Image: E3 visitors at Sony booth
Robyn Beck  /  AFP - Getty Images
Visitors sample new games on Sony's PlayStation Portable at the 2006 Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, Friday.
By Denise Ono MSNBC.com producer
msnbc.com
updated 5/15/2006 3:43:54 PM ET 2006-05-15T19:43:54

At last week's Electronic Entertainment Expo, the video game industry unveiled their latest hardware and titles for the upcoming year designed to appeal to both the hard-core and casual gamer.

Sony's PlayStation 3 will join the Microsoft's Xbox 360 on store shelves this November, with Nintendo's Wii expected around the same time. Of course, these new consoles will be accompanied by dozens of new games and peripherial products.

After months of falling sales , analysts say the new machines and titles could reverse the trend. This means consumers will be expected to dig deep into their pocketbooks this holiday shopping season.

PlayStation 3, with a hefty price tag of $499 and $599, will go head-to-head with the $299 and $399 Xbox 360s. Both consoles support HDTV and next generation disk drives (PlayStation 3 will ship with Blu-Ray drives, HD DVD drives will be available for the Xbox 360 this fall).

Wii won't support next generation graphics, but will feature unique point-and-move wireless controllers designed to be more friendly to the non-gamer. Nintendo's Vice President of Marketing Perrin Kaplan said her company is more concerned about creating good game experiences than just showing high-end graphics. She argues that the Wii will be strong enough to do the job. "Why build a rocket ship when you can make a Ferrari?" she asked.

Online expansion
Microsoft announced that the Xbox Live service would expand beyond their console to mobile phones and PCs running Windows Vista. In addition, some games will allow players to compete in cross-platform matches.

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Sony also said it would expand PlayStation's to include features similar to the Xbox Live service, including player profiles, friends lists, messaging and additional game content for free or purchase. Nintendo said Wii would be connected to the Internet constantly for content downloads and other features, but did not go into details about the actual service.

Untapped market
In addition to the traditional console and PC titles, many software firms unveiled titles for mobile phones.

Image: Final Fantasy for mobile phones.
Square Enix
Heroes battle a monster in this screenshot of Final Fantasy for mobile phones.
Square Enix showed off several titles including the original Final Fantasy game and Space Invaders 3D. Namco demonstrated such 80s classics as Pac Man, Pole Position and Dig Dug. Nintendo's Kaplan acknowledged that her company was in the early stages of talks with Verizon Wireless.

With an estimated market of 200 to 300 million players, according to Beatrice Spaine, Pogo.com's marketing director, the industry is taking notice of the so-called “casual gamer” audience. Spaine says 14 million players visit her site each month, and they tend to stay online much longer than the average Web surfer.

Peter Blacklow, marketing chief for Skilljam, a company that hosts casual games tournaments, said “AOL tells us that the third most popular activity (on their service) after e-mail and instant messaging is playing games online.”

According to Rick Weil, president of Skilljam's owner, Fun Technologies, there are more people playing the smaller titles than the larger games. However, he said the industry tracks revenue by box sales, so the retail games tend to get more attention.

Nintendo said it wants to appeal to hard-core gamers, as well as former and non-gamers. As part of this strategy, every title in the company's library over the past 20 years will be downloadable to the Wii. Puzzles and classic arcade games are already available on the Xbox 360 via download from “Live Arcade.”

Nintendo also said it would continue offering games on their handheld systems, such as Brain Age and Nintendogs, that challenge the industry's norms.

Keeping touch with the base
Of course, the hard-core audience won't soon be forgotten. Among the familiar games scheduled for release for computers and consoles in the next year are “Halo 3,” “Final Fantasy XIII,” “Grand Theft Auto 4,” “Metal Gear Solid 4,” “Enemy Territory: Quake Wars,” “Rainbow Six Vegas” and “Neverwinter Nights 2.”

Fans at the show were also quite enthusiastic about several new titles including; “Hellgate: London,” “Resistance: Fall of Man,” “Justice League Heroes,” “Too Human” and “Scarface.”

Massively-Multiplayer gamers will have their choice of dozens of titles including expansion packs for “World of Warcraft” and “Everquest II,” and new titles like “Vanguard,” “Huxley,” “Gods & Heroes,” “Tabula Rasa,” “Test Drive Unlimited” and “Archlord.”

Unfortunately, most of these titles are scheduled for release this fall, once again leaving the gamer or parent with the difficult dilemma of choice. Prepare to spend big.

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