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Nintendo: ready to pick up the slack


Sony's announcements this week about PS3 delays were certainly big news, though they can't really be called surprising. Dark rumors of manufacturing troubles have haunted the company for weeks. What with outcries over advertising campaigns and their less-than-stellar showings at the trade shows, Sony's problems have cast a pall over their entire year. Regardless, confirmation that there were delays, that the number of consoles at launch would be cut to only 500,000, and that launch would be delayed for months in Europe -- until March, in fact – almost seems like the nail in the coffin of their image.

Now, just to clarify -- while we may trade jibes with the other fanboys from time to time, in the end, we're all in this together, bound by a mutual love of games. Any true gamer appreciates a good game simply for its goodness; we savor smooth controls and smoother heroes, mouth-watering graphics and addictive gameplay. And we salute Sony, because they have brought us some of our most cherished gaming experiences. Sony isn't home, but it's a nice place to visit now and then.

But having granted that we bear Sony no grudge, it's impossible to ignore the fact that the news of the week will affect Nintendo, and so we have a stake in the fallout.

A great deal of what will happen in the next year depends on Blu-ray. Sony isn't just arriving somewhat disheveled and unprepared for the console war – they're also wading into a format war. And the delays and problems with the PS3, and even the exorbitant price, can be attributed to their backing of Blu-ray. And for what? SCEA president Kaz Hirai insists that Blu-ray is the only way to ensure a true HD experience without spreading games across multiple discs. But we've seen some truly massive games since the launch of the Xbox 360, and they seem to be getting along just fine without Blu-ray. And Nintendo is unconcerned about foregoing HD completely in favor of providing an affordable console that's all about gaming. Blu-ray is turning into a death ray for Sony, and they need to wrestle it into submission quickly. Cutting their launch numbers – and thus, launch profits – in half is not helping at the moment. All they're doing is opening the gates for the competition, and perhaps driving away both loyal and future fans ... fans who will end up with other consoles dominating their living rooms.

Short term, Sony's problem is largely image. It's a problem of perception, and while we gamers may play anything good, there are a lot of good games out there vying for our money. Sony will need to rebuild its image if they want to ensure a piece of that pie. This winter, the war will be fought with comparisons, and Nintendo moves more DS Lites in one week than Japan will get PS3s at launch. And that perception will grow worse if there is, in fact, a holiday shortage in the U.S. and Japan because Nintendo will be there. Microsoft will be there. Only Sony is late to the party, and that reputation gets more and more difficult to shake over time.

Dave Karraker, Sony's new head of corporate communications (what a time to step into that job) has been putting a heavy spin on the news. Compare it to the Xbox 360 launch, he says. Don't look at the launch numbers, he insists, but look at what we'll provide by the end of the year. Great. But how to spin that Sony's known about this problem for weeks? The very same launch estimates that are rocking the gaming world slipped into a Gamespot interview that disappeared soon after. Covering up the truth doesn't help that image problem ... particularly when Nintendo smugly announces, on the tail of Sony's delays, that they're going to be right on time with their new generation console.

Even if Sony ends up providing more than enough consoles to North America and Japan to cover all the demand (to our friends in Europe: we'll see you on Ebay), the perception that there was a shortage -- and the fact of a real delay -- will linger. These days, Sony is seen as unreliable, from their exploding laptop batteries to this week's news. Facts don't matter when it comes to consumers, not really. Perception is key, and the reaction to the news of Sony's delays is telling. People aren't surprised. Oh, problems for Sony? Pfft, says the world. What else is new?

What's worse is that it may really play out that way, sans the delay in Europe. There's no getting around that; European consumers won't appreciate being told they're not as important as the United States and Japan (in fact, they are already striking back). All they've got to look forward to is a hope that by the time they get consoles, the early kinks will be worked out. But as for the U.S. and Japan, the number of consoles promised now for launch should be enough, if the Xbox 360 launch offers any clues. Last November, more than 300,000 Xbox 360s were sold in the U.S. in November, and 100,000 sold in Japan by the end of December. Considering that Sony is promising 500,000 consoles in those markets at launch alone, with 1.5 million more by the end of the year, they should be able to cover most of the early demand.

Now, the 360 did suffer from shortages, so there's no real way of knowing how many more would have been needed to sate the market. But the 360 launched alone, whereas the PS3 will have competition on all sides. That, combined with the PS3's high price tag, should mitigate the demand somewhat. But will it matter? We'll still know that there were problems and delays (again), and Europe will certainly remember that for them, Sony's only consistent product this year was disappointment.

So it looks like the Wii is set to sail away on a wave of mutilation this holiday season. Problems for Sony mean a bump for Nintendo, and with the innovative new trail the Wii is blazing -– into markets the DS has begun to crack for Nintendo already -– this can only be good news for the House of Mario, even if we're nice and call it bittersweet. This week's announcements, coupled with analysts' predictions growing stronger for the Wii means that Nintendo is set up to enjoy a very sweet Christmas. Today's early news confirming that Nintendo is ready for launch only cements what is a sure win for the Wii.

And we're happy to welcome battalions of new fanfolk into the ranks. Being a fan is hard at times. We understand. After all, information comes at a premium from Nintendo and we often hang on rumors for weeks, chewing our nails as we scan the Internet for news, news that often doesn't come (uh, launch date, price?). We're not saying it's all roses ... but, this winter, when the urge for a new console hits, Wii will be there, warm and welcoming. And we'll play together.

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