Sony: Dreamcast 'half' of PlayStation2

Electronics giant announces PlayStation2 launch date, throws down the gauntlet to Dreamcast: 'They are less than half our technology'.

Sony tried to stall rival Sega's booming Dreamcast sales by releasing more details of its highly anticipated PlayStation2 entertainment console Monday.

The Japanese consumer electronics giant confirmed its technology-packed device will hit the shelves in Japan in six months, on March 4, at a price of 39,800 yen -- the same price the original PlayStation sold for more than four years ago. Sony also revealed that the PlayStation2 had 85 software partners in Japan and 46 in the United States. "The new system is not just a technology upgrade," said Kaz Hirai, president and chief operating officer of Sony Computer Entertainment of America. "These are not just next-generation consoles but the vision of next in home entertainment. We have developed the most advanced entertainment platform in the world."

The jet-black PlayStation2 -- now the official title of the new entertainment device -- will come with one controller and an 8MB memory card. The device will hit US stores in the fall of 2000, but price has not yet been set. The original PlayStation, which launched in Japan at the same price as the PlayStation2, sold initially in the United States for $299.

Curiously, Monday's release by Sony is wedged between last Thursday's launch of Dreamcast and next week's Tokyo Game Show, the expected venue for PlayStation2 announcements. Sony execs expected to ship 1 million units in the first week and believe even that many will not satisfy initial demand.

Sega of America's next-generation Dreamcast gaming console sold at least 250,000 units on the day of its 9 September launch in the US. Including games, controllers and other peripherals, the device brought in more than $98m (about £61m) in 24 hours.

Some doubt that Sony can quadruple that number in the week after its 4 March launch in Japan. "I don't know if (Sony can hit a million) in that quick of a time. The price is still pretty high," said Eric Lampel, project director for consumer market watcher The NPD Group, who thought that the PlayStation will most likely retail for twice the price of Sega's just-released Dreamcast device. "What this really shows is that Sega and Sony are going in two different directions," said Charles Bellfield, director of marketing for Sega of America. "They want to be the all-in-one entertainment device. We are all about bringing the consumer in the arcade quality to the here and now."

Sony argued that their system does everything the Sega system does and much more. "Being half our price is indicative of the fact that they are less than half our technology," said Phil Harrison, vice president of research and development and third-party relations for SCEA. "This delivers a future proof element to our technology. It is many years ahead of its time."

Yet, that advanced technology comes at a price for software developers. "For the PlayStation2, some companies have a programming staff of 12 just to develop a game," said Greg Rizzer, spokesman for game publisher Eidos Interactive's console development team, who contrasted that to Sega's Dreamcast. "Its ability to port games to the PC is amazing. You can take a title today and have it ported to the Dreamcast," he said.

Eidos has already announced it will release Fighting Force 2 for the Dreamcast, but would not release any details about its PlayStation2 plans. "(The PlayStation2) is unbelievably complex," agreed another developer, who asked to remain anonymous. Still, Sony's popularity and the PlayStation2's high technology won his company over. "We think the window of opportunity (to develop a game for the Dreamcast) is a year. We think that is too short for us to do a good game," he said.

Developers don't have a great deal of time to develop for PlayStation2, either. Development systems have just begun to be shipped to companies in the United States. "Over 1000 development systems will be sent to developers in the North American market in the next few weeks," said Sony's Harrison. Each system will set software houses back a cool $20,000.

As part of the effort, Sony has launched an initiative to help developers. Borrowing a page from Microsoft's book, the consumer electronics giant is encouraging others to create toolkits -- or middleware, in developer parlance -- that can be plugged into software to take over certain functions. Need real-life physics for a flight simulation? Buy the middleware. Need artificial intelligence for certain game characters? Buy the middleware. "It's not about making development quicker or cheaper," said Harrison. "It's to let developers get a hold of well-evolved technology. When a movie director goes out and creates a movie, they don't make a Panavision camera from the ground up. The middleware is the same thing."

Between those software tools and the new workstations, Harrison hopes to not only get US developers ready for a release a year from now, but to retrain them to produce a whole new class of software. "If we want to change the way people play, we have to change the way developers create the software," he said.