Microsoft Corp. will get the jump on Sony this Saturday by introducing the next-generation Xbox 360 in its rival's backyard, but winning over Japan's notoriously finicky video game fans will be an uphill battle for the American interloper.
Microsoft is still smarting from the failure of its original Xbox in Japan, the world's second-biggest video game market after the United States and a realm long dominated by Sony Corp.'s PlayStation. This time it's determined to break into the stronghold.
Part of its strategy is beating Sony to stores. While the Japanese electronics giant is working on a new PlayStation 3, it won't go on sale until next year. Microsoft hopes the Xbox 360's earlier release will convert hard-core gamers who can't wait that long.
Xbox 360 debuted last month in the United States to winding lines of wide-eyed fans, store-aisle brawls to snag machines and top billing on Christmas wish lists. The Japan launch begins with a countdown party at 6:45 a.m. Saturday in Tokyo's trendy Shibuya district.
"Microsoft has big expectations this time," said Eiji Maeda, an analyst at Daiwa Institute of Research. "They should do much better than with the first Xbox, and PlayStation stands a the chance of losing market share."
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Since the first Xbox went on sale three years ago, Microsoft has sold 21.9 million machines globally — but only 1.8 million in Asia, including Japan. By contrast, Sony has sold 91 million PlayStation 2 consoles in the last five years, 21 million of them in Asia. PlayStation accounts for about 80 percent of the Japanese market game console, Xbox around 5 percent.
Redmond, Wash.-based Microsoft hasn't set an Xbox 360 sales goal in Japan. But Microsoft Chief Executive Steve Ballmer said last month while visiting Tokyo he is "100 percent" sure the new model will outsell its predecessor. Worldwide, the company is aiming to ship between 2.75 million and 3 million machines within 90 days of the U.S. launch.
Given Xbox's paltry market share in Japan, there's only room to grow. That means big money in a hardware and software market worth up to 600 billion yen, or $4.96 billion, according to Maeda.
The Xbox 360 will sell for 37,900 yen in Japan, or about $313, less than the $399.99 charged in the U.S. It costs 399.99 euros in Europe, where it was released on Dec. 2. It will be available Feb. 24 in South Korea and March 2 in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan.
Part of the problem with the first Xbox in Japan was the lack of role-playing fantasy games, which are favored here over the shoot-'em-up arcade-style games that proved big Xbox hits in the United States.
Microsoft has made a point this time of signing on designers popular here to make games exclusive for Xbox 360, such as "Final Fantasy XI." Microsoft is planning to release 10 titles in December and has 100 in development.
"We had missteps that we wont repeat," said Asako Miyata, an Xbox spokeswoman in Tokyo. She added that the new streamlined, off-white console was designed partly by Japanese teams to appeal to Japanese tastes.
Japanese were also turned off by the first Xbox's tendency to scratch disks, a problem that didn't affect the game's performance but was viewed as a symptom of shoddy craftsmanship. It is unclear how they might react to reported problems in the Xbox 360 that cause it to crash in the middle of games.
Molly O'Donnell, a U.S.-based spokeswoman for Microsoft's Xbox division, has acknowledged there are a few reports of consoles not working perfectly, but said that's "what you would expect with a consumer electronics instrument of this complexity."
At the console's heart is a 3.2 gigahertz IBM-designed PowerPC microprocessor with three cores — or tiny computing engines — that run simultaneously. The unit has 512 megabytes of memory, eight times more than the original Xbox.
Tokyo-based Sony has not yet announced a price or a date for the release for the PlayStation 3, but its machine will be powered by a new computer chip called "cell" that Sony says will also drive digital electronics products in the works. The PlayStation 3 will also use the next generation video format called Blu-ray Disk.
Nintendo Co., which makes Super Mario video games and GameBoy Advance handheld machines, will also face off against its bigger competitors with its new Revolution machine sometime in 2006.
Nintendo's fate looms as a bad precedent for Sony. It was once the top player with its Family Computer, or Famicom, in the 1980s. Its GameCube now trails PlayStation 2 and Xbox with worldwide sales of about 18.8 million.