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History > 2007 > USA > Videogames (I)




Bioshock screenshot

added  5.9.2007

















Virtual Bernanke

Guides 'Second Life'


September 4, 2007
Filed at 9:18 p.m. ET
The New York Times


NEW YORK (AP) -- Just before U.S. financial markets were roiled by a global credit squeeze this summer, an equally dramatic financial crisis threatened ''Second Life,'' the much-hyped online world.

On July 25, the company controlling ''Second Life'' announced that it would no longer allow gambling. Economic activity was cut by nearly half as gambling halls shut down.

That's a recipe for disaster in any economy, with job losses and a possible currency collapse, but the online world stayed on an even keel. That's in part due to the fact that few people make a living there, but also to the firm grip on its currency market by ''Second Life's'' equivalent of Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve.

It's just one example of how economists and virtual worlds are teaming up, to mutual benefit. Outside ''Second Life,'' a game company just hired its first full-time economist. Another economist, coming from the academic side, believes that just as virtual economies need economists, so economists need virtual economies -- to experiment with.

The ''Second Life'' equivalent of Bernanke is John Zdanowski. He's the chief financial officer at Linden Lab, the privately held company that runs the world. Using ''Second Life'' software, he spoke to The Associated Press as an ''avatar,'' or 3-D representation, in Linden Lab's virtual headquarters.

Before the gambling crackdown, visitors (or as the company calls them, ''residents'') exchanged about 2 million U.S. dollars a day in ''Second Life.'' That dropped to $1 million shortly after.

Gambling wasn't quite as important to the world's economy as those figures indicate, Zdanowski said. ''Second Life'' is considerably more than an online Las Vegas -- it's a place for socializing, sex games, advertising and other activities enabled by a world where residents can, with sufficient skill, create almost anything they want out of thin air.

Gambling inflated the economic activity because it meant small amounts of money changed hands relatively quickly, often several times a day, like at a poker table.

But the gambling shutdown was still a potential problem for economy, because ''Second Life'' has its own currency. The Linden dollar is convertible to U.S. dollars at an ostensibly floating exchange rate.

Losing even 10 or 20 percent of its real economy set it up for a currency crisis, as gamblers and gambling hall operators tried to cash in their gains for U.S. dollars and put their money to use elsewhere.

If the exchange rate started to plummet, remaining, non-gambling residents would also feel compelled to trade their virtual dollars for real ones, making the currency nearly worthless. Zimbabwe is currently struggling with that kind of hyperinflation. But in ''Second Life,'' that's not what happened.

''The reason it hasn't hit the exchange rate is that we were exercising one of the controls we have,'' Zdanowski said.

Noticing that residents' behavior is strongly affected by the direction of the exchange rate, Linden Lab has for more than a year put a ceiling to the value of its currency. It's done that by selling Linden dollars on the currency exchange for around 270 to the U.S. dollar, and that's where the exchange rate has stayed since then. In a year, the company has made about $5 million on this trade.

Like China, ''we basically manage the supply of our currency so that the exchange rate stays fixed against the U.S. dollar,'' Zdanowski said.

With visitors taking money out of the world because of the gambling shutdown, Linden Lab simply stopped selling its currency to compensate for the greater supply of Linden dollars for sale on the exchange.

If the supply needs to be reduced further, for instance if the popularity of ''Second Life'' starts declining, Linden Lab could introduce other measures, Zdanowski said. It could start accepting Linden dollars rather than U.S. dollars for some of the monthly fees it charges ''landowners'' in the world. That gives the company a very effective, but costly, way to soak up money.

However, Linden Lab doesn't guarantee the value of the Linden dollar -- it could simply decline to spend money to prop up the virtual currency.

Eve Online, an online science-fiction game run by CCP hf of Iceland, has avoided some of the complications of having an online currency by banning its conversion to real money. Yet the company this summer hired its first full-time economist to keep tabs on what goes on inside the game.

''My job will be to disseminate good-quality, consistent information for the player base so they can make their decisions on production and mining and market rates,'' said Eyjolfur Gudmundsson, who has a Ph.D. from the University of Rhode Island.

The game has about 200,000 players, who form corporations, organize banks and even defraud one another. Gudmundsson will be looking at whether CCP should facilitate the formation of more complex financial institutions, like banks.

He also hopes to cultivate relationships with real-world academic institutions that want to use Eve Online for their research and teaching.

''One example can be that business students always have to develop a business or strategic plan in their studies. But they very rarely get the opportunity of actually following it through. Within a virtual economy, that would be no problem,'' said Gudmundsson.

Ted Castronova, an economist at Indiana University in Bloomington, is working on a related project: a virtual world based on the works of William Shakespeare, to be used as a ''sandbox'' to try different ideas in economy, sociology and political science.

In contrast to sciences like physics and medicine, where research is based on experiments, ''in the social sciences, we have endless argument, with nobody every coming to firm conclusions'' about large-scale things like the best way to run a country, said Castronova.

''There's nothing but fighting about stuff like `how high should the overall income tax rate be for an entire economy?' No one has done controlled experiments on that question.''

Castronova envisions running two or more copies of ''Arden: The World of William Shakespeare'' and varying conditions slightly between them to study the differences. For instance, he believes the worlds could be used to study the effect of money supply on interest rates.

''I think virtual worlds make it possible that in the next three or four hundred years we could see advances in social science like we've seen in the natural sciences in the past 300 years,'' Castronova said.

Funded by a MacArthur Foundation ''genius'' grant, ''Arden'' is in its early testing stages. Among its economically focused characters is, of course, Shylock, the Merchant of Venice.


On the Net:



Synthetic Worlds Initiative at Indiana University: http://swi.indiana.edu

Virtual Bernanke Guides 'Second Life',
NYT, 4.9.2007,
aponline/technology/AP-Business-of-Life.html - broken link






Inside IT

Real moral choices

in virtual game worlds

Unstructured, open-ended play
gives gamers a great deal of choice
about how to behave in videogames
- but is that a good thing?


Thursday August 16 2007
The Guardian
Alexander Gambotto-Burke


BioShock, the forthcoming game from Irrational, deals in moral ambiguities in a way that is both graphical and thoughtful.

Just over 10 years ago, the edge in emotive, immersive and cinematic game design was the FMV (full-motion video) game. Constructing its complicated gameplay sequences out of live-action footage, these movie/game hybrids had a distinct advantage over their pixellated peers: they looked fantastic because their visuals were sourced from the real world.

Things have changed. The obvious pitfall of this type of game - completely static, restrictive, and linear gameplay thanks to expensive, prerecorded footage - is now anathema. Gamers want to make their own choices about how to interact with their virtual worlds.




Emergent strategies

Ken Levine, president of Irrational Games, has been working to meet the needs of gamers since 1999, when it released System Shock 2. This game is the prime example of what Levine calls "emergent gameplay" - very little is pre-scripted, most parts of the game can play out in any order, and players are free to come up with their own strategies for dealing with enemies and obstacles. It's an immensely satisfying format, because players feels as though their choices matter. Irrational is now hard at work on BioShock, SS2's "spiritual successor".

"The problem when you build emergent spaces," Levine says, "is that the amount of testing and rebuilding is much higher, because areas have to be applicable to a lot of different scenarios. If you look at a game like Half-Life 2 or Call of Duty, their developers can really custom build scripted areas with no fear that gameplay is going to trickle out of that area. Their AI [artificially intelligent] entities are tethered to specific areas and situations; in a game like BioShock, AIs will wander around and follow you around."

He sees emergence as worth the effort, though, because it increases the audience's involvement with his games. "I think if you look at even the least participatory art forms there's the notion of vicariousness. When you see [the film] Goodfellas, you sort of walk out feeling like you're in that world. You watch a romance, and if it works, you feel that kind of giddiness you feel in a real romantic situation. And videogames just take that further, because you have more participation." Indeed, one of the videogaming's greatest strengths is its ability to construct "moral playgrounds" - safe arenas in which people can explore different philosophies, principles and personalities. This has, however, also attracted most of the criticism and controversy surrounding the games industry in recent years.

In videogames such as the Grand Theft Auto series, players can pretty much do whatever they want - they can play through the game's storyline as ethically as possible, or go on a mass killing spree.

The question is, though, how much is too much? Are games in which mass murder is possible and allowed harmful? By allowing for (and simulating) destructive behaviours in their games, are developers thus endorsing those behaviours? These questions are extremely important when considering something like Running With Scissors' ultra-crass and (let's be honest) ultra-juvenile Postal 2 (2003). Featuring racist epithets, opportunities for "upskirt" glimpses with almost all female characters - albeit accessible only once you've bludgeoned, shot or otherwise fatally disfigured them - and spectacularly stupid violence, Postal 2 was designed, arguably, to excite the wrath of the moral majority. In Australia, it is illegal even to own a copy.

That said, as Mike Jaret, designer on the upcoming Postal 3, notes: "You could decide how violent you wanted to be in any given situation. None of the missions required killing anyone for completion; therefore, it is possible to make it through Postal 2 without killing or firing at anyone.

"It's not easy to do, but it is actually possible to complete all the missions with nonlethal force. Free will [is the central design philosophy behind the Postal games]. Postal could be considered a test to see how people will react to different situations and also give them the opportunity to see how they would react in a situation that they may never be involved in. Postal is also intended to be an open-ended, sandbox-style game where you can do a ton of other things besides playing the missions."

Levine is not a fan of gameplay that's explicitly intended to shock and offend - "there are certain topics that are so repulsive that they only belong in works of art designed solely to repulse" - but one part of BioShock's gameplay could be considered disturbing. Throughout the game, players need to collect a genetic resource known as "Adam" in order to survive and progress; the easiest way to do this is to harvest it from mutated little girls known as "Little Sisters". Because of the philosophy behind this facet of the game (and the apparent tastefulness with which it's been presented), Levine would find any uproar about BioShock unwarranted.

"Now, that's not to say videogame developers don't have a responsibility to make a game that deals with moral issues very seriously," he asserts. "The exploitation of children is a major theme in our game - we give the player the choice as to whether they participate in that exploitation, or they go the other way, and try to save those creatures who might still be children. It's appropriately compelling and disturbing. The Little Sisters are creatures who've been enslaved in the world that the player's thrust into. In order to survive, the player needs this material; one of his two advisers - his companion - advises him to harvest it from the Little Sisters, saying 'They're not really children any more,' and if the player refuses, he, the adviser, and the adviser's family will eventually die. And then there's another character, who says, 'No, you have to rescue them - they're still children. I'll reward you in some way if you do this.' So players have to choose: do they try to rescue the Little Sisters and turn them back into children, and risk their and their friends' lives in the process, or do they harvest the material - knowing the Little Sisters won't survive it - for an immediate reward?"

BioShock manages to deal with the subject matter without being particularly graphic. Still, even if the game doesn't have the power to reinforce one's inner pragmatist or humanist, it certainly has the potential to reveal them. Levine concedes that in testing, most people stuck with a certain approach - harvest or rescue - throughout their time with the game, but he thinks this is mainly a result of role-playing, as all the players he saw taking the less morally tenable route were "perfectly nice" outside the game.




Affecting behaviour

"And I'm not a scientist," he says, "but there isn't a lot of data out there to support the notion that games affect behaviour in any significant way. I don't want to be put in a ghetto in regards to what I can do with my games, while other entertainment media can do what they want."

Jaret concurs. "That is definitely the case nowadays. The latest example of this is the new Die Hard movie. The trailer makes it look extremely violent, with lots of explosions and people getting shot. It has only received a PG-13 rating by the MPAA, while a game like Postal gets an M rating by the ESRB. I would imagine Die Hard 4 received a PG-13 rating because it doesn't cuss that much, as you can have light cussing in a PG-13 movie. Postal 2 hardly had any curse words and lots of action/violence and received the highest non-adult rating possible."

But will Bruce Willis torch a marching band, urinate on their corpses and watch in amusement as passers-by vomit as "Postal Dude" does in Postal?

Real moral choices in virtual game worlds, G, 16.8.2007, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2007/aug/16/







Virtual Reality Returns Soldiers to Iraq


August 3, 2007
Filed at 12:50 p.m. ET
The New York Times


TACOMA, Wash. (AP) -- Staff Sgt. Jeff Ebert's entire body flinches as a roadside bomb explodes near his vehicle. Smoke obscures his view. Gunfire rattles around him.

This isn't on a road in Iraq but inside a room at Madigan Army Medical Center, where psychologists plan to begin using virtual reality -- think immersive video games -- to treat post-traumatic stress disorder by recreating the conditions of war.

Virtual-reality therapy provides doctors with a tool that uses visual, auditory and thermal cues to set the stage for treatment of veterans with the disorder, which causes nightmares and flashbacks. It can be so severe that some victims withdraw from society.

At Madigan, clinical psychologist Greg Reger hopes to begin offering the treatment later this summer.

''Just about everybody is affected by their deployment experience,'' said Reger, a former Army captain who recently came off active duty after spending a year in Iraq with the 62nd Medical Brigade. ''The vast majority come home and there's a natural recovery that occurs, but for the significant minority that does need additional help, we do see a number of those individuals here in the clinic.''

The research is being funded by the Office of Naval Research, which in 2005 provided $4 million to several groups to examine how virtual reality can help treat PTSD. The disorder affects an estimated 15 percent to 30 percent of Iraq war veterans.

Other research is being conducted in California, Hawaii, and Georgia. The Madigan program, Reger said, received a $200,000 grant for its work.

In clinical studies at San Diego's Naval Medical Center and Atlanta's Emory University, eight Iraq veterans with PTSD underwent virtual reality treatment and six showed a reduction of symptoms, said Dr. Albert Rizzo, a University of Southern California psychologist developing a virtual reality system.

''We're very enthusiastic that this is really going to start to make a difference,'' Rizzo said.

During a demonstration at Madigan, Ebert appears visibly jolted when a concussion from a bomb rocks his mock Humvee as he drives it in a military convoy. Ebert, who doesn't suffer from PTSD, sits in a chair atop a low platform that rumbles and shakes to simulate the vehicle's motion. He wears a headset that displays the scene.

The experience is ''very realistic,'' he said, noting his palms became sweaty during the demonstration.

''I had my fair share of convoys,'' said the 28-year-old behavioral health specialist from Toledo, Ohio, who returned from a yearlong tour in Iraq in November 2004.

Next Ebert walks through a simulated Iraqi village and scans the area, his right hand instinctively moving to his hip where he would normally be carrying a sidearm while on patrol.

''Being through it before, it's just automatic reactions ... staying ready,'' Ebert said. ''Just a sense of security.''

At Madigan, treatment will involve interviewing the soldier to learn what may have triggered the PTSD symptoms, Reger said. He'll then tailor a virtual reality scenario for that person.

''What this technology does is it gives us an environment to help facilitate soldiers telling of their own story,'' Reger said.

Clinicians can also incorporate a slew of smells -- body odor, gun fire or burning rubber, for example -- to enhance the therapy sessions.

''You really can do a lot of things ... to heighten the level of realism of the experience,'' said Mark Wiederhold, president and director of Virtual Reality Medical Center in San Diego.

The company uses cognitive behavioral therapy along with virtual reality to treat people with a range of phobias, including fear of flying, heights and spiders. Its clinicians also have worked with patients involved in motor vehicle accidents who were later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Virtual-reality systems are also being used in the rehabilitation of disabled patients at Israel's Chaim Sheba Rehabilitation Hospital near Tel Aviv.

Previously, options for treating PTSD involved group or individual psychotherapy, or having a person imagine their experience, Wiederhold said.

''The issue is you want to access the fear hierarchy in patients,'' Wiederhold said. ''Only about 15 percent of people are good imaginers. They have difficulty maintaining that state of imagining a scenario. Virtual reality is a much more vivid experience.''

Veterans advocates, while not endorsing any specific treatment, welcome the technology for improving mental health.

''Being able to treat these people ... is very important,'' said Patrick Campbell, legislative director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. ''It's not just about the drugs.''


