Wednesday, November 14, 2001

Big makers, addict players set to rumble

Computer game holiday slugfest about to begin

By Anne D'Innocenzio
The Associated Press

        NEW YORK — Let the console game wars begin.

        With Microsoft's much-anticipated Xbox due in stores Thursday, followed by Nintendo's GameCube three days later, this holiday season is looking to become a hard-core gamer's dream.

[photo] Will Rogers, 17, of New Haven, Conn., plays a game on Nintendo's GameCube during a pre-release party in New York on Friday.
(Associated Press photo)
| ZOOM |
        In a slumping economy, the nation's retailers are counting on the new consoles to drive overall traffic into their stores and hoping a sizzling video game market will fuel holiday sales.

        The two hot new entries, their near simultaneous launch a first for the $20 billion video game industry, enter a free-for-all competition for consumers' dollars with the reigning leader, Sony Corp.'s year-old PlayStation2.

        Microsoft and Nintendo are set to release more than a million consoles each this holiday, and clearly there are not enough to go around for everyone who wants an Xbox or GameCube.

        “It's one of the few situations for holiday where demand will far exceed supply,” said Kurt Barnard, a retail consultant. “For those who want one, you are going to have to get up very early.”

        Brian Nugent, a 22-year-old game addict from Hackensack, N.J., tried and failed to pre-order an Xbox online.

        “At first I wasn't sure what I wanted, but now I'm going for Xbox first,” he said. Mr. Nugent still plans to buy GameCube — at a later date — once the game portfolio is broadened.

Microsoft's Xbox
        So he planned to head early Thursday to a store — which he declined to name for “competitive reasons” — in Englewood, N.J., to snatch one.

        Retailers are carefully trying to avoid the consumer frustration and lost sales of 13 months ago, when Sony ended up halving its original PlayStation2 allotment, leaving many stores in a tough spot.

        “Merchants are trying to strike a balance between creating hype and meeting customer demand,” said P.J. McNealy, senior analyst at Gartner G2.

        Some retailers, such as Toys R Us, have done very few pre-sales so as not to disappoint walk-in customers, said company president John Eyler. And is being “extra vigilant” in keeping customers informed about the availability of consoles on its Web site, said company spokeswoman Jeanne Meyer.

        Retailers have also trained sales staff on the differences among the three consoles — and worked to get some test-drive consoles from manufacturers for consumer sampling.

        The consoles target a varied crowd.

        The core customer base for the $199 GameCube is those under 20 years old; the majority of its games at launch are kid-friendly. Meanwhile, Xbox and PlayStation2, each priced at $299, seek to attract the 18-to-34-year-old market. Xbox is the only console with a built-in hard drive and a plug for high-speed Internet access. Those features are external add-ons in the PlayStation2.

        The PlayStation2, which has shipped more than 20 million units worldwide, was aimed at so-called early technology adopters and now wants to broaden its reach, marketing down to age 13, said Sony spokeswoman Molly Smith.

        Demand is already surging on the Web for the two new consoles. and Kmart's in recent weeks have done several advanced online sales of GameCube and Xbox, selling out within minutes. Neither company would disclose sales numbers. And already, hundreds of units of both consoles are listed for sale on the eBay online auction house.

        Nintendo, which originally set the GameCube launch for Nov. 8, postponed it to ensure 700,000 machines in the initial shipment — and 1.1 million by year's end, the company says.

        For its part, Microsoft announced in September a one-week delay of the Xbox's U.S. release. It won't say how many units will be available Thursday.

        Previously, the company had said it would ship 600,000 to 800,000 machines for the original launch. Instead, the company aims to sell 1 million to 1.5 million by year's end, John O'Rourke, director of Xbox sales and marketing, said.

        Xbox had been plagued with talk of production problems, but Mr. O'Rourke said the company was on track.

        Meanwhile, Sony is ramping up its PlayStation2 production with the goal of having 30 million units worldwide — one-third of them in North America — by the end of March, Sony's Ms. Smith said.

        PlayStation2 has about 175 titles. Xbox will have about 15 to 20 available games at launch, while Nintendo's GameCube will have as many as 15 games at launch.

        Key to success for each of the game makers is controlling how the machines are marketed and sold.

        Nintendo is shipping GameCubes to 15,000 U.S. stores and says it is controlling through advanced sales up to 60 percent of what it will distribute on the first day. Microsoft is shipping consoles to 10,000 stores, but won't comment on advanced sales.

        Electronics Boutique planned a midnight Wednesday Xbox launch in its EBX stores in San Francisco and in Redmond, Wash. And Toys R Us plans was offering 5,000 Xbox consoles on a first-come, first-served basis in a midnight launch at its new Times Square store. hasn't announced exactly when it will put Xbox and GameCube on sale. Ms. Meyer said the timing would be reported in a subscriber-only online newsletter.

        Wal-Mart didn't plan any special launches, and was to sell consoles on a first-come, first-served basis. Company spokeswoman Suzanne Decker suggested consumers check with their local store.

       The /TINA FINEBERG GameCube is to go on sale beginning Sunday.
       The Associated Press/TINA FINEBERG “Wave Race: Blue Storm” is among games to be available on Nintendo's GameCube, being played by Matthew Chao, 14, of Bloomfield, N.J.


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