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Daily | 04.16.01
The X-Box Hustle
Justin Hall on Bill Gates's star turn at the Tokyo Games Show

THIS YEAR'S Tokyo Games Show, which ended earlier this month, saw the richest man in the world bow before the Japanese Teenager. Gamers in Japan are responsible for one third of worldwide video game revenues, and the country's game developers turn out much of the software that makes consoles sell in the rest of the world. The Tokyo Games Show is where these folk come to share the state of the art in console video gaming, and anyone who wants to dominate the games market has to win this crowd over. Bill Gates is no exception: He showed up this year to promote Microsoft's X-Box.

The Microsoft marketing machine went to great lengths to dazzle the Games Show audience. In the cafeteria, each lunch tray featured a picture of Gates, smiling and holding up a Japanese X-Box controller in one hand, and a cheeseburger in the other. An inscription in the upper right-hand corner read, "Which Is More Delicious?"

Gates climbed onto the stage at the show surrounded by smoke and lasers. A forty-six-year-old with a post-op haircut, he has bought himself a place in the epicenter of international adolescent entertainment. Here was the man at his best: smiling proudly, touting a new future for technology as evil-looking computer-generated bodies twisted and writhed in simulated violence on the display screen behind him.

Microsoft's outreach to this market is built around strategic partnerships with big-name Japanese companies, notably Sega. Now in full retreat from the front lines of the gaming hardware wars, Sega is throwing its game-smithing prowess behind X-Box. It has promised Microsoft eleven games, including sequels sure to please both hardcore and hipster gamers (the next Jet Grind Radio, and the next Panzer Dragoon, to name two).

Nippon Telephone and Telegraph, the AT&T of Japan, also announced an agreement with Microsoft to bundle the X-Box with residential DSL. Their presentation was long on corporate affirmation and short on deal specifics, but this partnership is a key element in Gate's vision for his fun machine. X-Box will include broadband capacity (cable and DSL through ethernet), and Gates talked up the "new online realities" made possible by connected consoles. While he stayed away from financial details, the business model behind this is subscription gaming: With connectivity, each game could garner small fees and X-Box administered micropayments, providing a long lifetime of additional revenues.

But this mind-blowing medium of the future will probably have to wait until someone gives Bill some bigger pipes. There's been a lot of grim news lately concerning the collapse of American DSL service providers, and it seems likely that the population of high-speed gamers won't grow beyond the current single-digit percentages for some time. Perhaps Microsoft will release a retrograde modem peripheral; otherwise, the X-Box will offer users little more than the latest revision of the graphics hardware, and the first hard drive to ship with a video game console. The hard drive could be the greatest contribution to the industry, giving developers the chance to provide new levels and downloadable content to keep old games fresh. But downloading and playing online both require broadband; the unique qualities of X-Box are largely contingent on the cost and availablity of high speed internet connections.

These kinds of Grand visions in video gaming have been around for decades; there was a modem planned for even the early Atari machines. This industry has seen enough failures to give us pause before embracing this appliance from the Seattle giant. Programming games in a system that more closely resembles Windows could be a great boon to game developers; many folks have been complaining about the difficulty of programming for the PlayStation 2. And with Sega on their side, Microsoft should have some exciting games ready for the X-Box launch this fall. Great graphics and good games can be enough to earn a strong standing in the console wars. Still, Atari, Nintendo, Sega and Sony have never managed to hold on to their lead for more than four or five years. Whether Microsoft has just unveiled a true revolution in electronic entertainment will be decided largely by two volatile groups: high speed internet service providers, and Japanese teenagers.

Justin Hall is a web maven and personal publisher based in Oakland, California. He's currently recovering from eighteen months living and working as a member of a predominantly male tribe of young North American gamers.
Other articles by Justin Hall


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