On the Net:

Madigan Army Medical Center: http://www.mamc.amedd.army.mil/wrmc/wrmcfront.htm

Virtual Reality Medical Center: http://www.vrphobia.com/

Virtual Reality Returns Soldiers to Iraq, NYT, 3.8.2007, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/technology/AP-Virtual-Reality-PTSD.html






Tough Delay for Big Game by Take-Two


August 3, 2007
The New York Times


Take-Two Interactive, the video game publisher, said yesterday that it was postponing the release of the latest game in its wildly popular Grand Theft Auto series. The delay is likely to have ripple effects on the broader video game industry during its crucial holiday selling season.

Take-Two said it would push back the sale of Grand Theft Auto IV from October into the second quarter of next year because it is not yet finished. It also sharply cut its earnings estimates for its fiscal fourth quarter, sending its shares down 19 percent, to $13.65, in after-hours trading.

The latest game in the violent series is highly anticipated, and not just by investors in Take-Two, a company that has struggled through financial, regulatory and legal troubles but was always buoyed by sales of Grand Theft Auto games. It is also important to the broader market because demand for Grand Theft Auto IV was expected to drive sales of the video game consoles for which it was designed — Sony’s PlayStation 3 and Microsoft’s Xbox 360.

Wall Street analysts have been disappointed by the sales of those consoles, particularly relative to the cheaper and less sophisticated Wii from Nintendo. Mike Hickey, a video game industry analyst at Janco Partners, said the release of the new Take-Two game could excite consumers, spur adoption of the consoles and, in turn, even help sales of software by other game makers.

“This impacts the entire industry,” Mr. Hickey said.

Some game industry analysts said the delay could be particularly painful to Sony, whose PlayStation 3 has lagged behind both the Xbox 360 and the Wii.

In late September, Microsoft plans to release the holiday season’s other widely anticipated game, Halo. But that game is designed to be played exclusively on the 360. Sony does not have an exclusive title that is quite so widely anticipated, making Grand Theft Auto even more important to the prospects of the PlayStation 3, said Evan Wilson, an analyst with Pacific Crest Securities.

“This is very bad for Sony and its ability to sell PlayStation hardware,” Mr. Wilson said. He added that Sony’s loss could mean some gains for the Wii, which is not scheduled to get a version of Grand Theft Auto IV. And he said it could mean good news for other software makers, like Electronic Arts and Activision, that will not have to compete with Grand Theft Auto for consumer attention.

“It is rare that a single game can change the dynamics of the competitive landscape,” Mr. Wilson said.

The delay adds to the string of challenges that have plagued Take-Two. Stung by a persistent series of legal and regulatory troubles, the company was taken over this year by an investor group that installed Strauss Zelnick as chairman.

In a conference call yesterday afternoon with investors, Mr. Zelnick said that the delay of Grand Theft Auto IV was disappointing but that there was no choice, given how much work the game designers had in front of them. He said the game was particularly challenging, given that it was being made for new consoles that have new technical demands.

“Delivering a product that did not meet our standards was not an acceptable path,” Mr. Zelnick said.

There has not been a substantial delay of other Grand Theft Auto games in the past, said a company spokesman, Edward Nebb. Over all, the games have sold about 65 million copies, he said.

Take-Two said it would push back anticipated revenue from the sales of the game until next year. The company said that for its fourth fiscal quarter, which ends Oct. 31, it would have sales of $275 million to $300 million. Earlier, it had projected that those sales would be $520 million to $550 million. For its full 2007 fiscal year, the company expects sales of $950 million to $1 billion, down from earlier projections of $1.2 billion to $1.25 billion.

Some Wall Street analysts said the delay was frustrating given that Mr. Zelnick assured investors as recently as last month that the new game was on track.

For its part, Sony said it supported Take-Two’s decision to delay the game.

“No single game makes or breaks any PlayStation platform,” said Dave Karraker, a spokesman for Sony. He added: “Naturally, all of the hardware manufacturers would love to have Grand Theft Auto IV released as soon as possible, but this is such an important franchise, we support Take-Two in taking as much time as they need to make a great game.”

Tough Delay for Big Game by Take-Two, NYT, 3.8.2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/03/technology/03game.html






Why do we have to die in games?

In real life, dying is unavoidable and final.

But even though it's accepted that characters die in videogames,
is it really necessary, wonders Kate Bevan


Thursday July 26, 2007
Kate Bevan

Dying in real life is - religious beliefs aside - the end, the last event you'll take part in. Not so in computer games, where it's never worse than briefly infuriating. In World of Warcraft, the massively multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG) that 8.5 million people play every day, your death just means you have to spend several minutes trekking back to the point at which you died. And your avatar is temporarily weakened. It's an inconvenience.

But why is in-game "dying" necessary at all? Alternatively, why isn't dying in a game as final as it is in real life? In MMORPGs, the latter is in part at least simply answered: it's economics. From Blizzard's point of view, if in-game death were final, people would stop coughing up their monthly subscription. And the vibrant in-game economy depends to a certain extent on death and regeneration: when your avatar comes back to life, your weapons are damaged and need repairing - for which you pay a fee.

In fact many games, both on computers and in real life, require you to leave the field of play, for structural as much as for narrative reasons. In childrens' playground games, team members have to be eliminated to determine the winner before the end of the lunch break. In arcade videogames such as Space Invaders, your skill determines how long you can play before giving the machine more cash. Death puts a time limit on those games, just as it does for life. In other games, "dying" means you have to go back to the beginning of a level and work your way through it again; so death becomes an indication that you've not reached a specific skill level.

But where's the fun in endlessly replaying a level? Gamers are unequivocal: "Dying gives a game meaning", say posters on the PC Advisor forums. Markus Montola, a researcher at Tampere University in Finland, takes this further: "You have a motivation - to avoid being annoyed by dying. Motivation is what makes the game meaningful."

Pete Hines - vice-president at Bethesda, the developer behind the role-playing game Oblivion and its expansion pack, Shivering Isles - agrees. "Having your character die or fail is important because your actions have to have some meaning in the game, and to you."


Meaningful death

But is the death of your character the right way to give a game meaning? Peter Molyneux of Lionhead, the developer of Fable, Black & White and The Movies, says: "A fight has to cost the player something, or it loses its meaning. Previously, that cost was time and tedium [in replaying a level]. But is that the right cost?"

Molyneux argues that designers should look to Hollywood for how to treat the game's hero - ie you, the player. "Have you ever seen a film where the hero dies and dies again? The tension in an action film almost always comes from hammering a hero so hard that he almost dies - and then he leaps back up."

In a film, death is usually the climax, a cathartic event. The battle of Thermopylae is depicted in the film 300; commentators remarked on how much like a computer game it is, with its cinematic cutscenes and boss battles. However, this film ends, as the real events did, with the glorious death of its hero, Leonidas, king of the Spartans, and his plucky army.

Perhaps the difference between computer games and film or television dramas is how we consume them. TV and film are genres that we consume passively: we can't affect the outcome (though the popularity of voting in shows such as Big Brother and talent contests might indicate that we like to). Roleplaying games, however, challenge us directly by setting goals, and often one of those goals is to avoid being killed.

There are three types of goals in computer games, says Montola. Endogenous goals originate within the game; exogenous from outside it. "Every game of chess has identical endogenous goals, but the exogenous ones range from having fun to humiliating the opponent to winning a tournament. Endogenous goals are always about getting a checkmate, or at least not being checkmated yourself."

Diegetic goals "come in when you start to role-play," he says. "If you play World of Warcraft and just grind to get better gear, you never think about this dwarf hunter you're playing. But once you start with pretend-play, you have to think 'what would Mr Dwarf Hunter want? What are his goals?' And those goals are diegetic." Montola points to Eve Online, the space-trading MMORPG. "It is particularly elegant in regard to diegetic goals. Everyone plays a space trader, miner or pirate, so it's easy to understand that I'm a trader and I want to maximise profit and live a peaceful life."

Eve, he adds, "is a game where you can lose months of work by being shot from the skies. That game is given exogenous meaning by the extremely strong endogenous and diegetic urge to avoid death."

Death has been part of computer gaming since its earliest days. Montola points to Arkanoid, a clone of Breakout and a direct descendant of Pong. Dating from 1986, the game involves you moving a bat at the bottom of the screen to try to prevent the ball falling away from the board. Says Montola: "You probably don't think you can die in Arkanoid, even if you miss the ball. But your bat is in fact a spaceship called Vaus, and it gets destroyed when you miss the ball, so missing the ball means dozens or thousands of deaths ... depending on your imagination."

Reaching even further into the dark ages of computing, he says: "If you think that an abstract bunch of pixels can die, you can trace this back to the earliest computer games, such as Spacewar! from 1961. Since this predates the earliest arcade games by a decade, it's fair to say that death has always been one of the central punishments in digital gaming."


Reflect real life?

But do you need to die at all? Eric Zimmerman, a New York-based game designer who helps run the studio Gamelab, says: "Dying in games is a strange artifact of certain kinds of historical forms and content, and there is no good reason for including it in many cases." Molyneux concurs: "If we were starting from scratch, we wouldn't come up with this paradigm."

There are bigger questions, of course. In real life, death is more than an annoyance. So should games reflect real life? Or should we redefine "dying" in the context of games? Isn't it more like tennis, where you can lose a set but go on to win the game? Or are there bigger lessons to be learned from games?

Says David Ewen, a 46-year-old gamer: "Kids need to learn that if they're ambushed by a horde of self-regenerating laser-festooned killer robots on an asteroid far from the main space trade routes in real life, they're not actually going to end up getting teleported out to the local Starbucks for a nice refreshing break."

Why do we have to die in games?, G, 26.7.2007, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2007/jul/26/






In Battle of Consoles,

Nintendo Gains Allies


July 17, 2007
The New York Times


SANTA MONICA, Calif. — In the competition among the makers of video game consoles, momentum is building for the Wii from Nintendo among its crucial allies: game developers and publishers.

Inspired by the early success of the Wii, the companies that create and distribute games are beginning to shift resources and personnel toward building more Wii games, in some cases at the expense of the competing systems: the PlayStation 3 from Sony and Xbox 360 from Microsoft.

The shift is closely watched because consumers tend to favor systems that have many compelling games. More resources diverted to the Wii would mean more games, and that would translate into more consumers buying Wii consoles later.

Jon Goldman, chairman and chief executive of Foundation 9 Entertainment, an independent game development company, said that he was hearing a growing call for Wii games from the publishers and distributors that finance the games that his firm creates. “Publishers are saying: Instead of spending $15 million or $20 million on one PS3 game, come back to me with five or six Wii pitches,” he said.

“We had one meeting two weeks ago with a publisher that was asking for Wii games,” said Mr. Goldman, who declined to identify the video game publisher that he met. “Three or four months ago, they didn’t want to hear Word 1 about the Wii.”

Nintendo said that titles would be coming from several major developers, like Activision and Ubisoft, that are making an enhanced commitment to the platform.

The interest in the Wii follows a period of uncertainty about the console by developers and publishers. They were initially cautious because the Wii was less technologically sophisticated, and they worried that consumers would not take to its unorthodox game play, which uses a motion-controlled wand that players move to direct action on the screen. For example, to serve balls in the tennis game, players circle their arms overhead as they would in real tennis.

History gave developers and publishers reason for caution, too. Nintendo’s last system, the GameCube, was initially a hot seller, but was ultimately outsold — and by a considerable margin — by the PlayStation 2 and Xbox. Also, Nintendo has historically made many of the popular games for its own systems, in a way that has discouraged heavy participation by other developers and publishers.

The shift does not represent any shunning of the Xbox or Sony consoles, but rather an elevation of the Wii’s status — one that was clear in many conversations with developers and publishers at E3, the video game industry’s annual trade show in Santa Monica, Calif.

It is early in the current console product cycle, given that these machines are intended to be on the market for more than five years. Industry analysts say they do not expect to declare a victor anytime soon. Nevertheless, the trend is clear: Nintendo is getting growing support from game developers.

“We’re seeing a big shift at E3,” said John Davison, editorial director of 1UP Network, a network of video game Web sites and magazines, “and we’ll see more later this year.” He said he was seeing some game publishers putting less emphasis on the PlayStation 3. “But they’re not going to talk about that,” he added.

Since its first appearance in stores in November, the Wii has been outselling the Xbox 360 and PS3, which came out the same month, and it continues to be in short supply. The NPD Group, a market research firm, reported that as of May, Americans had purchased 2.8 million Wii systems, compared with 1.4 million PS3s. About 5.6 million Xbox 360 consoles have sold, but it hit the market a year earlier.

The Wii has clearly benefited from a price advantage; it costs $250, compared with $300 for the least-expensive Xbox 360 and $479 for the top-of-the-line machine. The PS3 sells for $500, after a price cut by Sony to clear inventory in advance of the Christmas selling season, when its new $600 device will be offered. Microsoft has been hampered of late by widespread product failures, and the company said it would spend $1.15 billion to repair individual machines.

While the growing size of the Wii’s customer base is attractive, developers are favoring Wii for other reasons. They are able to create games in less time than is needed for rival systems, because Wii’s graphics are less complex.

Colin Sebastian, a video game industry analyst with Lazard Capital Markets, said that in rough terms, it cost around $5 million to develop a game for the Wii compared with $10 million to $20 million to make a game for the Xbox 360 or PS3. Mr. Sebastian said that given the cost differences, a developer would need to sell 300,000 copies of a Wii game to break even, compared with 600,000 of a game for the PS3 or Xbox 360.

“Wii development costs certainly are cheaper than the other consoles,” said Scott A. Steinberg, a vice president for marketing at the game developer Sega of America. The company has a number of original Wii projects under development and uses 15 to 25 programmers to develop a Wii title, compared with 50 or more for a PS3 or Xbox 360 game.

Because of its simpler graphics, development times for Wii games are also shorter. A Wii game can be created in as little as 12 months, said Kelly Flock, executive vice president for worldwide publishing at THQ, a video game developer based in Agoura Hills, Calif. Games for the two competing consoles typically take two to three years.

He said that the budget for a Wii game ranges from $1.5 million to $4 million, compared with the $10 million to $12 million the company spends on a PS3 or Xbox 360 game.

“The Wii is a godsend,” Mr. Flock said. “We are aggressively looking for more Wii titles.”

By this holiday season, Nintendo will have added 100 games to its existing 60 titles. Sony has said that it will double the number of titles for the PS3 to 120 by the end of March, while Microsoft said it would have 300 titles for the Xbox 360 by the Christmas selling season. “I don’t think you’ll see any big shifts to one platform because you’re supporting so many,” said Kathy Vrabeck, president of the casual entertainment division of Electronic Arts. That said, she added that there had been a clear shift in mood at the company toward the Wii.

“There is a clear sense of excitement about the Wii at E.A.,” she said.

George Harrison, Nintendo’s senior vice president for marketing, said, “Electronic Arts is doing much more for us than they have in the past.”

Sony counters that, to some extent, Wii developers, publishers and game players will get what they pay for: games with less-complex graphics.

“There is some truth to the fact that you can make games for Wii for less than the PS3,” said Peter Dille, senior vice president for marketing at Sony. “But we still believe that our job is to develop big-budget games.”

    In Battle of Consoles, Nintendo Gains Allies, NYT, 17.7.2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/17/technology/17game.html






DirecTV Looks to Cash in on Video Games


July 15, 2007
Filed at 2:04 p.m. ET
The New York Times


LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Four race cars barrel down a virtual track, jostling for position. Announcers shout their commentary over growling engines until a winner speeds past a checkered flag.

The frenetic race televised on DirecTV wasn't a NASCAR event. It was staged as part of a new video game league that aims to turn gaming into a full-fledged sport, as compelling to watch as the National Basketball Association or Major League Baseball.

The Championship Gaming Series debuted last week in the U.S. and has franchises around the world that pay top players base salaries of $30,000 plus bonuses.

Organizers hope to attract an audience of the same young gamers who pushed computer and video game software sales to $7.4 billion in 2006 -- a 6 percent increase from 2005, according to the Entertainment Software Association.

Advertisers are eager to reach those 18 to 24 year-old consumers.

The challenge for the league is making the on-screen action compelling enough to persuade those gamers to stop playing and start watching.

''Are those guys willing to put down their controllers and pick up their remote control to watch their television?'' asked Steve Lipscomb, founder and CEO of World Poker Tour Enterprises.

Lipscomb helped turn poker into a TV hit by placing cameras under tables to give viewers a look at the cards held by each player.

He said he turned down chances to start a video game league, fearing the challenges might be too great to overcome.

