Xbox ships in November with games galore

Microsoft's much-hyped, much-anticipated Xbox game console will launch on November 8 with a selling price of $US299.

          It's going to be an Xbox holiday season. At least that's Microsoft's plan. November 8 is the scheduled launch date of its much-hyped, much-anticipated game console, with a selling price of $US299.

          Microsoft expects to launch 15 to 20 games that same day, from its in-house developers as well as partners, says Robbie Bach, Microsoft's chief Xbox officer. In all, designers are working on more than 80 games for the console, he says. The company made its announcement here today before the start of E3, the video gaming industry's largest conference.

          Not only is Microsoft planning to ship its box well before the holidays, the company intends to supply enough to meet initial demand. Microsoft expects to ship 600,000 to 800,000 units by the November 8 North America launch. That's 50% more units than Sony Computer Entertainment shipped of the PlayStation 2 for its launch, he says. Sony continues to have problems meeting demand for the PlayStation. Microsoft targets release of 1 to 1.5 million units through the holiday season, Bach says.

          Cool Demos, a Few Glitches

          Microsoft trotted out a number of well-known game developers to demonstrate the power of its new game console, which industry experts predict will challenge Sony's PlayStation 2 and Nintendo's new GameCube console for dominance in your living room. Of course, neither competitor is standing still; Nintendo today declared it will beat Microsoft to launch by releasing its new console on November 5. Nintendo did not name a price.

          Some Xbox game demonstrations even drew gasps of appreciation from attendees. However, some questioned why some developers showed off the best-looking games as pre-rendered videos instead of demonstrating them in real time.

          Lorne Lanning of OddWorld Inhabitants was the first developer on stage, and actually played his upcoming game, OddWorld: Munch's Oddysee. Lanning demonstrated in real time the Xbox's capability to render strong graphics while simultaneously powering multiple artificial intelligence characters.

          Improved AI lets game developers create characters with more personality, he said in his demo. "We wanted them to piss and moan--you know, be like real people."

          Realistic Rendering Promised

          Among the most striking demonstrations were those from Techmo, with its Dead or Alive 3 game, and Bungie's Halo.

          Dead is a fighting game filled with amazingly lifelike characters and particle-rendering technologies that made falling leaves, flying seagulls, and shattered glass look real. The demo drew loud applause. However, Techmo executives did not demonstrate the game in real time, showing a video instead. While the company insisted the video was shot during real-time play, skeptics wondered aloud why a video was shown, since a real-time demonstration offers a more accurate example of a system's capability to render graphics.

          Developers showed off the much-anticipated Halo--a military-style action game--in real time. The game play demonstrated some incredible environmental effects, bump-mapping details on the walls, and realistic water effects. The demo also showed the game's capability to move characters from first- to third-person action depending on the scene.

          While attendees seemed impressed with most of the demonstrations, critics questioned why game vendors played their games through an Xbox hidden from view behind a podium. While Microsoft's Bach tried to power up an actual Xbox on stage, video from the box was not displayed.

          A similar problem occurred when developers from Infogames tried to show off the console's capability to connect to the Internet for multiplayer games in its NASCAR Heat game. Despite having three players connected from different spots in the building, attendees were never shown the remote players' screens.

          Hardware Matters

          In spite of the technical glitches, it's clear the Xbox will be a powerful gaming console. The unit will include a 733-MHz Intel Pentium III processor, a 250-MHz graphics chip from NVidia, 64MB of memory, a built-in hard drive, and an Ethernet connection for broadband gaming.

          To reach a large audience, online console gaming must be easy, fast, and secure, Bach says. Most important, people don't want to have to buy extras to do it. Microsoft contends that the built-in broadband component will put the Xbox ahead of the competition online.

          Online capabilities will change the way people play games, Bach adds. Instead of choosing to play offense or defense in a two-player basketball game, players can pick which individual player they want to be. One person can be Shaq, while another player--in another city--can play Iverson, which would be an interesting height mismatch.

          And to make such games even more lifelike, Microsoft will offer a new piece of hardware that lets you actually talk during a game, without having to stop and spell it out, he said. The upcoming Xbox Communicator headset will let players speak into the game.

          "This is not about text, browsing, and e-mail, this is about gaming," Bach says.

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