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Doug Thompson

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Thoughts on Grand Theft Auto

By Doug Thompson

Grand Theft Auto’s latest version of the game is more successful than ever. Grand Theft Auto, the platform mover, is not.
Opening week sales of GTA IV broke records. Sales for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s PlayStation 3 game consoles, however, barely rose during this massive debut.
This is surprising and alarming news for both console makers.
I’ll quickly recap points I’ve covered before: The PS3 was a Trojan Horse to get people to buy the Sony Blu-Ray player in the console. The ploy worked. This was vital for Sony to win the format war against rival next-generation home movie disc format HD-DVD.
However, now Sony is stuck with a very expensive console. Blu-Ray players are not cheap. The processing power needed to take full advantage of all the data Blu-Ray can store isn’t cheap, either. This makes competitive pricing impossible.
The only way out of that fix is to have “platform moving” games. Those are must-have games — like GTA and precious few other franchises — with so much data to be processed and so much beauty in its graphics to behold that people will pay $500 for a console just to play such a game.
This was what GTA IV was supposed to do for the PS3 while adding some boost for the Xbox 360, too.
That didn’t happen.
Folks, if GTA can’t do it, what can?
This wouldn’t be a problem for Sony if people were willing to buy a PS3 just to have a relatively cheap Blu-Ray player. This isn’t happening either. PS3 sales worldwide are in-line with Xbox 360 sales. The Xbox 360 is just a console, nothing more. It’s an HD-DVD player too with the right attachment, but that’s irrelevant now.
Microsoft went after GTA IV very aggressively. There’s no telling how much money they spent. The series had always rolled out as a PlayStation exclusive before. This time, Microsoft was going to have the game at the same time. It even contracted with GTA’s developer, Rockstar, to produce later chapters of exclusive add-ons to the game just for the Xbox 360.
I don’t know whether it was worth it for Microsoft just to deny the PS3 a major exclusive. All I know is that it’s given Sony another hard hit.
For now, analysts quickly noticed the flat post-GTA console sales and hollered for price cuts. That’s understandable, and perhaps even logical. For Sony, however, that would be a very expensive proposition.
The Box, meanwhile, has had a history of technical faults that were very expensive to fix. Microsoft put $1 billion that we know of into the replacement of overheating Boxes. Those heating issues were addressed in later versions of the console. A new version with a new chipset is supposed to be available at retail in August.
All of this means that the usual dynamic — sell the console at a loss and make money selling  games — is not as effective as it used to be. This is especially tough on Sony. It’s hard to sell enough games to subsidize your hardware when your hardware is still trailing the Box and Nintendo’s Wii, and Microsoft is in a bidding war with you for just about every great game — like GTA — that might save you.
It’s also hard to convince yourself that you’re going to make up further big losses in hardware sales when the big surefire seller — GTA IV — is behind you and Metal Gear Solid is so near to coming out.
Running in the background of all this is the Wii. It appeals to a different, more casual market. However, dollars are dollars. “Wii Fit” might just be a fitness gimmick. We’ll see. Still, $90 for the game and the exercise board that comes with it is $90 less for people to spend on anything else — including a new console.
Watch the sales of Metal Gear: Guns of Patriots, which is due out June 12 as a PS3 exclusive. This is the PS3’s best hope for the foreseeable future. If that game doesn’t move the console, Sony is in for a long, hard battle of attrition that it may never win.

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