''If they can find a way to translate the experience of gaming into a great spectator sport, there is an opportunity there,'' Lipscomb said.

DirecTV is spending relatively little on the new league. It is one of several homegrown channels the company hopes will catch on.

''Today, it doesn't move the needle,'' said Steve Mather, an analyst at SMH Capital. ''But strategically, it is in this basket of items that could develop into something. They're in the game, at least.''

The two-hour video game matches, which began July 9, are staged twice a week on a movie sound stage in Manhattan Beach.

A studio audience of about 200 people cheers on cue while players face off in front of video screens. Team managers crouch nearby to offer encouragement.

Most games played in the league, such as ''Dead or Alive 4'' or the soccer game ''FIFA 07,'' are one-on-one matches. Others, like ''Counter-Strike Source'' involve five-person teams squaring off in multiple rounds.

The key feature of the broadcasts are the multiple ''in game'' cameras that follow the action, making viewers feel like they are on the soccer field or peeking over the shoulder of a gun-toting mercenary. Flashy graphics help tell the story of what is happening on the screen.

''It's got the elements of strategy, skill and the camaraderie of team sports that people love,'' said Dave ''Moto'' Geffon, general manager of New York 3D, one of six U.S. teams in the league.

The new league has six U.S. franchises -- Chicago Chimera, Carolina Core, San Francisco Optix, Los Angeles Complexity, Dallas Venom and New York 3D.

Teams have also been created in Asia, Europe and South America. Regional winners will compete in a world championship later this year.

DirecTV owns the league with partners British Sky Broadcasting PLC and Asian satellite broadcaster Star.

Competitive video gaming isn't new. The Cyberathlete Professional League was formed in 1997 and hosts tournaments around the world that aren't televised. Organized matches are also popular in Europe and Asia.

In addition, the two-year-old World Series of Video Games has a deal to air some of its matches on CBS.

The Championship Gaming Series hopes to differentiate itself by offering regular broadcasts of team competitions with high-tech showmanship.

League Commissioner Andy Reif is banking on his experience turning beach volleyball into a popular televised sport as former chief operating officer of the AVP Pro Beach Volleyball Tour.

''The trick is to make something entertaining both to the hardcore gamer and also to a mainstream audience that is either a casual gamer or not a gamer at all,'' he said.

DirecTV Looks to Cash in on Video Games, NYT, 15.7.2007, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/technology/AP-Video-Game-League.html






Games Take Center Stage at Expo


July 13, 2007
Filed at 4:26 p.m. ET
The New York Times


SANTA MONICA, Calif. (AP) -- The focus of this year's E3 Media and Business Summit was the hundreds of video games that will be debuting in the coming months and years.

It was a decidedly different theme than last year's event, when questions about the still-unreleased PlayStation 3 and Nintendo Wii were all anyone could talk about.

A sampling of the hundreds of games that were on display at the show this year:

Assassin's Creed -- Ubisoft Corp.'s newest action franchise drops a stealthy killing machine named Altair into the middle of the Third Crusade in medieval Jerusalem. Altair's main power is his incredible athleticism: he can scamper up walls and fling himself across rooftops. Of course, he has some lethal fighting moves when needed. This one's due in November for the Xbox 360, PS3 and Windows PCs.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare -- Infinity Ward, which was responsible for the original ''Call of Duty'' set during World War II, updates its acclaimed first-person shooter franchise with laser scopes, deadly radiation and other byproducts of modern war. The game takes hyperrealism to a new level with smooth, razor-sharp graphics and a steady stream of intense, cinematic battle moments.

Killzone 2 -- Sony Corp. finally revealed more on this long-awaited sequel to the popular original. The graphics shown in a demonstration were impressively fluid and realistic as a cadre of soldiers lead an attack through gunfire and explosions on the alien stronghold on the planet Helghan. It's expected for the PS3 only sometime in 2008.

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots -- Another PlayStation 3 exclusive and the first in the series for the new console, ''Guns of the Patriots'' promises to be the last chapter in the decade-old action saga from legendary game maker Hideo Kojima. This one pits our crass hero Solid Snake in yet another military conspiracy and Kojima says it should resolve many loose story lines from earlier games in the series. It's not expected until sometime in 2008.

Rock Band -- The makers of ''Guitar Hero'' are about to unleash an even more ambitious version of computerized karaoke with a game that includes a drummer, guitar, bass and a singer. The band's performance is measured by how well players can match their tunes to what's playing on the screen. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 game, expected by the holidays, also will allow gamers to post their performances online and download entire albums such as The Who's ''Who's Next.''

The Simpsons Game -- Talk about good timing. This latest spin on the enduring animated TV show has nothing to do with the upcoming movie. But that's probably a good thing, as most video game movie tie-ins tend to be terrible. A demonstration showed a living, breathing virtual Springfield where the whole Simpson family gets special powers to help save the world. It's due by the end of this year for the Wii, Xbox 360 and PS3.

Wii Fit -- Nintendo Co.'s ongoing efforts to turn non-gamers into rabid video game fanatics continue with this new twist on exercise. The Wii game, expected early next year, will measure the player's body mass index, and offer aerobics, yoga and other heart-pounding activities.

Games Take Center Stage at Expo, NYT, 13.7.2007, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/technology/AP-Video-Game-Expo-Glance.html






35 Disney Films Coming to Xbox Live


July 11, 2007
Filed at 2:14 a.m. ET
The New York Times


SANTA MONICA, Calif. (AP) -- Microsoft Corp. said Tuesday it struck a deal to make 35 Disney movies, such as the animated hit ''Aladdin'' and the action title ''Armageddon,'' available for download on its online video game service.

The high-definition movies will be available to U.S. subscribers of Microsoft's Xbox Live, said Peter Moore, a corporate vice president in Microsoft's entertainment and devices division, which is responsible for the Xbox business.

The agreement with Disney-ABC Domestic Television will also allow Xbox 360 owners to rent films on demand as they become available from Walt Disney Pictures, Touchstone Pictures, Miramax Films and Hollywood Pictures.

Xbox Live already offers movies and television shows from more than two dozen other content providers, the company said.

The service has more than 7 million members, a figure that will hit 10 million by June, Moore said a news conference.

He used the event on the eve of the E3 Media & Business Summit to tout the system's lineup of holiday games.

One title called ''Scene it?'' is a movie-trivia board game that Microsoft will sell with four simplified, large-buttoned wireless controllers.

Moore mentioned other games, including the anticipated sci-fi shooter ''Halo 3'' from Bungie Studios, ''Mass Effect'' from BioWare Corp. and ''Grand Theft Auto IV'' from Rockstar Games.

To go along with the Sept. 25 launch of Halo 3, Microsoft will sell a Halo-themed version of its Xbox 360 console.

Last week, Microsoft extended the warranty for Xbox 360 consoles that stop working because of a vague condition the company calls ''general hardware failure.'' The company said it expected to spend more than $1 billion to repair broken machines.

In an interview Tuesday, Moore said he did not expect the news to dampen spirits at E3.

''I think that news is behind us. I certainly think that it is something that has been well-received by the community,'' Moore said, explaining that comments on message boards were resoundingly positive, with many thanking Microsoft for standing by its product.

Microsoft's Xbox 360 was released in late 2005 and leads the current generation of console wars in the United States with 5.6 million units sold, according to the NPD Group, a market research company.

Worldwide, however, 11.6 million Xbox 360s have been sold, short of the company's target of 12 million units.

Nintendo Co.'s Wii, which debuted in November, has sold 2.8 million units domestically, while the PlayStation 3 console from Sony Corp. was ranked third with 1.4 million consoles sold in the United States since its release late last year.


AP Technology Writer Jessica Mintz in Seattle contributed to this report.

35 Disney Films Coming to Xbox Live, NYT, 11.7.2007, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/business/AP-Video-Game-Expo.html






Video Games by Spielberg, EA Detailed


July 10, 2007
Filed at 12:51 a.m. ET
The New York Times


Filmmaker Steven Spielberg and video game publisher Electronic Arts Inc. are releasing a few tidbits about their ongoing collaboration to make three video games, but most details -- including the game's titles -- remain a secret.

Code-named ''LMNO'' and ''PQRS,'' the first two games to come from the exclusive relationship will be previewed at this week's E3 Media & Business Summit, which starts Wednesday in Santa Monica, Calif.

The ''LMNO'' game is being created for the Sony Corp.'s PlayStation 3, Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360 and PCs. It will be a ''contemporary action adventure'' where the player partners with a female character who evolves over time depending on how she interacts with others in the game, said Neil Young, general manager of EA's Los Angeles studio.

''PQRS,'' which is being developed for Nintendo Co.'s Wii, will have gamers wielding the wireless remote to manipulate blocks in various ways.

Young said to expect much more than a computerized version of Jenga when it's released, sometime in the current fiscal year.

''Of course just playing with blocks does not a game make,'' he said Monday. ''Now imagine there are up to 50 different properties that can be associated with them. They can explode or form a chemical reaction.''

Young said Spielberg, known for his roster of films such as ''Saving Private Ryan,'' ''Schindler's List,'' ''Raiders of the Lost Ark,'' and ''E.T.,'' got the idea for the block game after a round of Wii tennis with Nintendo game legend Shigeru Miyamoto during last year's E3.

''He came away just kind of blown away by the visceral nature of the machine,'' Young said.

Spielberg wasn't available for an interview, but in a prepared statement said he was ''a gamer'' and has always been intrigued by game development.

''I am truly enjoying the creative collaboration and we hope that gamers will be as excited as we are about what we can bring to the medium through our shared vision,'' Spielberg said.

There were no details on a third title under Spielberg's long-term exclusive arrangement to develop the games for EA.

Financial terms of the deal announced in 2005 haven't been disclosed. Redwood City, Calif.-based EA, the world's largest game maker with blockbusters such as ''Madden NFL'' and ''The Sims,'' said it will own the intellectual property behind the Spielberg games and publish them.

Video Games by Spielberg, EA Detailed, NYT, 10.7.2007, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/technology/AP-Spielberg-Electronic-Arts.html






Video Game Conference Sees Big Changes


July 9, 2007
Filed at 4:40 a.m. ET
The New York Times


The video game industry's annual showcase is saying goodbye to scantily clad booth babes, extravagant multimillion dollar exhibits, blaring lights and pounding music. Celebrity appearances from the likes of Paris Hilton or Snoop Dogg are a thing of the past, too.

This year's version of the Electronic Entertainment Expo, renamed the E3 Media & Business Summit, will be a toned-down affair as organizers hope to have a far less flashy discussion on new and upcoming video games.

The event, which starts Wednesday, looks to be more like a country club getaway, an invitation-only gathering complete with luxury beach-side hotels, sushi restaurants and meetings in private conference rooms.

To put it more diplomatically, ''It's about the quality of connection for leaders of the industry,'' says Michael Gallagher, a former telecommunications policy adviser under the Bush administration who now heads the Entertainment Software Association, the trade group that puts together the show.

After last year's expo, organizers decided it had become too big for its own good. With more than 60,000 people cramming into the Los Angeles Convention Center, there was a feeling that the needs of no one -- be it the media, retailers or video game publishers -- were being addressed particularly well.

''It had gotten out of control and needed to die,'' said Mike Wilson, chief executive of Austin, Texas-based game publisher Gamecock. ''It was hot, techno was blasting everywhere, there was no place to sit and the microwave cheeseburgers were $8. It just wasn't pleasant.''

Wilson's company wasn't invited to the new E3 that's being held in a handful of hotels along the beach in Santa Monica, Calif. He isn't the only one.

Only about 30 of the largest video game software and hardware companies are attending, down from the hundreds that packed the event in previous years. Also missing will be the army of small-time bloggers, zealous game fans and others who somehow managed to infiltrate the trade-only event.

As someone who was at the first E3 in 1995 and attended every one since, Dorothy Ferguson said she believes the new format will benefit the 3,000 or so people attending.

''It kind of got away from what was important, which is really the content,'' said Ferguson, a vice president of sales and marketing for NCSoft Inc. ''At the end you felt like a pinball in a pinball machine. It was sensory overload and it was really difficult to hear anything.''

This week's event, which runs through Friday, will focus on the industry's largest players, including No. 1 game-software maker Electronic Arts Inc. and console makers Microsoft Corp., Sony Corp. and Nintendo Corp.

The big story last year was Sony's decision to price PlayStation 3 at up to $600 and whether it would catch on with consumers. Nintendo, meanwhile, promised to bring more non-gamers into the fold with its interactive Wii. Microsoft continued to build on its Xbox Live online gaming platform.

Since then, both the PS3 and the Wii have been unleashed on the marketplace. (Microsoft launched its next-generation console, the Xbox 360, in 2005.)

Analyst Ted Pollack of Jon Peddie Research said he doesn't see any losers in the current crop of consoles and believes they will be a boon for the industry for at least the next five years.

''They're all doing well in their own way,'' he said. ''All three consoles will win battles in the console wars and at the end everyone will be left standing.''

And now that all of the hardware has been available for a while, consumers can expect to see a flood of new video games.

Josh Larson, director of the online game review Web site GameSpot, said he is looking for this year's show to shed more light on software that takes advantage of each system's unique capabilities.

He also expects more details on big video game franchises like ''Halo 3,'' ''Grand Theft Auto IV'' and ''Super Smash Bros. Brawl'' as well has more information on Sony's strategy to compete online with Microsoft's Xbox Live service.

Other top games could include Konami's ''Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots,'' a ''Killzone'' sequel from Sony and the latest chapter in the ''Final Fantasy'' saga from Square-Enix Co.

''It's ultimately about the games,'' Larson said. ''The PS3 box can look real shiny and have lots of powerful specs, but it's ultimately the game experience that causes you to go out and get that gaming system.''

In another twist, the ESA is hoping to appeal to the general gaming consumer later this fall. The ''E for All 2007,'' an event that will be open to the public, is scheduled for Oct. 18-21 at E3's former home, the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Video Game Conference Sees Big Changes, NYT, 9.7.2007, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/technology/AP-Video-Game-Expo.html






New PlayStation 3 Goes on Sale in Aug.


July 9, 2007
Filed at 3:03 a.m. ET
The New York Times


Sony Corp. announced a revised PlayStation 3 console Monday with a bigger hard drive for storing downloaded content such as video games and high-definition movies.

The new $599 PS3 increases the system's storage capacity from 60 to 80 gigabytes and also includes a retail copy of the online racing title ''MotorStorm,'' a company spokesman said.

Starting Monday, the current 60 gigabyte model will cost $499 -- a $100 price drop.

The larger capacity machine won't be available in the United States and Canada until August.

It plays into the company's upcoming strategy of eventually offering downloaded high-definition movies, video games, movie trailers and demos, Sony spokesman David Karraker said.

Karraker said further details on high-def movies for download would be released at a later date.

The announcement comes two days before the E3 Media & Business Summit in Santa Monica, Calif., where dozens of industry heavyweights including Sony rivals Microsoft Corp. and Nintendo Co. are expected to show off their latest games and related products.

In April, Microsoft began selling a version of its Xbox 360 with a 120-gigabyte hard drive and a souped up high-definition video connection. Called Xbox 360 Elite, the black-colored system sells for $479.99.

Xbox gamers who already own the $399.99 20-gigabyte model can buy a snap-on 120-gigabyte hard drive for $179.99.

Karraker said Sony would use the E3 show to focus on two areas: ways to increase the number of consumers who own PS3s and other products such as the PlayStation Portable handheld system, and expanding the system's library of available games.

He said Sony would be releasing 100 new video games during the current fiscal year, including 15 titles that are exclusive to the PS3 such as the hack-and-slash action title ''Heavenly Sword.''

    New PlayStation 3 Goes on Sale in Aug., NYT, 9.7.2007, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/business/AP-Sony-Pricing.html






Xbox games console's red ring of death costs Microsoft $1bn


Friday July 6, 2007
Andrew Clark in Chicago


Microsoft is paying out more than $1bn (£497m) to repair chronic problems with its Xbox 360 games consoles, which break down in a fault known as the "red ring of death". The Seattle-based company said last night it had been forced to make an "unacceptable number of repairs" to the machines, which went on sale in 2005.

