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Sony to Debut Photo-Realistic Game, Says Wall Street Journal. August 30, 2008

Posted by Admin in Playstation 3, Software.
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TOKYO — Sony Corp. is releasing a new safari game this week for its PlayStation 3 videogame console that purposely steers clear of attributes found in most popular videogames: It has no shooting, little action, no winning or losing, and not even an ending. Players simply observe wild animals in the savanna and take virtual photos.

But Sony is hoping that the game, called Afrika, will impress players with its advanced graphics. The developers, who spent nearly four years creating the game — including two visits to Africa — packed a fictitious national park with photo-realistic zebras, elephants, lions and dozens of other exotic animals.

Afrika, which goes on sale Thursday in Japan for about $54, is an important test for Sony, which is seeking to broaden its videogame sales beyond a core audience of young male players who love action-packed games. The electronics giant is hoping the game could lead to a new genre of nature-exploration games.

“This is a different approach to interactive entertainment, and some people may not see it as a game,” said Kazuo Hirai, chief executive of Sony’s videogame unit.

There is no doubt that Sony is trying a new approach. Because it costs so much to develop games for today’s technically advanced consoles, videogame companies often stick to sequels of popular games or surefire hits along familiar themes.

But whether a different tack will succeed in drawing new players to the PlayStation 3 is unclear. “I prefer games that are a little more challenging and [have] some kind of thinking element rather than just observing,” says Jeremy Howard, a 32-year-old in Tokyo.

PlayStation 3 sales recently have accelerated after a slow launch two years ago, but they still lag behind rival Nintendo Co.’s Wii, which has been more successful at capturing casual game players with innovative, easy-to-play games. Mr. Howard, for example, says he mostly plays Nintendo’s Mario Kart racing game with his three small children.

As of June 30, Sony has sold 14.4 million PS3s cumulatively world-wide, compared with 29.6 million Nintendo Wiis and more than 20 million Microsoft Corp. Xbox 360s.

Sony officials say they hope to sell at least 100,000 copies — respectable in an industry where unit sales must be more than 500,000 to be considered a hit. They hope the game will trigger purchases of PS3s by first-time game players. If the game sells well, Afrika could also help persuade independent publishers to develop newer games that take advantage of the PS3’s technological capabilities more fully, says Sony. The company declines to say how much it spent to develop the game.

David Cole, an industry analyst with DFC Intelligence, says most PS3 owners are serious game players who could find Afrika too tame. “It has a lot of potential, but a lot of the consumer base that might really like that type of game may be tough to attract,” Mr. Cole says.

Another challenge: The PS3 has the ability to render images more realistically than ever before, and developers took extra care with the smallest details like the way muscles ripple when they move. But the digital renderings may not be enough by themselves to impress players, who likely have seen the real thing in zoos or through ubiquitous nature programming on television.

To keep things simple, the game doesn’t have features common elsewhere. There is no online capability other than being able to put up a single photograph to share with others. Players also can’t customize the character beyond choosing a man or woman, and they never die, though they can faint and get sent back to the base camp if they get too close to dangerous animals.

Nevertheless, some longtime industry observers say the game could draw game players looking for something brand new. “The graphic quality in this one is so high that it could be fun to watch what the zebras are doing all day,” says Hirokazu Hamamura, president of Enterbrain Inc., which publishes Japan’s foremost videogame magazine.

Afrika is a single-player game. The player takes on the role of a photojournalist, exploring and watching the way animals behave. Players can see cheetahs hunting, a band of hyenas stealing another animal’s kill, or other scenarios. “I think there’s room for a gorgeous game that can be lazily played,” says Katsumoto Tatsukawa, who created the game with just 25 developers, far fewer than the 100 or more developers that would typically be assigned to a high-profile game.

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