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PlayStation 3 in Europe will play fewer old games

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) - The European version of PlayStation 3 will play fewer PlayStation 2 video games when it launches on March 23 compared with models launched earlier in Japan and America, Sony Corp (NYSE:SNE - news) (6758.T) said on Friday.

"The backwards compatibility is not going to be as good as the U.S. and Japan models," a Sony spokesman said.

PlayStation 3 (PS3) was first launched in Japan and North America in November and the model that will be introduced in Europe will be designed differently.

Software will take over some of the functionality that was originally taken care of by dedicated chips, which means far fewer PlayStation 2 (PS2) games can be played on a European PS3 compared with the Japanese and American PS3 models which play 98 percent of old games.

"Sony is managing expectations by saying now that the new console will play fewer of the old games, and that's a good thing," said analyst Alex Kwiatowski at British market research group Vertical Market Technologies.

Over the last 18 months Sony has had a series of public relations disasters, including a recall of nearly 10 million of its computer batteries, PS3 delays and a software program on Sony Entertainment music CDs that breached computer security.

Kwiatowski said gamers with a PS2 would have to hold onto their device to play their current collection.

"I'm as disappointed as the next game player about the reduced backward compatibility, but even the most nostalgic, misty-eyed gamers will have their steely hearts impressed by the new features that PS3 games provide," Kwiatowski said.

The PS3's graphics and sound capabilities are much improved over the PS2.

"Rather than concentrate on PS2 backwards compatibility, in the future, company resources will be increasingly focused on developing new games and entertainment features exclusively for PS3," Sony Computer Entertainment said in a statement.

About one million units will be available at the European launch next month, as many as were made available in the United States during the first six weeks after the launch last year.

Sony loses money at first on each PS3 sale due to high production costs.

But Nobuyuki Oneda, Sony's chief financial officer, said in January the company aims to bring the negative PS3 margin to break even toward the second half of the next business year, which starts in April, by component cost savings on chips driving the PS3.


Forget reality TV. In Korea, online gaming is it

Keun Bae’s wife, Heejung, was worried. At midnight, her husband got a call that roused him from sleep. Keun Bae had stepped into the hallway and closed the bedroom door behind him, but she still heard him speaking angrily into his cell phone: "Sell. Do as I say. Sell."

Heejung fretted for the next couple of days, and finally broke down. "What was that call all about?" she asked tearfully. "Are you in trouble?"

Keun Bae assured his wife that he wasn’t about to lose his shirt on the stock market. Although Keun Bae is an average guy — 32, father of two, Internet café worker — he’s also a high-ranking feudal lord in “Lineage,” a massively multiplayer online game. And when you’re a high-ranking feudal lord, you’ve got to expect the occasional late-night phone call.

Online gaming is to South Korea what reality TV is to the United States: Huge. Really huge. An estimated 17 million people in the country of 48 million play games regularly. Consoles, so popular in the United States and Japan, have barely made the radar in South Korea. There, online gaming is it.

Hit hard by the Asian financial crisis, the South Korean government invested much of its IMF bailout package on building a national broadband network. These are no ordinary pipes: Korean’s wires can transfer data at speeds of up to 50 megabits per second (Mbps). The “elite” package from AT&T Yahoo! promises download speeds up to 6.0 Mbps.

The investment paid off. Close to 70 percent of South Korean households have broadband. And the “fat pipes” mean that it’s easier for these households to access media-rich content like games and video-on-demand, says Allison Luong, principal and managing director of San Francisco’s Pearl Research.

As such, young people in the technology-obsessed culture have grown up online — but not in the same way that the MySpacers have here in the United States. In South Korea, the home PC is as ubiquitous as a refrigerator.

South Korea also has a consumer culture that rivals the United States and Japan. And keeping up with new trends and technology is considered important to social status.

“If you want to move up, you have to have access to the Internet and a PC,” says Luong. “And that means to access online games.”

And there’s no place more popular to access online games than the Internet cafés. Called PC bangs, some of these joints are swanky hotspots with fancy drinks. Some are just smoke-filled urban dives. But there are approximately 28,000 of them in South Korea. They’re everywhere. Think Starbucks. Think Wal-Mart.