The fault triggers three flashing red lights on the console, indicating a general hardware failure. On internet messageboards, the problem has been dubbed the "red ring of death", or "bricking", because the machine becomes no more useful than a brick. Microsoft has decided to extend warranties free of charge to cover a period running for three years from the date of purchase, following widespread complaints. The company will reimburse anyone who has paid for repairs to date.

Microsoft said the clean-up would involve a charge of between $1.05bn and $1.15bn to its earnings for the financial quarter which ended in June.

Robbie Bach, president of Microsoft's entertainment and devices division, offered "sincere apologies" for the problem. The commpany has not revealed the number of failures, but such was the volume of repairs that one British firm, Micromart, recently announced it would not take any more Xboxes, saying it was getting a "phenomenal amount" of machines coming in with the same issue.

The write-off is a big blow to Microsoft's efforts to diversify from its traditional strength in software with products such as games consoles and a music player, the Zune, a competitor to Apple's iPod.

The Xbox faces stiff competition from Nintendo's Wii and Sony's Playstation 3. Last Christmas, Microsoft said it had sold 1.13m Xbox consoles in the US during December, securing a 51% market share.

But in a surprise downgrade, the company told investors in January that it was lowering its sales expectations for the year to June to 12m sales, compared with previous forecasts of between 13m and 15m, citing an oversupply of stock among retailers.

    Xbox games console's red ring of death costs Microsoft $1bn, G, 6.7.2007, http://technology.guardian.co.uk/news/story/0,,2120219,00.html






Xbox 360 Repairs Will Cost Microsoft $1B


July 6, 2007
Filed at 3:23 a.m. ET
The New York Times


SEATTLE (AP) -- In another setback for Microsoft Corp.'s unprofitable entertainment and devices division, the company says it is planning to spend at least $1 billion to repair serious problems with its Xbox 360 video game console.

Microsoft declined to detail the problems that have caused an onslaught of ''general hardware failures'' in recent months but said Thursday it will extend the warranty on the consoles to three years.

The glitches, and the bad publicity, could weigh the company down as it claws for market share in the highly competitive console market. In May, the Xbox 360 ranked No. 2 in unit sales behind Nintendo's Wii, but still beat out Sony's Playstation 3, according to data from NPD Group.

''We don't think we've been getting the job done,'' said Robbie Bach, president of Microsoft's entertainment and devices division, which also makes the Zune digital music player, a distant competitor to Apple Inc.'s powerhouse iPod. ''In the past few months, we have been having to make Xbox 360 console repairs at a rate too high for our liking.''

Bach said the company made some manufacturing and production changes that he expects will reduce Xbox 360 hardware lockups, but he declined to identify the problems or say which others might remain. Microsoft said it will record a charge of up to $1.15 billion for its fourth fiscal quarter, which ended June 30, to cover the additional costs associated with the warranty extension.

The news comes just days before the video game industry descends on Santa Monica, Calif., for its annual E3 conference, and it could overshadow Microsoft's plans to build buzz for holiday season video game releases and ''Halo 3,'' a much-anticipated shoot-'em-up for the Xbox 360 set to launch in September.

The software maker also said Thursday that sales of the game console fell short of expectations for the fiscal year that just ended.

Matt Rosoff, an analyst at the independent research group Directions on Microsoft, estimates that Microsoft's entertainment and devices division has lost more than $6 billion since 2002.

Microsoft has written down larger amounts in the past -- more than $10 billion in the late 1990s related to investments in telecommunications companies, and more than $5 billion related to antitrust issues -- but a $1 billion write-down for one division in one quarter is significant.

''It suggests the problem is pretty widespread,'' Rosoff said.

Microsoft will pay for shipping and repairs for three years, worldwide, for consoles that experience hardware failure, which is usually indicated by three flashing red lights on the front of the console, something gamers sometimes refer to as ''the red ring of death.''

This isn't the first time Microsoft has made changes to the Xbox 360 repair plan. Last December, the company extended the warranty from 90 days to one year for U.S. customers. In Europe, the warranty previously expired after two years.

Microsoft also will reimburse the ''small number'' of Xbox 360 owners who have paid for shipping and repairs on out-of-warranty consoles, Bach said.

In June, bloggers speculated that the Xbox 360 return problem was getting so severe that the company was running out of ''coffins,'' or special return-shipping boxes Microsoft provides to gamers with dead consoles. ''We'll make sure we have plenty of boxes to go back and forth,'' Bach said in an interview.

Chris Liddell, Microsoft's chief financial officer, said in a conference call that the company sold 11.6 million Xbox 360 consoles since the product's November 2005 launch, missing a target for 12 million units by the end of the fiscal year.

Xbox 360 prices range from $299 to $479, depending on their configuration.

Microsoft's entertainment and devices division reported an operating loss of $315 million on $929 million in sales for the three-month period that ended in March. Microsoft has said it expects the division to post a profit in fiscal 2008.

Microsoft announced the warranty extension after markets closed Thursday. Microsoft shares fell 11 cents to $29.88 in extended trading after falling 3 cents to $29.99 in the regular session.

    Xbox 360 Repairs Will Cost Microsoft $1B, NYT, 6.7.2007, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/technology/AP-Microsoft-Xbox-Warranty.html






Nintendo Wii Outsells Sony PS3


July 2, 2007
Filed at 11:42 a.m. ET
The New York Times


TOKYO (AP) -- Nintendo's Wii video game console outsold Sony's PlayStation 3 six to one in June in Japan, a Japanese publishing company said Monday.

Although the Wii has been on sale since late last year, they're selling so briskly supply still hasn't caught up with demand and long lines form when shipments arrive at stores.

The latest numbers suggest that Nintendo's lead is widening. Wii outsold PS3 just four to one in April and five to one in May, according to Enterbrain.

Enterbrain Inc., the publisher, found that Wii also outsold Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360 in Japan in June.

Nintendo, the maker of ''Pokemon'' and ''Super Mario'' games, sold 270,974 Wii consoles in Japan in June, while Sony sold 41,628 PS3 machines, and Microsoft sold 17,616 Xbox 360 consoles, it said. Overseas sales were not available.

The Wii, with its motion-sensitive remote control wand -- called a ''Wiimote'' -- that can be used as a sword, tennis racket or fishing rod depending on the game, has helped make the game a surprise hit around the world, widening the appeal of games to far beyond the usual niche target of young males.

''The Nintendo's game console is catching on not only among children but also adults and singles,'' said Enterbrain spokeswoman Yuko Magaribuchi.

The availability of more game software for the Wii was another factor adding to its popularity, she said.

Nintendo has said it sold 5.84 million Wii machines worldwide in the five months since its release in November, 2.37 million in the Americas, and 2.0 million in Japan. The Kyoto-based company said it expected to sell 14 million more Wii machines in the fiscal year ending in March 2008.

Sony has shipped 5.5 million PS3 machines in the fiscal year through March.

Nintendo has also marked robust sales with its Nintendo DS portable machine, while Sony has struggled with its offering, the PlayStation Portable.

Nintendo shares, which have more than doubled over the last year, traded at 45,700 yen ($371.54), up 1.8 percent.

    Nintendo Wii Outsells Sony PS3, NYT, 2.7.2007, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/technology/AP-Japan-Nintendo-Wii.html






Too Much Video Gaming

Not Addiction, Yet


June 27, 2007
Filed at 11:09 a.m. ET
The New York Times


CHICAGO (AP) -- The American Medical Association on Wednesday backed off calling excessive video-game playing a formal psychiatric addiction, saying instead that more research is needed.

A report prepared for the AMA's annual policy meeting had sought to strongly encourage that video-game addiction be included in a widely used diagnostic manual of psychiatric illnesses.

AMA delegates instead adopted a watered-down measure declaring that while overuse of video games and online games can be a problem for children and adults, calling it a formal addiction would be premature.

''There's no science to support it,'' said Dr. Stuart Gitlow, an addiction medicine specialist.

Despite a lack of scientific proof, Jacob Schulist, 14, of Hales Corners, Wis., says he's certain he was addicted to video games -- and that the AMA's vote was misguided.

Until about two months ago, when he discovered a support group called On-Line Gamers Anonymous, Jacob said he played online fantasy video games for 10 hours straight some days.

He said his habit got so severe that he quit spending time with family and friends.

''My grades were horrible, I failed the entire first semester'' this past school year because of excessive video-game playing, he said, adding, ''It's like they're your life.''

But delegates voted to have the AMA encourage more research on the issue, including seeking studies on what amount of video-game playing and other ''screen time'' is appropriate for children.

Under the new policy, the AMA also will send the revised video-game measure to the American Psychiatric Association, asking it to consider the full report in its diagnostic manual; the next edition is to be completed in 2012.

Dr. Louis Kraus, a psychiatric association spokesman, said the report will be a helpful resource.

The AMA's report says up to 90 percent of American youngsters play video games and that up to 15 percent of them -- more than 5 million kids -- might be addicted.

The report, prepared by the AMA's Council on Science and Public Health, also says ''dependence-like behaviors are more likely in children who start playing video games at younger ages.''

Internet role-playing games involving multiple players, which can suck kids into an online fantasy world, are the most problematic, the report says. That's the kind of game Jacob Schulist says hooked him.

Kraus, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Chicago's Rush Medical Center, said behavior that looks like addiction in video-game players may be a symptom of social anxiety, depression or another psychiatric problem.

He praised the AMA report for recommending more research.

''They're trying very hard not to make a premature diagnosis,'' Kraus said.


On the Net:

AMA: http://www.ama-assn.org

On-Line Gamers Anonymous: http://www.olganon.org

    Too Much Video Gaming Not Addiction, Yet, NYT, 27.6.2007, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/us/AP-AMA-Video-Game-Addiction.html






'Manhunt 2' Suspension

May Boost Demand


June 23, 2007
Filed at 9:05 a.m. ET
The New York Times


The decision by Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. to suspend distribution of the violent video game ''Manhunt 2'' could actually end up boosting demand from curious gamers, industry analysts said Friday.

Analysts do not believe the move will harm the company's long-term bottom line. And if the game ever sees the light of day, the current controversy could give the title ''a lot more exposure that would actually benefit game sales in the long run,'' said Colin Sebastian, senior research analyst at Lazard Capital Markets.

''Manhunt 2,'' initially slated for a July release on Nintendo Co.'s Wii and Sony Corp.'s PlayStation 2, depicts the escape of an amnesiac scientist and a psychotic killer from an asylum and their subsequent epic killing spree.

Following bans by Britain and Ireland, as well as a ratings flap in the United States, Take-Two said late Thursday it was reviewing its options.

''We believe in freedom of creative expression, as well as responsible marketing, both of which are essential to our business of making great entertainment,'' the company said.

The game received a preliminary ''Adults Only'' rating in the United States from the industry's self-governed ratings body, the Entertainment Software Rating Board, restricting sales to customers 18 and older.

More importantly, such titles aren't stocked by large retailers such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., and all three console makers -- Microsoft Corp., Nintendo and Sony -- do not allow ''AO'' games on their systems.

Take-Two still could appeal the rating or craft a toned-down version that meets the less-stringent ''Mature'' rating for players 17 and older.

It's a move anticipated by analysts, but no indication was given on the fate of the title as of Friday. Telephone messages left with a Take-Two company spokesman were not returned, and a spokesman for its Rockstar Games division, which created ''Manhunt 2,'' declined comment.

''It's free publicity,'' Sebastian said. ''Consumer backlash is a risk but at the end of the day if it's rated `M' the retailers will take it.''

Added Rick Munarriz, a senior analyst with The Motely Fool: ''If anything, with this suspension there's going to be a demand for it because of the controversy.''

Investors also seemed unfazed as Take-Two shares rose 21 cents, or 1 percent, to $20.82 in trading Friday.

Take-Two and Rockstar still have a marquee franchise on tap for a fall release.

''Grand Theft Auto IV,'' the latest in a series of urban crime games, should prove to be the real money maker when it is released on the PlayStation 3 and Microsoft's Xbox 360 in October.

Previous versions have been top-sellers, and Sebastian said any financial hit from ''Manhunt 2'' would be more than offset by the new ''GTA'' game.

''Relative to Grand Theft Auto it's a lot less significant,'' Sebastian said of ''Manhunt 2.'' ''Grand Theft Auto is the key driver. This is a second-tier title.''

The previous game in the series, ''Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas,'' was at the center of a ratings controversy two years ago that sparked a Congressional inquiry.

Rockstar was forced to replace its first edition of ''San Andreas'' after a hacker discovered a password-protected game inside it that involved a sexual encounter.

This year has already been a turbulent one for Take-Two, which recently underwent a shareholder coup that ousted its chief executive and nearly all of its board.

The company said earlier this month that layoffs were likely as part of a restructuring effort designed to cut costs by about $25 million a year by 2008. Specific numbers haven't been released. Take-Two has about 2,100 employees.

It's not clear what effect the ''San Andreas'' controversy had on sales, as the title had already been available for months by the time the hack was discovered. In 2004, the year it was released, ''San Andreas'' was the top seller with more than 5.1 million copies sold in the U.S., according to market analyst NPD Group.

Controversies like ''Manhunt 2'' are to be expected for a company with a reputation for publishing edgy content, said Munarriz, the analyst.

''You have a company that's always lived in the gray area,'' he said. ''These games are controversial and that's part of the allure.''

    'Manhunt 2' Suspension May Boost Demand, NYT, 23.6.2007, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/us/AP-Games-Manhunt-2.html






'Manhunt 2' Video Game Release Suspended


June 22, 2007
Filed at 2:48 a.m. ET
The New York Times


Players of the video game ''Manhunt 2'' would have assumed the role of a scientist with amnesia who escapes from an asylum and then goes on a bloody killing spree as he tries to remember his past. But consumers may never see it on store shelves.

Following bans by Britain and Ireland, as well as a ratings predicament that would have made it nearly impossible to buy in the United States, publisher Take-Two Interactive Software Inc. decided that it might already be game over for ''Manhunt 2.''

In a short statement Thursday evening, the New York-based company said it was temporarily suspending plans to distribute the game while it reviews its options.

''We continue to stand behind this extraordinary game. We believe in freedom of creative expression, as well as responsible marketing, both of which are essential to our business of making great entertainment,'' the company said.

''Manhunt 2'' had been scheduled for a July 10 release in the United States on both the Wii by Nintendo Co. and the PlayStation 2 from Sony Corp.

But earlier in the week, Britain banned the game because of the violent content. Ireland followed suit a day later, and then Italian Communications Minister Paolo Gentiloni said Thursday that he would seek to have the sale of the game canceled there as well.

In a statement, Gentiloni called the game ''cruel and sadistic, with a squalid environment and a continuous, insistent encouragement to violence and murder.''

In the United States, meanwhile, the video game industry's self-regulated ratings board gave a preliminary version of ''Manhunt 2'' an ''adults only'' rating instead of the more lenient, and far more popular, ''mature'' rating for ages 17 and up.

Slapping ''Manhunt 2'' with the Entertainment Software Rating Board's most stringent rating would likely doom sales. Large retailers including Best Buy Co., Target Corp. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. won't stock AO-rated games.

Rockstar was given 30 days after receiving the ESRB's suggested rating to present an appeal or make changes to the game.

A spokesman for Rockstar declined to comment on Thursday's suspension, which was announced hours after Take-Two issued a statement saying it was determined to bring the title to market regardless of criticism.

Another issue had to do with the console makers: Nintendo and Sony disclosed they have policies barring any AO-rated content on their systems.

Microsoft Corp. has a similar policy, but ''Manhunt 2'' wasn't planned for its Xbox 360. There are no such restrictions on games for personal computers.

The suspension was the latest setback for creator Rockstar Games, which has come under fire for its popular, critically acclaimed ''Grand Theft Auto'' series of urban crime games. Take-Two is still dealing with the fallout of a shareholder coup earlier this year that ousted its chief executive and nearly all of its board.

Rockstar and Take-Two have long been a focal point for debate over the effect of video-game violence on children.

Two years ago, Rockstar was forced to replace its first edition of ''Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas'' after a hacker discovered a password-protected game inside it that involved a sexual encounter.

    'Manhunt 2' Video Game Release Suspended, NYT, 22.6.2007, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/technology/AP-Games-Manhunt-2.html






3.15pm update

Sadistic, brutal and bleak:

censors ban Manhunt 2 game


Tuesday June 19, 2007
Guardian Unlimited
James Orr and agencies


A violent video game with "an unrelenting focus on brutal slaying" has become the first to be banned in Britain for a decade.

