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At E3, two different visions of game utopia

As Sony and Microsoft tout the graphics capabilities of their next-generation game consoles, Nintendo says it wants to bring people who don't play games into the fold.
Nintendo General Manager Miyamoto displays Wii remote control device at Electronic Entertainment Expo in Hollywood
Nintendo executive and "Legend of Zelda" creator Shigeru Miyamoto shows off the new "Wii" control device in Hollywood, Tuesday.Robert Galbraith / Reuters

LOS ANGELES — As the top two game console makers, Sony and Microsoft, tout the muscle and graphics capabilities of their next-generation game consoles at the Electronics Entertainment Expo this week in Los Angeles, No. 3 Nintendo offered a different message with its latest offering, the Wii.

Nintendo says it wants to expand the gaming industry by going after an untapped market: people who don’t play video games.

According to Nintendo President Satoru Iwata, the challenge is to break down the barrier between the core game fan and the non-gamer. One of the biggest barriers is the controller.

“It’s no longer just about looks, it’s about feel,” Nintendo of America’s marketing chief Reggie Fils-Aime told a highly enthusiastic crowd at a news conference in Hollywood on Tuesday.

While Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's PlayStation 3 feature controllers very similar to their earlier versions, Nintendo’s Wii takes a radical turn — a stick-like device that translates the player’s motions in game.

For instance, in a baseball game, instead of the player pushing buttons to swing the bat, he or she simply swings the controller. A secondary device can be held in the other hand for more advanced controls.

Iwata also said his company wants to bring former players into the fold by making games from previous Nintendo machines available on the Wii via download. Xbox already has a similar feature available, called Xbox Live Arcade.

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Not leaving out the core game audience, Nintendo also said that familiar titles, such as "Legend of Zelda," "Metroid Prime" and "Mario" will also be part of the Wii launch lineup.

Fils-Aime explained that the name “Wii” (pronounced “we”) is meant to indicate inclusion. “It attracts all kinds of new players, and satisfies the hard-core gamers,” he said.

Nintendo’s “gaming for everyone” approach is a departure from the usual new-console strategy of appealing to the traditional early adopter gamer. But it's a challenge they say they're ready to take on.

Gaming everywhere
At a separate news conference later in the day, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates also noted the industry's need to reach beyond traditional gamers, and introduced "Viva Pinata," a title geared towards children.

He also said that non-game content, such as music videos, movie trailers and high-definition television shows, would be available through Xbox Live Marketplace. On Monday, Sony announced that players would be able to purchase additional game content through their online service.

But Microsoft's biggest announcement was one likely to appeal most to hard-core gamers: a new online gaming service that will expand Xbox Live beyond the console to Windows Vista computers and Windows Mobile smart phones.

Players will be able to communicate cross-platform with each other, and will even compete from different devices. In one example shown, two players, one on a PC and one on an Xbox 360, competed against each other in a virtual gun fight. Many future titles will be released both on Xbox 360 and Windows Vista, Gates said.

Sony held its pre-E3 news conference on Monday, and mostly focused on hardware specifications and upcoming game titles, with very little information about strategy. Of course, Sony already has 64 percent market share — so it's less in need of a bold new vision than either of its rivals.

Sony has market share on its side, and the Xbox 360 has a head start — it will be celebrating its one-year anniversary by the time the Wii and PlayStation 3 hit store shelves this fall. But the Wii, which is the only one of the three that will not feature high-definition graphics, is expected to be much cheaper.

While Nintendo did not announce a price on Tuesday, Fils-Aime said Wii will “provide more fun for less money” and industry speculation has suggested a price of around $249. Sony said Monday that the two versions of PlayStation 3 will retail for $499 and $599. The two versions of Xbox 360 are priced at $299 and $399.

Those prices, plus the possible appeal of Nintendo's all-inclusive strategy, are sure to be a big factor in purchasing decisions this holiday season.