Playstation 2

Xbox 360 Vs. Playstation 3: Round 2

Andrew Vestal

In the arsenal of any console maker, it’d be a terrifying weapon. Capcom’s Resident Evil 5, sequel to the GameCube-only early-2005 horror hit that’s still our front-runner for Game of the Year, has just shown its rotting face in Japan (see page 20). But instead of livening up the library of one system as an enticing exclusive, it’s hitting two: Microsoft’s Xbox 360 (which is out this fall) and Sony’s PlayStation 3 (due no earlier than spring 2006). Strange—Japanese developers usually shy away from ands, instead focusing only on exclusives. But this surprising new stance reveals a lot regarding the Japanese front of the next-generation console war.

Live from Tokyo

For the big picture, we turn to two recent Tokyo conferences thrown by Sony and Microsoft to flesh out their next-gen plans for the Japanese market. We’ve already seen some of what the companies have in store for us here. Both the Xbox 360’s and PS3’s splashy debuts at Los Angeles’ E3 games conference back in May had decidedly Western orientations—understandable, as North America has grown to become the largest of the three major gaming markets (North America, Japan, and Europe). Still, Japan and its star developers are widely perceived as important and influential participants in the next-gen race. “A lot of baseball fans right here [in Japan] think that their players only become world-class when they succeed in the American major leagues,” says Xbox Corporate Vice President Peter Moore. “What you need to know is that a lot of Americans and Europeans feel the same way about how a console does in the Japanese major gaming leagues.” While Sony already has that success, Microsoft craves it.

Acceptance from Japanese developers and consumers eluded the original Xbox. Microsoft has realized that no amount of marketing or Western acclaim will turn games like Halo or Project Gotham Racing into Japanese success stories. Only Japanese software can do that. “We have been taught lessons that only the world’s most developed gaming market can teach,” said Moore. And Microsoft’s conference made it clear that the company won’t give up Japan without a fight. Though no single Xbox 360 title established itself as a must have for Japanese gamers, the breadth of its Japanese support is still impressive. “Today,” said a beaming Moore, “I am proud to say that every major third-party publisher right here in Japan is committed to supplying games to Xbox 360.”

Microsoft swallowed its pride and hit the street, winning Japanese support for the 360 one developer and one project at a time. Many developers announced projects in the early stages. Heavy-hitters Capcom and Konami, for instance, promised an original game each, Namco touted a new role-playing game from the staff behind the popular Tales series, and Bandai showed more of its shooter based on Gundam.

Sony’s game plan

After fighting for every inch (or centimeter—this is Japan) for this support, Microsoft was only too happy to tell the world about every new game and alliance it had earned. Sony, on the other hand, kept its weapons under the table. Very few games were shown at Sony’s conference, and most titles appeared only as brief technical or conceptual demonstrations. Part of the reason for this is practical: The Xbox 360 launches this fall in all three major markets, so Sony has the luxury of letting Microsoft move first, then adjusting its plans accordingly. Another part is psychological: By keeping quiet, Sony can imply that it has a lot more in the wings than it’s showing. Several mondo Japanese franchises—Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest, Onimusha, Devil May Cry, Tekken, Virtua Fighter, Soul Calibur, to name a few—have yet to swing exclusively to a next-generation system. If Sony can keep all or most of these franchises on PS3, then the company’s continued Japanese dominance is assured. The multiplatform announcement of Resident Evil 5, however, proves that almost anything is possible as the next generation looms.

In many ways, Capcom’s marquee zombie title is a poster child for next-generation game development. Its multiplatform debut stems not from a newfound sense of fair play, but from the simple economics of creating a triple-A game. Next-generation titles the quality of Resident Evil 5 will cost tens of millions of dollars and be made by teams of well over 100 people. To recoup this investment, a game has to reach the largest audience possible, period. Even if the Xbox 360 barely cracks Japan, it will still likely take a big chunk out of the North American and European markets. Japanese developers can’t afford to miss out on global customers, so they’re hedging their bets now.

New rules

In fact, the rising cost and challenges of next-generation development were major themes of both presentations. Microsoft, always one to push its software advantage, was touting XNA, its unified Xbox/PC development platform designed to streamline the Xbox 360 development process. Even Sony, which never met a stat it couldn’t graph, eschewed its usual number crunching to focus on the affordability of Epic’s Unreal 3 engine (demoed by Epic Technical Director Tim Sweeny himself) and strategic alliances with Havok and Ageia, physics middleware providers. Impressively, Sony is not only including Havok and Ageia with all PS3 development kits, but will provide “frontline support” for the Japanese market. For a variety of cultural and financial reasons, Japanese developers have been slow to adopt middleware in the past. With next-generation hardware, however, all but the very largest developers will need to swallow their pride and accept a degree of outside help. Both hardware companies are doing everything in their power to make this transition as painless as possible.

For now, at least, the Japanese industry is in a holding pattern. Sony, the dominant force, expects to remain dominant. Microsoft, the scrappy stranger in a strange land, is hungry for a piece of the action. But as Peter Moore put it, “In our business, things can change faster than some entrenched business interests would like.”

A little more than 10 years ago, the PlayStation was just a gleam in inventor Ken Kutaragi’s eye. Nowadays, the American videogame market is nearly twice the size of the Japanese market, making it a force that cannot be ignored. Along with some interesting games, the two conferences have given us our first glimpse of Japan’s answer to these exciting times.

Copyright © 2005 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in Electronic Gaming Monthly.

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