Manhunt 2, a sequel to the original and controversial game Manhunt, has been condemned by authorities for its "casual sadism" and "unremitting bleakness".

The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) rejected the game after finding it "constantly encourages visceral killing".

The ruling means the game cannot be legally supplied anywhere in the UK.

David Cooke, director of the BBFC, said: "Rejecting a work is a very serious action and one which we do not take lightly.

"Where possible we try to consider cuts or, in the case of games, modifications which remove the material which contravenes the board's published guidelines. In the case of Manhunt 2, this has not been possible."

The original Manhunt game was given an 18 classification in 2003 and was later blamed for the murder of a 14-year-old boy.

Stefan Pakeerah was stabbed and beaten to death in Leicester in February 2004 and his parents claimed the killer, Warren LeBlanc, 17, was inspired by the game.

At the time, the BBFC described the game as being "at the very top end of what the board judged to be acceptable at that category".

Mr Pakeerah's mother, Giselle, said today she was "absolutely elated" that the game had been banned.

"Manhunt represents a genre of games that are not, in my view and the views of many other people, fit for public consumption," she said.

"We have been campaigning against these games for a long time and the BBFC made the right decision. Why don't these companies invest their energies into creating material that is helpful to society?"

Issuing a certificate to Manhunt 2 would risk the possibility of "unjustifiable harm" to adults and minors, the BBFC concluded.

"Manhunt 2 is distinguishable from recent high-end video games by its unremitting bleakness and callousness of tone in an overall game context which constantly encourages visceral killing with exceptionally little alleviation or distancing," said Mr Cooke.

"There is sustained and cumulative casual sadism in the way in which these killings are committed, and encouraged, in the game.

"The game's unrelenting focus on stalking and brutal slaying and the sheer lack of alternative pleasures on offer to the gamer, together with the different overall narrative context, contribute towards differentiating this submission from the original Manhunt game."

Manhunt 2, made by Rockstar Games, is designed for PS2 and Nintendo Wii consoles. "To issue a certificate to Manhunt 2 on either platform would involve a range of unjustifiable harm risks within the terms of the Video Recordings Act," said Mr Cooke.

Paul Jackson, director general of the Entertainment Leisure Software Publishers Association, which represents the computer and video games industry, said: "A decision from the BBFC such as this demonstrates that we have a games ratings system in the UK that is effective."

Leicester MP Keith Vaz, who campaigned with Mrs Pakeerah against the sale of the game, said: "This is an excellent decision by the BBFC, showing that game publishers cannot expect to get interactive games where players take the part of killers engaged in 'casual sadism' and murder."

Last week, Tony Blair spoke out against another violent video game, Resistance: Fall of Man, which features a shoot-out in Manchester cathedral.

He said of the video game industry: "It's important that people understand there is a wider social responsibility as well as simply responsibility for profit."

The last game to be refused classification was Carmageddon in 1997 but the BBFC's decision was later overturned on appeal.

Rockstar Games now has six weeks to submit an appeal.

    Sadistic, brutal and bleak: censors ban Manhunt 2 game, G, 19.6.2007, http://technology.guardian.co.uk/news/story/0,,2106512,00.html






Church of England

Calls Sony Game 'Sick'


June 9, 2007
Filed at 7:18 a.m. ET
The New York Times


LONDON (AP) -- The Church of England accused Sony Corp. on Saturday of using an English cathedral as the backdrop to a violent computer game and said it should be withdrawn from shop shelves.

The church said Sony did not ask for permission to use Manchester cathedral and demanded an apology.

The popular new PlayStation 3 game, ''Resistance: Fall of Man,'' shows a virtual shootout between rival gunmen with hundreds of people killed inside the cathedral. Church officials described Sony's alleged use of the building as ''sick'' and sacrilegious.

A spokesman for the Church of England said a letter will be sent to Sony on Monday. If the church's request for an apology and withdrawal of the game is not met, the church will consider legal action, the spokesman said.

Sony spokeswoman Amy Lake told The Associated Press on Saturday that the company's PlayStation division was looking into the matter and would release a statement later.

But David Wilson, a Sony spokesman, told The London Times: ''It is game-created footage, it is not video or photography. It is entertainment, like Doctor Who or any other science fiction. It is not based on reality at all. Throughout the whole process we have sought permission where necessary.''

The Very Rev. Rogers Govender, the dean of Manchester Cathedral, said: ''This is an important issue. For many young people these games offer a different sort of reality and seeing guns in Manchester cathedral is not the sort of connection we want to make.

''Every year we invite hundreds of teenagers to come and see the cathedral and it is a shame to have Sony undermining our work.''

The bishop of Manchester, the Rt. Rev. Nigel McCulloch, said: ''It is well known that Manchester has a gun crime problem. For a global manufacturer to recreate one of our great cathedrals with photorealistic quality and then encourage people to have gunbattles in the building is beyond belief and highly irresponsible.''

During the game, players are asked to assume the role of an army sergeant and win a battle in the interior of a cathedral.

    Church of England Calls Sony Game 'Sick', NYT, 9.6.2007, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/world/AP-Church-of-England-Sony.html






Putting the We Back in Wii


June 8, 2007
The New York Times


TOKYO, June 7 — If there is a secret to the smash success of Nintendo’s Wii video game console, it may be this: even the creative loner can benefit from having friends.

Nintendo is known for turning out hits with memorable characters like Donkey Kong and the Super Mario Bros., but it has had a reputation for cold-shouldering game software developers because it preferred to make both its hardware and software internally.

The company, based in Kyoto, Japan, certainly produced innovative designs like the GameCube or the touch-screen on the portable Nintendo DS, but it was perennially outclassed and outsold by the more powerful Sony game machines. Sony’s PlayStation 2 outsold the GameCube six to one.

Contrast that with the success of the Wii. The Wii and Sony’s technology-packed PlayStation 3 went on sale in the United States in November, a year after Microsoft rolled out its Xbox 360. As of the end of April, Nintendo has sold 2.5 million Wii consoles in the United States, almost double PlayStation 3’s sales of 1.3 million and closing in on Xbox 360’s 5.4 million sales, according to the NPD Group, a market research firm.

What changed? The secretive company is coming out of its shell. It has made a concerted effort to woo other makers of game software as part of a broader change in strategy to dominate the newest generation of video game consoles.

The new Nintendo surprised employees at the software maker Namco Bandai Games when during a routine meeting at Namco Bandai’s Tokyo headquarters a year and a half ago, Nintendo’s usually aloof executives made a sudden appeal for their support.

The Nintendo group had come to demonstrate a prototype of the Wii, which had not then been released. They handed Namco Bandai employees the unique wand-like controllers and as the developers tested a fly fishing game, the Nintendo team urged them to build game software for the console, listing arguments about why Wii would be a chance for both companies to make money.

“I had not seen that attitude from them before,” said Namco Bandai’s chief operating officer, Shin Unozawa, who was at the meeting. “Nintendo was suddenly reaching out to independent developers.”

With its new approach, Nintendo hopes to avoid the disappointments of its previous home game console, GameCube, which placed a distant third in the United States against Sony’s PlayStation 2 and the Xbox of Microsoft, say analysts and game developers. It also promises to change the famously secretive corporate culture of Nintendo, though only slightly; Nintendo refused repeated requests for interviews with its executives.

Nintendo’s new strategy is two-pronged. Making the Wii cheaper and easier to play than its rivals attracts a broader range of new customers, including people who never bought a game machine before. With Wii, Nintendo has avoided one mistake it made with GameCube, which was competing with its wealthier rivals on expensive technology-driven performance. While Wii lacks the speed and graphics of PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, Wii sets itself apart with novel ideas like its wireless motion-sensor controller that gets game players off the couch and jumping around.

The other thrust of Nintendo’s new strategy is to enlist software developers like Namco Bandai to write more games for Wii than they did for previous Nintendo machines. Nintendo’s hope is that this will help erase one of Sony’s biggest past advantages: the far greater number of game titles available for its machines. The more games a machine has, the industry theory holds, the more gamers want to play it.

In March, Nintendo’s star game designer, Shigeru Miyamoto, even goaded software companies to devote their top people to developing games for Wii. That is a big change from Nintendo’s previous strategy, which was to write most of its own software. Game developers say Nintendo has been more forthcoming with providing the permissions and codes needed to write games for its consoles.

“The relationship is warmer and more active than before,” said Jeff Brown, the spokesman for Electronic Arts, the giant game developer based in Redwood City, Calif. The push appears to be bringing results. Analysts say one reason for Wii’s popularity has been its larger number of available game titles. At present, there are 58 games on sale in the United States for Wii, versus 46 for PlayStation 3, according to the Sony and Nintendo Web sites. That is a huge contrast with the previous generation of game consoles: to date, PlayStation 2 has 1,467 titles, overwhelming GameCube’s 271 titles.

Nintendo, which was founded in 1889 as a maker of playing cards and made its first video game in 1975, is also opening up in other ways. In March, Nintendo announced that it had licensed its Super Mario Bros. characters to another software maker for the first time, signing a deal allowing Sega to use them in a sports game to appear ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

“Nintendo is determined not to repeat past mistakes,” said Masashi Morita, a games analyst at Okasan Securities in Tokyo. “It is taking a whole new approach with Wii.”

In Japan, the home market of Nintendo and Sony, Wii’s success has been even more striking than in the United States. Through the end of May, 2.49 million Wii consoles were sold, 50 percent more than the combined sales of the PS3 and the Xbox, according to Enterbrain, a market research firm in Tokyo. Aided by the Wii’s popularity, Nintendo’s net profit jumped 77 percent in the most recent fiscal year, ended March 31, from the year before to $1.47 billion, on sales of $8.13 billion. Its shares, traded in the United States as an American depository receipt, have doubled in the last year.

Wii’s success stands in marked contrast with Nintendo’s performance in the earlier generation of game consoles, when it shipped just 21.6 million GameCube machines worldwide compared with Sony’s total shipments of 117.9 million PlayStation 2s, according to Sony and Nintendo. Nintendo’s turnaround has been so startling that there is now talk of the end of the era of Sony’s dominance, with the more than $25 billion global game market now increasingly likely to be split more evenly among the three big rivals.

“Wii’s success shows that from now on, we are looking at a divided market,” said Yoichi Wada, chief executive of Square Enix, one of Japan’s biggest game developers. “We can no longer afford to focus our resources on writing games for just one manufacturer.”

While Square Enix made far more games for PlayStation 2 than for GameCube, it has been developing equal numbers for PlayStation 3 and Wii, the company said. It has so far announced plans to release three games for both new consoles, most of them variants of its popular Final Fantasy series.

The Wii’s simplicity is also the selling point for software makers. Mr. Wada said developers had been slower to write games for PlayStation 3 because of the greater complexity of the console’s main processor, the high-speed multi-core Cell Chip. He said PlayStation 3’s production delays had also made Sony slow to provide developers with the basic codes and software needed to write games for the new console.

At Namco Bandai, Mr. Unozawa said PlayStation 3 was so complex, with its faster speeds and more advanced graphics, that it might take 100 programmers a year to create a single game, at a cost of about $10 million. Creating a game for Wii costs only a third as much and requires only a third as many writers, he said.

But Mr. Unozawa also said Nintendo’s promotional visit in late 2005 helped make Namco Bandai more willing to write games for Wii. When he saw the Wii prototype, and then later saw a PlayStation 3 prototype, he and his colleagues decided the Wii might have more potential than the expensive and difficult-to-operate Sony machine.

“The Wii just looked more fun,” Mr. Unozawa said. “It changed our thinking.”

As a result, on the day Wii rolled out in Japan, Namco Bandai had three games ready for it, including a version of its Gundam robot combat game. By contrast, when PlayStation 3 came out, Namco Bandai had two games ready.

Mr. Unozawa said Nintendo’s more open and cooperative attitude also helped make Nintendo appear a little less intimidating. That helped lower what he and other game developers called one of the biggest hurdles in the past to creating software for Nintendo: fear of Nintendo itself. The company was so good at writing games for its consoles that few wanted to compete against it.

Now, game developers and analysts say, Nintendo is showing itself more willing to be a partner and not just a rival.

“Being cool toward other game developers didn’t work,” said Masayuki Otani, an analyst at Maruwa Securities in Tokyo. “Nintendo has learned that it pays to be friendly.”

    Putting the We Back in Wii, NYT, 8.6.2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/08/technology/08nintendo.html






In Game of Games,

Wii Outshoots PlayStation


May 18, 2007
The New York Times


The sales gap between the Nintendo Wii video game console and Sony’s competing PlayStation 3 widened during April, according to industry performance figures released yesterday.

During April, American consumers bought 360,000 Wii consoles, according to NPD Group, which compiles sales data. That was more than four times the 82,000 PlayStation 3 consoles sold, NPD reported.

The ratio has widened from the first three months of the year, when the Wii outsold Sony’s new console 2 to 1.

During April, Microsoft sold 174,000 of its Xbox 360 game consoles, NPD reported.

The sales figures indicate that Nintendo has continued momentum since it introduced the Wii late last year. At the same time, Sony, which introduced the PlayStation 3 around the same time, continues to struggle to build its own momentum, in part because of its higher price, industry analysts said.

The Wii costs $249, while the PlayStation 3 costs $499 or $599, depending on the model. The Xbox 360 costs $299 or $399, depending on the model.

“I doubt you’ll see an acceleration of sales until you see a price cut or better software lineup,” said Evan Wilson, an industry analyst with Pacific Crest Securities, speaking of the PlayStation 3. “The question is how big of a hole has Sony dug itself into.”

But Mr. Wilson and other analysts said it was too soon to determine whether the hole would be too deep for Sony to climb out. The battle for dominance among console competitors can take years to play out, and this one is only a few months old.

Over all, NPD reported, Nintendo has sold 2.5 million Wii consoles in the United States, compared with sales of 1.3 million for the PlayStation 3 and 5.4 million for the Xbox 360, which went on sale in November 2005.

David Karraker, a spokesman for Sony, said that his company expected to attract consumers by increasing the number of games available for the PlayStation 3. He said that Sony and its partners planned to publish at least 105 games by March 2008, more than doubling the current library.

He declined to discuss the possibility of pricing changes or the growing gap in sales between the Wii and the PlayStation 3.

Sony continues to own the second best-selling game console — not the PlayStation 3 but its predecessor, the PlayStation 2. In April, it sold 194,000 units, for a total of around 38 million in its lifetime.

    In Game of Games, Wii Outshoots PlayStation, NYT, 18.5.2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/18/technology/18game.html






'Halo 3' to Land in Stores in September


May 16, 2007
Filed at 4:13 a.m. ET
The New York Times


DALLAS (AP) -- Legions of Master Chief fans can now mark their calendars for Sept. 25. That's when ''Halo 3,'' the newest sci-fi video game saga and the first specifically designed for Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360 console, is expected to arrive on store shelves.

The first-person shooter is the latest addition to the company's popular science fiction franchise in which an armor-clad human space soldier fights alien hordes in sprawling single and online multiplayer battles.

Shane Kim, corporate vice president for Microsoft Game Studios, predicted sales would surpass those of ''Halo 2,'' which the company claims reached $125 million within the first 24 hours in 2004.

''In terms of great exclusive content this is the biggest weapon that we have,'' he said.

The announcement comes as a ''beta,'' or test version, of ''Halo 3'' is being offered to consumers through June 6, allowing players to test out some of the game's multiplayer features ahead of schedule.

The beta only shows the game's multiplayer online aspects, however. Details of the single-player story remain a secret, Kim said.

''Halo 3'' will be available in three versions: a ''standard'' edition for $59.99, a ''limited edition'' that includes features about the making of the game for $69.99, and a $129.99 ''legendary edition'' that is packaged with a large metal helmet that looks like the one worn by the game's protagonist, Master Chief.


