More bang for your buck with latest consoles


Songs downloaded for the likes of Guitar Hero and Rock Band have outperformed sales of iTunes versions, writes EMMET RYAN

THE ALLIANCE of Microsoft with Sky this week has signalled a clear intent by the Xbox maker to target those paying for the presents this Christmas.

Xbox Live users can from this week subscribe to the full range of channels available through Sky Digital. The service does not require the user to own a Sky box, as content can be accessed directly through an Xbox 360 console.

This alliance is the most significant part of a series of non-gaming efforts by Microsoft to make Christmas shoppers think about the console as more than just a gaming device.

On top of Sky Digital, there are downloadable movies, music on demand and upcoming Facebook and Twitter services.

All of this is part of a push to spread the appeal of the Xbox 360. Hardcore gamers will always prioritise gaming, but this latest effort aims to target a different market segment.

Casual users who enjoy games such as Pro-Evolution Soccer might be drawn in by the prospect of switching straight from an Xbox 360 match to watching their favourite teams in action on the one device.

There’s even a feature where user avatars, computer-generated representations of gamers, can appear on screen during real matches and celebrate or moan, depending on the user’s actions.

While this hardly seems enough to persuade most gamers to opt for the Xbox 360 over a Nintendo Wii or Sony PlayStation 3, there is still the “parent factor” to consider.

The average age of gamers is rising, but there are still plenty of children looking to tear each other to ribbons over console games. The potential family aspect of online gaming has been heavily promoted in Nintendo’s recent adverts for the Wii.

There is another reason to appeal to those buying the gifts.

With the Sky alliance, Microsoft has opened up the potential to appeal to tired parents. Once the kids have been disposed of for the evening, the Xbox they leave behind might present some relief through the entertainment applications.

Microsoft has already seen some impact from these ancillary services, such as selling users clothing for their avatars. The IT giant is not willing to give out figures, but it claims this service is generating a sizeable amount of income.

Downloadable content for games has already proven successful. Downloadable songs for the likes of Guitar Hero and Rock Band in the Xbox Live marketplace have outperformed iTunes sales of normal versions of these tracks.

Microsoft is looking to extend that success into other realms of entertainment in the lead up to Christmas.

For partners such as Sky, the alliances open up a new audience used to paying for services through a console. Netflix, a US DVD rental firm, saw its membership increase by 2 million on the back of an Xbox 360 partnership.

Whether this is really likely to influence someone’s purchasing decision at the end of the day is far from certain.

Dad might like the idea of watching the Heineken Cup on an Xbox, but if the price of peace is a Wii, then the hard money says the Wii will win out.

Microsoft is hoping there is space in the market for more amicable commerce. “Games are still the most important factor, the big blockbusters which will still drive console sales,” says Sarah Devitt, marketing manager for the Microsoft entertainment and devices division.

Nintendo and Sony are engaging with non-gaming entertainment as well, but like Microsoft, these firms acknowledge that gaming is still the deciding factor.

“Applications like Facebook, which you can currently upload pictures to from our DSi console, are great features and mean you can get so much more out of your console,” says Lewis Digby, spokesman for Nintendo.

“However, Nintendo’s ultimate goal is to make gaming fun and accessible to everyone.”

Blu Ray capability has been at the centre of Sony’s marketing strategy for the PlayStation 3 for some time. Like Microsoft, it, too, has moved to bring downloadable content such as movies and music videos online.

The recent price cut to €299 for the 120GB slim version of the PS3 has probably done more to aid sales than any of these new additions. This is just €50 more than the 120GB Xbox 360.

Last month the PS3 topped the US console sales charts for the first time ever, on the back of a similar price cut.

While Blu Ray and the new features will be a selling point for Sony, the console maker will be hoping that exclusives like Buzz Quizworld and Singstar Take That can provide a market edge.

Finding a decisive advantage won’t be that easy as there are few exclusive titles, at least among the popular games.

The Wii has two big exclusives, in new versions of Wii Fit and Super Mario Brothers, but the Xbox and PlayStation are largely fighting over the same turf.

“DJ Hero from Activision is out today and is expected to be huge,” says Michael Finucane, commercial director of Gamestop. This game, along with other expected hits such as Modern Warfare 2 and Assassin’s Creed 2, are all available on both the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.

With so many of the big hitters this Christmas available across multiple consoles, the power is shifting further towards the consumer.

This increases the chances that home entertainment and PC-like features could play a significant role in buying decisions.

Wii worries

Nintendo has unexpectedly announced a 52 per cent slide in quarterly profit, slashing its full-year earnings forecast, as the Wii console lost its place as the video game platform to beat.

Demand for Nintendo’s family-friendly games has cooled as rivals Sony and Microsoft bolster their catalogue of games that appeal to diehard players.

Nintendo’s portable game machine, the DS, also faces increasing competition from Apple’s iPhone, which has become a popular platform for handheld games. And, like other Japanese exporters, Nintendo has been hit by the stronger yen, which eats into the value of overseas profits.

The group has slashed its annual sales forecast for the Wii by nearly a quarter and, in an attempt to reignite demand, it says it will roll out a large-screen version of the DS. – (Reuters)