May 15, 2003 10:05 PM PDT

Crystal ball hazy for game machines

LOS ANGELES--A trio of new video game consoles will hit the market sometime this decade, but don't expect any details on the next generation of game machines from this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo trade show.

Game machines typically work in five-year product cycles. With Sony introducing its current PlayStation 2 machine in 2000, that means it'll be at least two more years before a successor is due. And nobody's likely to say "boo" before then, for fear of harming sales of the current generation.

Sony has even started to back off the one bit of information everyone thought they knew about the next PlayStation. Japanese executives have recently made statements indicating the Cell processor--the cutting-edge chip being developed by Sony, IBM and Toshiba--may be too expensive and too late to market for the next PlayStation.

Kaz Hirai, president of Sony Computer Entertainment America, declined to offer any clarification. "We're working on the Cell, making a big investment on that technology," Hirai said. "But where that chip is ultimately going to end up is up in the air at this point."

Hirai said that while Sony is obviously working on a new console, his priority is to keep the PlayStation 2 going. "We've built the PS2 into a very exciting platform, and we still have a lot of room to grow that business," he said.

Nintendo and Microsoft were equally vague about what their next-generation consoles will look like. The one thing fairly certain--competing consoles will come out before or shortly after any move by Sony, which had a one-year lead over both competitors in the current console cycles.

"We came out later than we would have liked," Perrin Kaplan, vice president of marketing for Nintendo of America, said of the company's GameCube console. "I don't think it mattered against (Microsoft's) Xbox. But being a year behind Sony gave them such a lead it was always their race."

Jeff Brown, a vice president at leading games publisher Electronic Arts, said Microsoft and Nintendo have to be ready to launch new console in 2005, even though Sony may try to squeeze another year out of the PS2.

"Sony can pretty much call the shots," Brown said. "They may decide to wait until 2006. Their new handheld player is going to draw a lot of attention, and that could breathe a little more life into PS2."

Meanwhile, EA and other publishers keep track of all the clues about what will go into the next round of consoles. "We've got 30 guys working on the next PlayStation, Xbox and Nintendo console," Brown said. "None of them have sent us anything yet, but we read all the white papers, keep track of the research. We have to be ready when we've got something to work with."

 

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