On the Net:

Halo 3: http://www.halo3.com 

    'Halo 3' to Land in Stores in September, NYT, 16.5.2007, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/technology/AP-Halo-3-Launch.html






Virtual Trip: Travel in 'Second Life'


May 12, 2007
Filed at 12:32 a.m. ET
The New York Times


NEW YORK (AP) -- The tour was a whirlwind: dancing at a beachside disco in Spain surrounded by scantily clad women, grabbing a seat at a lively pub in Dublin, flying in a small aircraft above a lush, tropical forest. Time elapsed? Less than two hours. With no tickets required, no money spent and no need to leave your seat, touring in the virtual world of ''Second Life'' holds a certain appeal for travelers willing to delve deep into the Internet to find their escape.

Visitors need only download a free program, then log in. With the help of elaborate 3-D locales designed and built by the world's residents, tourists can watch their online embodiments -- known as their avatars -- lounge at the beach, dine at a romantic restaurant, or go out dancing at a crowded nightclub.

Like in the real world, it's easy to get lost. Longtime inhabitants of ''Second Life'' are creating automated tours, opening virtual travel agencies and even publishing travel guidebooks modeled after those seen in the hands of confused tourists.

Of course, there are some glaring differences between your average Frommer's guide and ''The Unofficial Tourists' Guide to Second Life,'' published in April by St. Martin's Press.

''There are sections on how to fly and how to hover,'' said co-writer Paul Carr. But despite such necessary adjustments, he said, ''it's very much like going to a foreign country.''

With the ability to fly and even teleport from place to place in ''Second Life,'' which hosted more than 1 million visitors in April, a vacation does not need to be a lengthy affair.

As they travel to virtual Roman neighborhoods and fantastical worlds, visitors can interact with other participants from all over the (real) world -- about three-quarters of users are from outside the U.S., mostly from Europe, Brazil, Canada, Japan and Australia.

In ''Second Life,'' even language difficulties are a thing of the past. Visitors can pick up a free translation program and carry on typed conversations with others speaking any of nine languages.

For those looking to get their bearings, one option is the guided tour. Virtual travel agency Synthravels seeks to match up ''tourists'' and volunteer guides in 27 different online worlds, including ''Second Life,'' ''World of Warcraft'' and others.

On one recent tour of ''Second Life,'' Synthravels founder Mario Gerosa led the way to a virtual representation of the Spanish island of Ibiza, stopping first at a shop selling traditional flamenco garb, then at a disco surrounded by sand and sea, where with the click of a mouse avatars can dance.

Next stop is Midnight City, where a flight above the skyscrapers shows the moon's light reflected on the ocean's waves. Nearby, a simulation of a solar eclipse allows Gerosa's avatar, Frank Koolhaas, to walk right up to a blazing sun, standing on the fabric of outer space.

Also on the tour: Dublin, a popular hangout among Irish users, and an island called Svarga, where a flying pod carries avatars above what appears to be a rain forest filled with huge trees and giant mushrooms.

Like any guided tour in ''Second Life,'' though, this one carried its own inherent difficulties. With both leader and led under their own power, it was quite easy to get separated. Several times, Gerosa's avatar lost some of its clothes.

Like the Vatican in the height of tourist season, ''Second Life'' locations tend to get especially crowded when it's evening in the U.S. or Europe, and the resulting computer lag time can make navigating cumbersome.

And finding a guide, in of itself, can be a challenge. The Synthravels Web site has connected guides and tourists more than 200 times, according to Gerosa, but for now it does not charge visitors or pay guides, and finding a tour depends on the sometimes-fickle interest of volunteers.

But with some persistence and a willingness to just walk up to knowledgeable avatars and ask, there are guides to be found, Carr said.

''There are quite a few people in 'Second Life' who will offer a tour in exchange for a few Linden dollars,'' said the writer, referring to the world's currency, which can be bought and sold for real-world cash.

Those having a hard time securing a personal tour can turn to a number of automated options. Many site creators post vehicles near arrival points and program them to give visitors a tour of the location.

By heading to The Guided Tour Company of Second Life, where automated tour vehicles ranging from hang-gliders to flying carpets are sold, avatars can access a programmed tour of tours.

By clicking on the free guide, users can teleport to Icarus, where a giant dragonfly carries them to a romantic dance floor surrounded by twinkling stars. Clicking again brings them to Venice Island, where a gondola takes them to an old church adorned with Renaissance paintings and an ornate, carved pulpit.

Another click leads to Cocoloco Island Resort, where a white hot-air balloon ferries them around what looks amazingly like a Caribbean resort: beach chairs, thatch cabanas, and a pool that -- with a few mouse clicks -- allows visitors to float on their backs for hours.

At least for now, few people are charging visitors for such travel services. Even a stay at ''aloft,'' a recently reopened virtual hotel by Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc., is free. But the many entrepreneurs of ''Second Life'' may yet find a way to make travel pay, said Jeska Dzwigalski, a community developer with San Francisco-based Linden Research Inc., which runs the virtual world.

She said she has seen the tours and ''travel agencies popping up that help people and give them an experience they might not otherwise find. ... As we've grown, that became a potential business for people.''

Karen Hemmes has seen the demand firsthand -- or at least through the eyes of her avatar, Sierra Sugar.

A Gainesville, Fla., nurse by day -- and a DJ at ''Second Life'' events by night -- Hemmes received a virtual hot-air balloon as a gift, and started taking friends for rides. By the end of many of these tours meant for two, her balloon was packed to capacity with passers-by who had asked to join in, she said.

Visitors can even capture a few photos or home videos to remind them of their trip. Screen grabs of a virtual Times Square and videos of avatars surfing are easily found on image-sharing sites around the Web.

For those planning to go, though, Carr suggests visitors don't follow his example.

''If you want to retain friends and not kill yourselves, then you need to take lots of breaks,'' said Carr, who holed himself up in a London apartment with co-writer Graham Pond in the final days of their research, subsisting on tinned goods and bottled water.

    Virtual Trip: Travel in 'Second Life', NYT, 12.5.2007, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/technology/AP-Virtual-Travel.html






Toy story

One of this summer's big blockbusters is a movie designed with one purpose: to sell toys. John Anderson looks at how Transformers takes product placement to the final frontier


Friday May 4, 2007
John Anderson


'Some will come to defend us ... Most will come to destroy us." All of the Transformers, however, will be coming to pick our pockets this summer, because this is the season the robots-cum-vehicles will take over the world. Today sees the rerelease of the 1986 animated movie, followed on July 4 (in the US - and on July 27 here) by a multimillion dollar remake, combining live action and CGI, directed by blockbuster specialist Michael Bay (Pearl Harbor, Armageddon, The Rock), and with Steven Spielberg on board as executive producer. A movie based on a toy, and designed largely for the purpose of selling toys, might well become the biggest box-office hit of the summer.
Product placement is nothing new to the film industry, of course. But the history of using movies to sell toys is rather longer than you might expect, dating back before the commonly accepted date of 1977, when Star Wars and its accompanying range of merchandise were launched upon the world. "The first time I ever remember anything like that was with the original Doctor Dolittle,'" says Joel Coler, a former head of marketing for 20th Century Fox, who now runs the Beverly Hills-based consultancy Rain Shadows Entertainment. "We got all kinds of stores to do displays all over the world." But back in 1967, when movies cost much less, there was less risk attached to a venture like this. "The biggest problem today," says Coler, "is that, no matter what the movie budget is, the marketing costs worldwide are so huge that in some cases they can be two or three times the cost of the film. The advertising, the publicity, they're so expensive that you're that much better off if you can get Hasbro or Mattel or whomever to put everything together." And who makes the Transformers toys? Hasbro.

Transformers - with Spielberg reckoned by Hollywood observers to be very much the power behind the film - seems equipped for battle both at the box office and the aisles of Toys R Us. Last month, Hasbro revealed an entirely new line of movie-linked Transformers. And in an effort to make the consumer's world "more than meets the eye" (a longtime teaser for the toy line), it will have further spin-offs in stores at the start of June, such as the Optimus Prime Voice Changer Helmet, Optimus Prime Big Rig Blaster, and Starscream Barrel Roll Blaster.

The commercial exploitation of this brand reads like a roll call of America's biggest companies. Pepsico has done a deal with Hasbro to produce a Pepsi-branded Optimus Prime figure that transforms into a Pepsi tanker (Pepsi's slogan this year is "Transform your summer"), and General Motors has come on board, with a tie-in to the car models into and from which the various Transformers mutate - Bumblebee with the Chevrolet Camaro; Autobot Ratchet with the Hummer H2, and Ironhide with a GMC TopKick medium-duty truck.

So it's easy to see the benefit to the toymakers and their partners of a film such as Transformers. But why would a studio want to make the movie in the first place? Because a large proportion of the marketing has already been done for it.

"It's a very simple thing," says Coler. "It's a matter of getting the name and information about the film out. If it's done through a toy, a book, whatever. From a marketing research viewpoint it's always been this way: they check the numbers about who knows what about which films, and if it doesn't reach a certain level of recognition the film won't open, no matter what happens. It has to get past a certain number via the licensing, the advertising, the publicity, the things being sold." And Transformers already has the recognition in spades, given that kids who know nothing about the 1980s TV series still play with the toys.

"The objective with the movie is to create an experience that's more exciting than playing with the toys, which shouldn't be hard to do," says Mark Gill, a producer and former president of Miramax, which, once upon a time, distributed the product-pushing Pokemon: 4Ever. "And when you have the name recognition of Transformers, you're well ahead of the game."

Coler's point about the things being sold, though, is at the heart of Transformers. Researchers for Disney found that a preschool child will watch their favourite DVD or video an average of 17 times before getting bored, which means it's almost foolish for the studios not to use their product to market toys to their viewers. Nevertheless, even merchandise-friendly movies such as Toy Story were, first and foremost, movies. The true ancestors of Transformers are the stream of toy-pushing DVD movies, such as the Barbie animated series. As well as the huge profits on sales of each cheaply-made Barbie movie, Mattel took profits of around $150m in increased toy sales as a result of each of them - that's why you rarely see simple Barbie and Ken in toy shops, but movie tie-ins such as Barbie Fairytopia, or Barbie: Magic of Pegasus.

Transformers, though, takes things to a completely new level: unlike the Barbie movies, this is the big summer blockbuster hope of a major studio, in this case Paramount/Dreamworks (which did not respond to several requests for comment). Does anyone expect Transformers to be made with the same art as the great Pixar animations? Are the bells and whistles starting to drown out the orchestra?

The thing is, though, that producing a cash cow on this scale isn't as easy as one might imagine. "The big problem you run into with these things is so-called 'synergy', which they all preach but which I've almost never experienced," says Bud Rosenthal, a former Columbia Pictures marketing executive and one-time consultant to both Warners and Paramount, whose film projects have included Superman, Ghost Busters, Space Jam and Rugrats, all retail-rich movies aimed at a youth market. "You're trying to integrate the whole thing, and some get it better than others."

One fear for the makers of Transformers (both the movie and the toy) is that a large part of its target audience just isn't there any more. "It would have been a dream," a Hasbro spokesperson says, had it been possible to make a live-action Transformers movie years ago, when the original hardcore fanbase - now 25 to 35 years old - was the right age to flock to cinemas and toy shops. As it is, the nostalgia factor should bring some of those original fans into cinemas, while the state-of-the-art computer technology - the visual engineering is by George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic - should seduce the mallrats. The assumption has to be that Transformers will cross over, and back.

"One of the strengths is that 'Transformers' has been around for 20 years and as a result there are a lot of fans," says Michael Verrecchia, Hasbro's director of marketing for Transformers. "They're fans with a strong emotional connection to the characters. They take it very personally and they have particular expectations about how the Transformers will be portrayed. So when we called our branding team together, we wanted to make sure we were the ears and voice of the fans."

Transformers, he says, is directly analagous to the superhero movies. As with DC Comics when its characters have been used as the source material for feature films, Hasbro was very concerned, Verrecchia says, with maintaining the "integrity" of the toy line. "There's never been a live-action feature film of this magnitude based on a toy, but the time was right. What attracted the studios to the project ultimately was the story, the lore. Once they saw how that worked, they got it."

With the awesome power of Hollywood behind it, Transformers will surely succeed, despite all the rumoured bickering among its many producers and the general lack of critical enthusiasm for the oeuvre of Michael Bay. Oddly, though, the thing that could make Transformers a success, and hence sell more toys for Hasbro, is something very human. "I don't do much prognostication," said Paul Dergarabedian, of the LA-based Media by Numbers, which tracks box-office for the film industry. "However, I think the expectation for this have gone up since the star-making performance of Shia LaBeouf in Disturbia. Transformers had a solid cast, but didn't have a break-out star till LeBeouf. Disturbia has been No 1 for weeks, and it's made a star out of him. So it's raised the stock of Transformers. Paramount has got to be pleased.'"

As should, perhaps, the human race itself: wouldn't it be ironic - and comforting - if the determining factor in the success of Transformers turned out to be made of flesh and blood?

    Toy story, G, 4.5.2007, http://film.guardian.co.uk/features/featurepages/0,,2071458,00.html






The rise of the machines


Friday May 4, 2007
Eric Clark


From a marketing viewpoint, the birth of Transformers toys in 1984 was an orchestrated act of genius. It not only launched one of the most successful playthings ever, it propelled a massive change in toy selling. Today, marketing rules; toys and the entertainment industry have become two sides of the same coin. The groundwork of all that was laid with the birth of Transformers.

Hasbro, now the world's second biggest toy company, had licensed Diacron, a puzzle toy with cars and planes that transformed into robots, from the Japanese company Takara. The Japanese had tried to sell it on the American market for a year. When it failed, they handed licensing rights to legendary toy man Henry Orenstein, who took the toy to Hasbro.

Convinced it could still be a success, Stephen Hassenfeld, Hasbro's CEO, the man regarded by many as the architect of the modern toy industry, had made the decision to market the toy instinctively. Now Hasbro had to make it work. Just how was thrashed out in an after-hours car ride between Hasbro's Rhode Island headquarters and New York City: the toy company's marketing chief and the three heads of Hasbro's ad agency Griffin Bacal brainstormed for three and a quarter hours.

One after another, decisions emerged. The toys would no longer be three-dimensional puzzles but characters in a story, with cars (the Autobots) being the good guys, and planes (the Decepticons) the bad guys. Joe Bacal came up with the name Transformers against initial opposition from the others. A back-story was created: Transformers had all come from Cybertron, a distant planet, where civil war raged between giant alien robots, under siege and desperate for fuel supplies.

By the time they reached New York, Diacron was no longer a stand-alone puzzle. As Transformers, it had broken away from its role of toy as object. The play pattern was spelled out. So too was the inducement to keep buying Transformers merchandise - playtime now would need lots of characters and props.

The remaining problem was how to sell such a fantasy toy effectively on television - the use of animation in advertising in the US at that time was strictly controlled. The Griffin Bacal agency had the answer. They made Transformers the subject of a comic book, and then advertised that instead to create awareness of the Transformers brand: there were no guidelines for commercials for comic books, because comic books never advertised on television. Griffin Bacal's ingenuity drove a coach and horses through the rules. Now the commercials could include all the animation they wished.

There was one more ingredient. Over a decade before, the Federal Communications Commission had cracked down on attempts by toy companies to introduce toy-led programmes. But now, under the Reagan administration, that changed. Transformers was free to become a "programme-length commercial".

A watershed had been crossed. The old idea of basing toys on characters in books or movies or programmes was turned upside down. Now the toy came first. The borders between programme and product became forever blurred, and in 1984 the Transformers TV series was launched.

Transformers sold $100m worth of toys in its first year - the most successful toy introduction in history at that point. Despite ups and downs since, constant marketing-led initiatives - new TV series spinning off new toys - have ensured it has never been out of production, a triumph in a business where a successful toy is one that lasts more than a year.

· The Real Toy Story: Inside the Ruthless Battle for Britain's Youngest Consumers by Eric Clark is published by Black Swan, £8.99

    The rise of the machines, G, 4.5.2007, http://film.guardian.co.uk/features/featurepages/0,,2071469,00.html






New Toys Read Brain Waves


April 30, 2007
Filed at 7:48 a.m. ET
The New York Times


SAN JOSE, Calif. (AP) -- A convincing twin of Darth Vader stalks the beige cubicles of a Silicon Valley office, complete with ominous black mask, cape and light saber. But this is no chintzy Halloween costume. It's a prototype, years in the making, of a toy that incorporates brain wave-reading technology.

