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E3 Notebook: Expanding the Playing Field

Staff Reporter Troy Wolverton is in Los Angeles to attend the Electronic Entertainment Exposition -- better known as E3 -- which is the video-game industry's giant annual gathering. He's filing occasional dispatches on news, rumors, sights and thoughts from the show.


Among the console makers, one of the big themes of E3 has been using the next generation of machines to expand the audience for gaming.

At Microsoft's (MSFT) press event Monday, for instance, J. Allard, who heads up the company's Xbox development efforts, noted that while early video-game systems such as the original Atari console got the entire family involved in gaming, more recent systems have tended to attract just what people now consider the core gaming audience: males under the age of 34.

Each of the three big console makers is hoping their new consoles will attract groups outside that demographic, such as women and older, former gamers. And each seems to have its own strategy of getting there. Nintendo, for instance, seems to be putting the emphasis on games such as Nintendogs, a program in which users care for a virtual canine, and Elektroplankton, a program that enables users to compose music.

Both Sony (SNE) and Microsoft hope to draw in new users by emphasizing the multimedia capabilities of upcoming consoles. On Sony's PlayStation 3, users will be able to surf the Internet and have video conferences with friends. Microsoft's Xbox 360 will stream music and movies from users' home networks to their entertainment systems and will link with an online marketplace.

Indeed, Allard predicted that Microsoft's efforts to expand the audience for gaming will be so successful that a billion people eventually will play games on its Xbox 360. Considering that sales of the original Xbox have yet to reach 30 million, the company has its work cut out for it.

The new consoles may indeed attract a new audience, but at least for now, many in the game-publishing industry are skeptical. The consumers who buy the new systems at launch are likely going to be the core gamers, they note, who are going to care a whole lot more about playing the latest and greatest games than any of the ancillary functions of the new consoles.

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