duty 2" for the Xbox 360 preceded the 360 itself by a week.
During the next month the secrecy about these systems will suffer a few more fractures. Whatever information the manufacturers haven't wanted gamers to know will start leaking out. Expect this to happen as Sony and Nintendo supply reporters with finished systems, possibly as little as a few days before launch. Getting a system in hand can swiftly reveal the unflattering angles previous PR-driven showcases of a console have been designed to hide. Last year, for example, few people realized just how space-consuming the Xbox 360 would be until late in the pre-launch window, when people finally got the console and its brick-size power adapter. The blind spots the media have about the two new systems will soon be filled. Will the Wii controller turn out to have a miserable battery life? Will the PS3 make more noise than the reigning lawn mower of consoles, the Xbox 360?
Microsoft will hope the Xbox 360 makes a lot of noise come one month from now. The company's short-term mission is to remind people that it's in the race. The best way it can do so is with "Gears of War," the system's premiere game for 2006. The duck-and-cover space-marine shooter ships five days before PS3, and Microsoft would like to get a new "Halo" from this game.
The company's other weapon of mass distraction may be Xbox Live Arcade, the 360's service for downloading games. Digital distribution enables last-minute surprises — last month, Microsoft threw the original "Doom" up there for download the same day the company announced it was coming. Could Microsoft have something in store?
Eventually November 17 will arrive. The mainstream non-gaming media will descend, repeating the formula of its coverage of the Xbox 360 and PSP launches: marveling that people — guys, mostly — want a new gaming machine so bad that they'll skip work to camp out and spend a paycheck to bring it home.
Launch day will also trigger reports of mechanical failure. Some of the new consoles will break down. Most will work fine, but a minority will have problems. The issue may afflict both consoles, but history suggests the PS3 will be more prone. A sliver of Sony gaming machines tend to spark and sputter at launch. Most recently, a significant minority of launch PSPs suffered from dead pixels in the U.S. and malfunctioning buttons in Japan. Each problem was eventually addressed by the company, but only after enough people complained.
The PS3 and Wii will surely sell out, but that won't indicate if either is a winner. Even the consoles that never really take off make impressive smoke at launch. The Nintendo 64 set sales records when it came out in fall 1996 and promised a pace better than the previous year's launching PlayStation. But the N64 never quite did catch up to the PSOne. Its momentum slowed, and it fell far short. If the Wii or the PS3 are going to be a long-term debacle, it won't be clear in the short term.
So what exactly can be determined right at launch? By day two of a console's existence, the landscape of gaming can register some important developments. In 2001 it took just days — maybe even mere hours — after the Xbox's launch for it to become clear that Microsoft had a blockbuster in "Halo" and the likely new dorm-room multiplayer staple. Nintendo surely hopes a similar revelation will occur with hours of the public's first hands-on experiences with the Wii's packed-in game "Wii Sports." But it is the PS3's first-person-shooter "Resistance: Fall of Man," that, by nature of being a multiplayer first-person shooter, has the best chance of following the "Halo" model.
Those focused on the impact of the fall's two new consoles might easily overlook another major autumn gaming event: the expected sales surge of the PS2. Not even down to the magic $99 price point yet, Sony's seven-year-old console still has a lot of life left in it. The system has a blockbuster-in-waiting with next year's "God of War II." It also has the likely support of publishers interested in making some sure sales on the cheaper development platform of PS2 to offset any big investments they're spending making games for PS3.
The biggest development to look for beyond the Wii and PS3 launches might be the most exciting one of them all: the next revolution in game development. No one knows exactly what it will be, but consider the past decade of gaming. Each of the last two generations of consoles lasted about half a decade. And each time the defining game of the generation emerged after the first year passed by. In 1995 Sega launched a new American console generation with its Saturn console. But it wasn't until 1996's "Super Mario 64" on the Nintendo 64, 17 months later, that it became clear that the next half-decade would be all about making games in three dimensions. Sega jump-started the generation after Saturn with 1999's Dreamcast. Thirteen months later "Grand Theft Auto III" emerged on the PS2, auguring an age of gritty, edgy games designed for free-roaming, wide-open to play. The new gaming generation began last November, with the launch of the Xbox 360. It is now in month 11. It wouldn't be unreasonable to expect the next lightning flash some time in the following 12.
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