Behind the mask is a sensor that touches the user's forehead and reads the brain's electrical signals, then sends them to a wireless receiver inside the saber, which lights up when the user is concentrating. The player maintains focus by channeling thoughts on any fixed mental image, or thinking specifically about keeping the light sword on. When the mind wanders, the wand goes dark.

Engineers at NeuroSky Inc. have big plans for brain wave-reading toys and video games. They say the simple Darth Vader game -- a relatively crude biofeedback device cloaked in gimmicky garb -- portends the coming of more sophisticated devices that could revolutionize the way people play.

Technology from NeuroSky and other startups could make video games more mentally stimulating and realistic. It could even enable players to control video game characters or avatars in virtual worlds with nothing but their thoughts.

Adding biofeedback to ''Tiger Woods PGA Tour,'' for instance, could mean that only those players who muster Zen-like concentration could nail a put. In the popular action game ''Grand Theft Auto,'' players who become nervous or frightened would have worse aim than those who remain relaxed and focused.

NeuroSky's prototype measures a person's baseline brain-wave activity, including signals that relate to concentration, relaxation and anxiety. The technology ranks performance in each category on a scale of 1 to 100, and the numbers change as a person thinks about relaxing images, focuses intently, or gets kicked, interrupted or otherwise distracted.

The technology is similar to more sensitive, expensive equipment that athletes use to achieve peak performance. Koo Hyoung Lee, a NeuroSky co-founder from South Korea, used biofeedback to improve concentration and relaxation techniques for members of his country's Olympic archery team.

''Most physical games are really mental games,'' said Lee, also chief technology officer at San Jose-based NeuroSky, a 12-employee company founded in 1999. ''You must maintain attention at very high levels to succeed. This technology makes toys and video games more lifelike.''

Boosters say toys with even the most basic brain wave-reading technology -- scheduled to debut later this year -- could boost mental focus and help kids with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism and mood disorders.

But scientific research is scant. Even if the devices work as promised, some question whether people who use biofeedback devices will be able to replicate their relaxed or focused states in real life, when they're not attached to equipment in front of their television or computer.

Elkhonon Goldberg, clinical professor of neurology at New York University, said the toys might catch on in a society obsessed with optimizing performance -- but he was skeptical they'd reduce the severity of major behavioral disorders.

''These techniques are used usually in clinical contexts. The gaming companies are trying to push the envelope,'' said Goldberg, author of ''The Wisdom Paradox: How Your Mind Can Grow Stronger As Your Brain Grows Older.'' ''You can use computers to improve the cognitive abilities, but it's an art.''

It's also unclear whether consumers, particularly American kids, want mentally taxing games.

''It's hard to tell whether playing games with biofeedback is more fun -- the company executives say that, but I don't know if I believe them,'' said Ben Sawyer, director of the Games for Health Project, a division of the Serious Games Initiative. The think tank focuses in part on how to make computer games more educational, not merely pastimes for kids with dexterous thumbs.

The basis of many brain wave-reading games is electroencephalography, or EEG, the measurement of the brain's electrical activity through electrodes placed on the scalp. EEG has been a mainstay of psychiatry for decades.

An EEG headset in a research hospital may have 100 or more electrodes that attach to the scalp with a conductive gel. It could cost tens of thousands of dollars.

But the price and size of EEG hardware is shrinking. NeuroSky's ''dry-active'' sensors don't require gel, are the size of a thumbnail, and could be put into a headset that retails for as little as $20, said NeuroSky CEO Stanley Yang.

Yang is secretive about his company's product lineup because of a nondisclosure agreement with the manufacturer. But he said an international toy manufacturer plans to unveil an inexpensive gizmo with an embedded NeuroSky biosensor at the Japan Toy Association's trade show in late June. A U.S. version is scheduled to debut at the American International Fall Toy Show in October.

''Whatever we sell, it will work on 100 percent or almost 100 percent of people out there, no matter what the condition, temperature, indoor or outdoors,'' Yang said. ''We aim for wearable technology that everyone can put on and go without failure, as easy as the iPod.''

Researchers at NeuroSky and other startups are also building prototypes of toys that use electromyography (EMG), which records twitches and other muscular movements, and electrooculography (EOG), which measures changes in the retina.

While NeuroSky's headset has one electrode, Emotiv Systems Inc. has developed a gel-free headset with 18 sensors. Besides monitoring basic changes in mood and focus, Emotiv's bulkier headset detects brain waves indicating smiles, blinks, laughter, even conscious thoughts and unconscious emotions. Players could kick or punch their video game opponent -- without a joystick or mouse.

''It fulfills the fantasy of telekinesis,'' said Tan Le, co-founder and president of San Francisco-based Emotiv.

The 30-person company hopes to begin selling a consumer headset next year, but executives would not speculate on price. A prototype hooks up to gaming consoles such as the Nintendo Wii, Sony PlayStation 3 and Microsoft Xbox 360.

Le, a 29-year-old Australian woman, said the company decided in 2004 to target gamers because they would generate the most revenue -- but eventually Emotive will build equipment for clinical use. The technology could enable paralyzed people to ''move'' in virtual realty; people with obsessive-compulsive disorders could measure their anxiety levels, then adjust medication accordingly.

The husband-and-wife team behind CyberLearning Technology LLC took the opposite approach. The San Marcos-based startup targets doctors, therapists and parents of adolescents with autism, impulse control problems and other pervasive developmental disorders.

CyberLearning is already selling the SmartBrain Technologies system for the original PlayStation, PS2 and original Xbox, and it will soon work with the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. The EEG- and EMG-based biofeedback system costs about $600, not including the game console or video games.

Kids who play the race car video game ''Gran Turismo'' with the SmartBrain system can only reach maximum speed when they're focused. If attention wanes or players become impulsive or anxious, cars slow to a chug.

CyberLearning has sold more than 1,500 systems since early 2005. The company hopes to reach adolescents already being treated for behavior disorders. But co-founder Lindsay Greco said the budding niche is unpredictable.

''Our biggest struggle is to find the target market,'' said Greco, who has run treatment programs for children with attention difficulties since the 1980s. ''We're finding that parents are using this to improve their own recall and focus. We have executives who use it to improve their memory, even their golf.''


On the Net:

NeuroSky Inc.: http://www.neurosky.com

Emotiv Systems Inc.: http://www.emotiv.com

CyberLearning Technology LLC: http://www.smartbraingames.com

    New Toys Read Brain Waves, NYT, 30.4.2007, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/technology/AP-Mind-Reading-Toys.html






A Case of Rough Play, or More,

That Turned Fatal in Queens


April 29, 2007
The New York Times


On a recent afternoon behind Public School 127 in East Elmhurst, Queens, two girls in jeans and parkas crouched on the ground, track-and-field-style, and then skipped the length of the basketball court. Boys flung a ball back and forth with maniacal energy. There was no reminder of the moment that passed here a month ago, when one 13-year-old boy struck another on the head and the second sat down, in pain.

But in two homes in East Elmhurst, that moment goes on and on.

On 100th Street, a family is mourning the boy who was hit, Guarionex Montas, who died March 24 of a skull fracture and bleeding in his brain. Miguel Cepeda cannot shake the memory of holding Guarionex, his nephew, that night, when bloody foam began to flow from his nose and mouth so fast that Mr. Cepeda used a roll of Bounty trying to soak it up.

A cousin remembers quieter things about the boy, known as Guachy (pronounced GWA-chee): How he wanted to be a detective, how he had trouble pronouncing the letter R. He was, she said, “the loved one out of the whole family.”

Ten blocks away, another family is frightened for their own boy, a gangly seventh grader who faces a charge of third-degree assault. When he was arrested and taken to a juvenile center, his uncle flew in from Los Angeles, and 20 supporters showed up for hearings in Queens Family Court. Borough President Helen Marshall, a neighbor in East Elmhurst, was so concerned that she offered to supervise him when he was released.

“Whatever happens, this child has to be cleared of this thing,” she said in an interview.

In the coming months, the justice system will struggle to find an appropriate punishment — if any — for an act that seems to fall into the murky area between play and violence. Defense attorneys say the boys were engaged in slap-boxing, an ordinary form of adolescent horseplay; prosecutors say the boy hit Guachy in the head with a hard object and then threatened to hurt him and his brother if they reported it. As the case progresses, East Elmhurst is torn along an invisible line, with two large families mobilized in the name of their sons.

“This is a very tragic case, and also a very difficult case,” Judge Rhea Friedman said at a hearing earlier this month. “It is distressing to have to make critical decisions with so little information, frankly.”

The two boys were friendly, by all accounts. Guachy’s mother moved her four children to East Elmhurst from the South Bronx a year ago, hoping to raise them in a safer, more middle-class neighborhood. The family of the other boy — The New York Times is withholding his name because he is being charged as a juvenile — has lived in East Elmhurst since the 1950s, when it was one of the few neighborhoods where black families could buy a house.

He gave the police his account of what happened on March 23. The afternoon began with a trip to McDonald’s and a visit to a friend’s house to play Xbox 360. After that, he said, the group “went to the handball court to slap-box.”

His uncle, a video producer and editor who lives in Los Angeles, said slap-boxing, done with an open hand, is a longstanding and benign tradition in the neighborhood.

“It’s part of how you develop a reputation for being able to stand up for yourself,” he said. “It’s sort of like an entry into your teen years. It’s like cubs fighting. Whoever’s the quickest tends to win.”

In this case, the boy told police, Guachy got hurt. He said he hit Guachy in the temple, and that Guachy sat down, complaining of a headache. Guachy’s brother Jose, a 15-year-old who attends the sixth grade at P.S. 127, said it was time to go. When Jose went to fetch their coats, the boy said in the statement, Guachy hit his head a second time, on a pole, but no explanation was offered in the first court appearance as to why he did so. The boy also reported that Guachy had been drinking alcohol.

Guachy’s uncle Casimiro Cepeda said Guachy did not drink, and noted that the blow to the head came just an hour after school had let out.

Guachy and Jose walked five blocks to their apartment. Neither said anything to their mother or stepfather about what had happened, but Guachy went to bed, saying he felt sick. He woke up complaining of pain and swelling, so his stepfather stepped out to buy Advil. A few hours later, Jose saw blood pouring from his brother’s nose and mouth.

Hours passed in the hospital before the doctors gave the results of a CT scan: Guachy’s skull had been fractured and a vein had burst, Mr. Cepeda recalled. He was declared dead at 10 the next morning.

The family pressed Jose to explain what had happened. At first, he said the injury had happened accidentally — a flying elbow in a basketball game — but then he changed his story. Later, when the family was in the Dominican Republic for Guachy’s funeral, Jose told authorities that the other boys had threatened that he would be “stabbed or jumped” if he told the truth.

Now, Jose told them, he felt safe enough to say that the boy “took an object and hit the decedent in the head,” as the city’s lawyer, Theresa Wilson-Campbell, put it in court. Ms. Wilson-Campbell said that when the police executed a search warrant at the boy’s home, they found a small black umbrella with a wooden handle that the authorities believe might be the weapon.

Other boys at the playground gave “widely different accounts,” describing the two boys as “playing,” said Melanie Shapiro, a defense lawyer, at the hearing. Everyone described them as close friends, she said.

The boy who hit Guachy was one of the mourners at his wake in Queens on March 27; Guachy’s relatives remember that he dropped off a card and a stuffed rabbit. On March 30, he was arrested.

Prosecutors for the City Law Department, which handles juvenile delinquency cases, are not allowed to discuss pending cases publicly. But a typical investigation would begin by seeking facts, said Laurence Busching, the Law Department’s family court division chief: Where were the kids in relationship to each other? How big or small were they? Were these “two kids who have been playing all along and something just happened, or is there some motive and some reason it changed from play to something else?” How much harm are they physically capable of inflicting?

“Even though you have great emotional responses, you still have to put those things aside and focus on what are the facts,” Mr. Busching said.

The charge at the boy’s arrest was manslaughter — which could bring a penalty of 18 months in a juvenile center — and he was detained. When the deadline arrived to file, though, the city could present evidence only for two lesser charges of third-degree assault, a misdemeanor that could bring a maximum penalty of a year in a juvenile center. After a juvenile is placed with the Office of Children and Family Services on a delinquency case, the agency can seek to extend the placement year by year until his 18th birthday.

Kim McLaurin, the head attorney at the Legal Aid Society’s Queens juvenile rights division, said taking the boy from his home could prove particularly damaging.

“On the one hand, you do appreciate the fact that a child has died,” she said. “But you don’t want to prejudge, because the stakes are high.”

In court, Ms. Wilson-Campbell argued that the boy had a history of being aggressive, and said the principal of P.S. 127 was trying to remove him from school because of discipline problems.

She also quoted from a notebook found in a search of the house, which described him as the leader of a gang of 50 boys, and said that “they sent out their boys when somebody messes with them.”

“It seems to be part fiction and part journal,” she said of the writings.

Judge Friedman seemed skeptical, and ordered the boy released to his mother, warning him sternly against having contact with members of Guachy’s family. She noted that his school records showed good attendance and did not reflect a “dangerous or aggressive youngster,” and that he had no juvenile police record. “I do not see the nexus between any alleged gang activities and, for lack of a better word, dangerousness,” she said.

She found probable cause for one count of third-degree assault. “It is either a terrible accident gone wrong, or it may be something that rises to the level of penal law,” she said. “We don’t know the answer to that.”

The Cepedas buried Guachy in Villa Altagracia, a seaside city in the Dominican Republic, where his mother grew up. They were still there when they heard that the boy had not been charged with manslaughter, and it angered them to hear that elected officials like Ms. Marshall had come out in his support.

Guachy’s mother and stepfather met on Friday afternoon with Councilman Hiram Monserrate, who represents East Elmhurst. Edwin Hernandez, 33, a cousin, said they believe the beating “had something to do with a gang in school, maybe an initiation or something, where they take one of the weakest kids.”

“It is not justice,” said Mr. Cepeda, Guachy’s uncle . “You see people working for the city trying to save this guy. You know the thing he did; he didn’t break a window.”

The other boy’s family and their supporters are, for their part, fiercely protective.

“I don’t know where he’s going in life, but I’m going to make sure that he gets there,” said Ms. Marshall, who allowed the boy to stay in her office at Borough Hall for two days when he was released. Relatives are particularly angry that prosecutors have said that he was affiliated with a gang. His uncle called that notion “laughable.”

“I know the kid,” he said. “He doesn’t even backtalk. He doesn’t have the temperament for that.”

    A Case of Rough Play, or More, That Turned Fatal in Queens, NYT, 29.4.2007, http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/29/nyregion/29punch.html






Nintendo Plans to Boost Wii Production


April 27, 2007
Filed at 8:47 a.m. ET
The New York Times


TOKYO (AP) -- Nintendo's president acknowledged Friday that the shortage of the hit Wii game machine was ''abnormal,'' and promised production was being boosted to increase deliveries by next month.

''We must do our best to fix this abnormal lack of stock,'' Nintendo President Satoru Iwata told reporters. ''We have not been able to properly foresee demand.''

The comments came a day after the Japanese manufacturer of the Wii -- which comes with a wand that can be used as a sword, tennis racket or fishing rod depending on the game -- reported that sales nearly doubled for the fiscal year, lifted by robust sales of the Wii and the DS portable, a handheld video game.

Kyoto-based Nintendo Co.'s net profit jumped 77 percent to 174.29 billion yen ($1.47 billion) in the year through March, up dramatically from 98.38 billion yen a year earlier. Sales soared 90 percent to 966.53 billion yen ($8.13 billion).

The Wii has pummeled its rivals in a head-to-head battle in next-generation video game consoles involving Sony Corp.'s PlayStation 3, which has been plagued with production problems, and Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360.

Iwata refused to disclose the monthly production capacity for the Wii, and said it was too early to say by how much the production was being raised.

But he said efforts were under way to increase production, and more machines will get delivered to stores around the world.

''We will do our best to offer the machine for those who are waiting,'' he said at a Tokyo hall.

The Wii's motion-sensitive remote control wand has made it hit even with people unaccustomed to playing video games. It faced some minor problems early on with its wand, which flew out of the hands of some zealous players, snapping the strap and at times crashing into TVs. But that hasn't dented profits, and the console is still flying off store shelves.

Nintendo, which also makes Pokemon and Super Mario games, is planning to sell 14 million Wii machines for the current fiscal year through March 2008, having sold 5.84 million Wii consoles worldwide in the five months since its release late last year.

Sony has sold just 1.84 million PlayStation 3 machines so far worldwide, while Microsoft has shipped more than 10 million Xbox 360 consoles worldwide.

The PlayStation 3 went on sale late last year in the U.S. and Japan, and in March in Europe. Xbox 360 beat rivals to market in 2005.

Nintendo also has a big hit in the DS, selling more than 40 million since its launch in late 2004. The machine comes with a touch panel, introducing new easy-to-play games such as raising a dog that players can pet on the screen. Nintendo expects sales of 22 million more DS machines this fiscal year.

Iwata said Nintendo is now producing 2.5 million DS machines a month to meet bursting demand, the highest production ever for a Nintendo game machine.

    Nintendo Plans to Boost Wii Production, NYT, 28.4.2007, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/technology/AP-Japan-Nintendo.html






PC to Leapfrog

Standalone Game Consoles


April 20, 2007
Filed at 6:30 p.m. ET
The New York Times


DALLAS (AP) -- From the movie-like graphics in the action game ''Gears of War'' to the nearly photorealistic racer ''MotorStorm,'' video games have come a long way since the bouncing blocks of ''Pong.''

A new breed of visually striking games promises to light up computer screens with even sharper, more lifelike graphics than ever before. But unlike the popular ''Gears of War'' or ''MotorStorm,'' the games won't be debuting on Sony Corp.'s PlayStation 3 or Microsoft Corp.'s Xbox 360 consoles.

Instead, the PC is returning to the pinnacle of video game graphics -- thanks to some under-the-hood tweaks in Microsoft's Vista operating system.

The technology behind these improved visuals, called DirectX 10, is the result of a collaboration among video game developers, graphics card makers and Microsoft. For years, they have been working to streamline and standardize the software used by Windows-based PCs to display graphics.

The latest improvements, many believe, far surpass even the very best of what the consoles are capable of. Case in point: the upcoming PC shooter ''Crysis,'' where players take the role of a battle-savvy soldier who has to uncover the secrets behind an asteroid that has smashed into Earth.

Beams of light glimmer through a jungle overgrown with swaying palm trees, and the thick underbrush gets more detailed with a closer look. Gaze into the distance and you can see aquamarine waves crashing on a white sand beach. Zoom in on a soldier to see an emotive face with stubble, freckles and other subtle individual details.

DX10 requires a specialized graphics card and there are only a few games today that take advantage of its capabilities.

Though relatively few consumers have yet to upgrade to Vista, dozens of game makers who have been using DX10 believe the benefits of the technology will quickly lure hardcore gamers willing to spend money on the best systems, whatever the cost.

Game players who frequent the Warezabouts LAN Center in Forney, Texas, often ask owner JJ Tarno about Vista and DX10, but most seem to be waiting for more compatible games to come out before they make the switch from Windows XP.

Tarno, 31, said he's looking forward to games like ''Crysis'' and has been impressed with the video clips he's already seen.

''If you want to play next-gen games you have to have a next-gen operating system,'' he said. ''A game like 'Crysis' comes out and you just say, `How much is that game?' About $1,500 with new video card, RAM and processor.''

Many game developers are excited at the technology's prospects.

''Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures,'' due in October, will put players into a persistent online fantasy world of barbarians and mythical monsters.

''What we tried to achieve with the graphics is something that we called 'magical realism,''' said Jorgen Tharaldsen, product director for Funcom, which is developing the game in Oslo, Norway. ''With DX10 we can just add a lot more bells and whistles. We can start pushing graphics to the stage where it almost looks realistic.''

Bill Roper, whose Flagship Studios is developing the action adventure game ''Hellgate: London,'' said he wasn't concerned that not everyone has Vista or a DX10-capable graphics card yet.

''As with every new technology, the hardcore lead the way and the masses catch up,'' he said. ''Not everyone that has an iPod or a DVD player went out and bought theirs on day one. As with previous operating system and hardware advances, the more products that support it and can show the tangible benefits of upgrading, the more widespread the adoption.''

The DirectX standard dates back to the mid-1990s when upgrading add-on video cards on home computers was still a hobbyist's pursuit, something hardcore gamers did to extract the most performance from 3-D shooters like ''Quake'' or ''Unreal.''

Subsequent versions have added new features to speed up graphics and give game programmers more tools to simulate the movement and appearance of liquids and other complex objects.

As the demands from game makers (and players) have grown increasingly complex, so too have the capabilities of DirectX. The software lets programmers tell the 3-D computer chips in graphics cards whether to simulate a wisp of smoke or a mirror's reflection.

DX10 not only makes games look better, it also promises to improve performance by simplifying how the graphics cards process video information and display it on the screen.

''It means the realism will take a dramatic jump,'' says Roy Taylor, vice president of content for Nvidia Corp., which makes 3-D video chips for computers. ''It's going to look dramatically more real.''

Those effects have taken on a cinematic quality with DX10.

''We can create a world that looks and feels more real and is more responsive,'' Roper said. ''We have volumetric fluid smoke that responds to objects that pass through it. We have soft shadows that get softer with distance from the caster.''

Of the few DX10 games currently available, including Microsoft's own ''Flight Simulator X,'' differences between DX10 and its predecessor, DX9, are dramatic, with water and atmospheric effects that look more like an actual video recording than a computer approximation of reality.

Still, the slew of DX10-enabled games expected to be released by the Christmas holiday will be compatible with older versions of DirectX. They just won't look as good on DX9 PCs.

Of the 76 million video chips expected to be sold by the end of 2007, only about 16 million will be DX10 compatible, according to Dean McCarron, principle analyst at Mercury Research. Yet DX10 chips should account for about half of $2.2 billion graphics chip market this year, added McCarron, whose figures don't reflect the massive integrated graphics chip market.

While he expects the overall market to remain flat for the next five years, he said DX10 chips will grow to account for about $2 billion of the $2.2 billion industry by 2011.

For now, only Nvidia offers graphics cards that support DX10. Prices range from $600 for a high-end model -- as much as a new PS3 console -- to less than $100 for a less powerful card.

Rival ATI Technologies Inc., which was acquired by Advanced Micro Devices Inc. for $5.6 billion last year, expects to launch its DX10-capable cards sometime in the second quarter.

Chris Donahue, group manager of Microsoft's Games for Windows unit, admits that DX10 is an example of the PC surpassing the consoles. The company's own Xbox 360, for example, uses a custom version of the older DX9 standard that can't be upgraded.

''Consoles are a snapshot of where the PC is at the time they were made,'' he said. ''The consoles are a step that stays flat for five years. The PC is basically a 45 degree angle.''

Still, the special effects that take a room of computers weeks to render for movies like ''The Lord of the Rings'' remains out of the reach of DX10, said Richard Huddy, a member of AMD's European developer relations team.

But PC graphics technology is closing in fast.

''The human brain is one of the most fussy systems when it comes to reality,'' he said. ''When it comes to pure graphics rendering we certainly haven't cracked the problem to give a better, more convincing reality. We think we have the next 10 years before we catch up with reality.''

    PC to Leapfrog Standalone Game Consoles, NYT, 20.4.2007, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/technology/AP-Games-Vistas-Visuals.html






Mattel Posts

Higher - Than - Expected Profit


April 16, 2007
Filed at 6:36 a.m. ET


NEW YORK (Reuters) - Mattel Inc. (MAT.N) on Monday posted a surprise first-quarter profit as sales of Hot Wheels and Fisher Price toys rose.

Net income at the largest U.S. toy maker fell to $12 million, or 3 cents a share, from $30.2 million, or 8 cents a share, a year earlier.

Analysts on average were expecting a loss of 5 cents a share, according to Reuters Estimates.

Sales increased to $940.3 million from $793.3 million, topping the analysts' average estimate of $847.8 million.

Worldwide gross sales of Barbie rose 2 percent, offsetting a decline in the United States, Mattel said.

Later this month, Mattel is slated to unveil Barbie Girl, its next-generation fashion doll line, in its latest attempt to beat back a stiff challenge from MGA Entertainment's pouty-lipped, street-smart Bratz dolls.

Since coming to market in 1959, Barbie has been a key driver of Mattel's profits, and reinvigorating the brand has been one of the El Segundo, California-based company's top priorities in the last year.

Mattel also said Fisher Price sales rose 27 percent to $391.3 million, while sales of its Wheels category, which include Hot Wheels and Matchbox, rose 15 percent.

    Mattel Posts Higher - Than - Expected Profit, R, 16.4.2007, http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/business/business-mattel-results.html






Teenage Riddle:

Skipping Class, Mastering Chess


April 13, 2007
The New York Times


It is early afternoon, 20 minutes into G band — or sixth period — at Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn. But today, Shawn Martinez, a third-year student, and one of the stars of its national championship chess team, is nowhere near school.

Instead, while his classmates memorize the periodic table of the elements, perform Shakespeare or solve for x, Shawn, wearing a black do-rag under a brown Yankees cap, distractedly watches a pickup chess match inside the atrium of a building on Wall Street. The place is a hangout for chess hustlers.

Shawn, 16, skips a lot of school — “It wasn’t weeks that I missed, it was months,” he says — but he is no ordinary truant. He is so gifted a chess player that he has claimed a place among the top young players in the nation after learning the game only four years ago. He is also important to Murrow’s chances of capturing its fourth consecutive national high school title; the tournament begins today in Kansas City, Mo.

Shawn comes to Wall Street to play a type of chess called blitz, a game in which the ticking of a three-minute clock eliminates the ponderous pauses of traditional chess and transforms the game into a fevered, trash-talking street sport in which money, not prestige, is the prime motivator. For Shawn, a large bet might be $10 a game.

“It helped my game to play for money,” said Shawn, dismissing as “average” the players he had been watching. “I love chess with a passion. It’s all the situations you get put in — it’s like life to me. It’s like anger to me. Sometimes, if I don’t like something that’s happening, I can take my anger out on the chessboard.”

Murrow has no varsity sports; its nationally known chess team is a source of deep pride at the school. And while Shawn’s story has echoes of the classic tale of the star high school athlete who struggles academically but remains on the team, it is also very different. Instead of marveling about quarterback options and touchdown passes, his supporters speak about castling and checkmates. And no one questions his intelligence.

Charming and funny, Shawn has a remarkable long-term memory, and parries easily with older members of the Wall Street crowd as he takes their money. He is by turns quiet and boisterous, open and defensive, and seems easily bored. He says he does poorly in English class, but he is well spoken. During nearly three years at Murrow, Shawn has missed so many classes that he is credited with passing only three courses.

Administrators and the teacher who runs the club say they have struggled with Shawn, and are seeking a balance of how to engage him in his studies without barring him from the one thing about which he is passionate. Beth Siegel-Graf, Murrow’s assistant vice principal for student guidance, said allowing Shawn to compete on the team is part of a strategy intended to keep him from dropping out altogether.

“What we try to make students and parents understand is that students doing poorly in school are hooked to the building because of their extracurricular activity,” she said. “We try to use that activity as a hinge.”

A math teacher named Eliot Weiss started the school on its road to becoming the powerhouse it is today when he formed a chess club; Murrow is now able to attract some of the city’s best young players. The team was the subject of a recent book, “The Kings of New York,” by Michael Weinreb, an occasional contributor to The New York Times. Two years ago, the team met President Bush in the White House.

Shawn, like many great players, has been blessed with the combination of an amazing visual memory and the ability to essentially see into the future by predicting various outcomes within a few seconds. During the past two years, Shawn has raised his United States Chess Federation rating more than 100 points to 2,028, giving him the rank of expert, a level just below master, and ranking him No. 19 among 16-year-olds. During that same two-year period, however, he has flunked every class.

His relationship with chess sums up his contradictions: he loves it, yet in one candid moment he said it had ruined his life. He had strong grades in sixth grade, he said, but was failing in seventh — the year he started playing. And he rejected the opinions of adults that he benefits from his relationship with the game.

“I became addicted to chess,” he said. “They think they did something for me, but they didn’t. Chess didn’t save my life. They want to make it like I’m a kid from the ghetto and I can play chess and that’s special. Why does it have to be like that? It’s embarrassing. They compare me to my environment — the way I dress to chess. You don’t have to be the brightest person in the world to play chess.”

Perhaps the most significant of those adults, Mr. Weiss has evolved into something of a father figure for Shawn, whose own father died when he was young. The teacher said he was taken aback by Shawn’s chronic underperformance.

“I have never had a student this talented in a particular skill — not just talented, but one of the best in the country — and so disinterested in schoolwork, not understanding what it means to fail high school,” Mr. Weiss said.

On some days, Shawn does attend classes with about 10 other students who are also behind. On many other days, he simply does not bother. He likes math, but the algebra course he has been forced to take repeatedly is too easy, he said, so he does not make an effort. “The sad thing is, some of the kids can’t even do it,” he said.

Murrow, a 4,000-student school in the Midwood neighborhood with a far-reaching variety of course offerings that are reminiscent of a small liberal arts college, was founded in 1974, and it gives its students considerable freedom. Periods are called bands. There are no bells, and no one is herded from class to class. Free time is scheduled into every school day, and students can choose to eat, to sleep, to do homework, to do nothing or, as Shawn has often done, to play cards in the cafeteria.

“It is a school where if you don’t have your personal responsibility together, you could drop out,” Shawn said.

Ms. Siegel-Graf, the assistant vice principal, said Shawn was allowed to accompany his teammates on the plane to Missouri on Wednesday afternoon after a conference at which he promised that, this time, he would begin going to school regularly. Shawn turns 17 on April 24 — 11 days after the nationals start — and Ms. Siegel-Graf said Shawn and the school had worked out an arrangement in which although he would still be technically enrolled at Murrow, he would begin taking courses to prepare for the G.E.D diploma.

The rules for the national tournament require students to be enrolled full time in school in the United States or its territories for the entire semester. They also state, “The coach is responsible for assuring that all of his players are properly registered and eligible to participate as members of his team.”

On a recent Thursday, a few weeks before the nationals, Shawn said he had not gone to school because he had a sore throat. Later, he said he had run out of minutes on his mobile phone and needed to win some money playing chess to pay the bill.

Here, among the businesspeople and tourists on Wall Street, Shawn sticks out with his Yankees cap, baggy jeans and well-worn red and black Nike high tops, but he also mixes easily with the stockbrokers and others who come to play.

They challenge Shawn and lose their money, even after he warns them he is an expert.

“What I do is allow them to think they can beat me,” he said, though he denies adamantly that he is a hustler. “It’s gambling, and gambling you do at your own risk.”

Playing chess for money is a gray area in the law. The state statute generally prohibits wagering on “games of chance,” but it is unclear whether chess falls into that category. A Police Department spokesman did not respond to a request to clarify the matter.

Shawn was taken away from his birth mother when he was one week old because of her crack cocaine habit. Lidia Martinez, a widow who is Shawn’s adoptive mother, said she knew immediately upon seeing the week-old Shawn that she wanted to adopt him. Ms. Martinez acknowledged however, that she, like everyone else, had failed to get her son to go to class. “He believes he’s too smart for school,” she said.

Shawn says he is able to remember his biological father, who died when he was 2. He says he can even recall his own first birthday.

At Murrow, Shawn is the third best chess player, behind the seniors Alex Lenderman and Sal Bercys, who are each among the top 2,000 players in the world. They were both featured prominently in Mr. Weinreb’s book, while Shawn appeared in fewer passages. In one he is described as being “monosyllabic” and unable to let his guard down.

“The kid’s been an enigma since junior high school,” Mr. Weinreb wrote. “He has a gift, that much is clear, and he’s managed to discover it amid a life that has been fraught, like so many in the city, with disappointment.”

While Alex and Sal have played since around the time they started kindergarten, have had private coaches, and have extensive experience at tournaments, Shawn claims to have never even cracked a chess book. “I never studied a book in my life,” he said. “I’m too bored.” Shawn said he learns by playing, often against opponents online. He favors an aggressive style that employs his pawns as attackers.

“When you put pawns together, there’s no stopping them,” he said. “You put two or three together and they practically control the whole game. People know me for my pawns.”

Teenage Riddle: Skipping Class, Mastering Chess,
NYT, 13.4.2007,




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