The term “online gamer” may conjure up images of a lone teenager playing “EverQuest” in his parents’ basement, but that’s not how it goes in South Korea. Group interaction is as strong a cultural more in that country as studying and shopping. Young people go to the PC bangs to blow off steam and to hang out.

“Community within games is really popular, as well as the ability to form groups, or guilds,” says Luong. “These social aspects are a big reason why people keep playing games [in South Korea.]”

Fame and fortune...maybe

Another is the prospect of fame and fortune — albeit slim. Professional gaming, or e-sports, draw millions of spectators in South Korea. The country has several cable channels dedicated to tournaments and gaming news. And pro gamers can pull down six-figure salaries playing “StarCraft” and “Warhammer.”

Every year, the best of the best gather for the World Cyber Games, a sort of online-game Olympics. A field of about a million gamers is gradually winnowed down over the course of a year, with a fall finale.

In 2006, 700 players from 70 countries battled for dominance in Monza, Italy. South Korea, which lost its best overall title in 2003, recaptured their “Grand Champion” glory, winning two gold medals, one silver and one bronze. South Korean players also dominated the “StarCraft” tournament.

“StarCraft,” Blizzard Entertainment’s real-time strategy game is a favorite of professional and recreational gamers in South Korea. All of the company’s games are popular, including the click-happy “Diablo” franchise and the quest-driven “Warcraft” series. But the nearly 10 year-old “StarCraft” is a phenomenon.

“’StarCraft’ is one of the main things that helped to spawn the PC bang business,” says Blizzard chief operating officer Paul Sams. “It was also a big part of what spawned professional gaming and game broadcasting.”

But even though bellwether titles like “StarCraft” and “Lineage” remain popular in Korea, game content has grown more diverse as the gamer population has grown. Casual games are the fastest growing genre in the country, says Luong. Nexon Entertainment says that one quarter of South Korea’s population has played its “Kart Rider” game.

While that claim is as disputed in the blogosphere as the results of the 2000 presidential election, there’s no doubt the cute little racing game has earned millions of fans — many of them young women and girls.

The gamer population is indeed getting much younger in South Korea. A survey by the South Korean Ministry of Information and Communication shows that nearly 64 percent of five-year-olds use the Internet. And 93 percent of preschoolers selected online games as the reason for going online.

“The popularity of gaming at such a young age helps to drive South Korea’s gaming-oriented culture.” says Luong.

But as important as gaming is to South Korea’s economy and way of life, the dizzying growth is bound to slow. Luong predicts that intense competition and increasing market saturation will slow growth by 2008.

And as in other industrialized countries, the birth rate is falling in South Korea, and the core-gamer market is aging. As gamers age, other responsibilities like jobs and family intrude on game-playing.

“My wife especially does not understand [my game-playing,]” says Keun Bae. “This causes friction on many occasions.”

But even so, he admits to sneaking an hour or two while at work or in the evenings. It is a necessary stress-reliever, he says. And it makes him feel good.

“It takes me to a different world,” he says. “One that allows me to have powers and do things I cannot do in my normal life.”


Sony giving away freebies to PS3 buyers

TOKYO - Sony is giving away freebies to woo buyers to the new PlayStation 3 video game machine whose hefty price appears to be scaring away shoppers.

The latest giveaway from the Japanese electronics and entertainment company is being promised for the Australia launch for the PlayStation 3 set for March 23 — a Blu-ray Disc version of the Sony Pictures James Bond movie "Casino Royale," for the first 20,000 Australian PS3 buyers.

The PlayStation 3 costs a hefty 999.95 Australian dollars, ($790), for the 60 gigabyte hard drive version.

The console, the successor to industry leader PlayStation 2 that went on sale in November last year in the U.S. and Japan, costs $600 in the U.S.

Tokyo-based Sony Corp (NYSE:SNE - news). has long had a proprietary reputation, and the flurry of free entertainment content doled out with the PlayStation 3 seems a bit out of character, perhaps designed to counter the perception of an overpriced product.

"They have to sweeten the deal a little bit," said Hiroshi Kamide, director of research and game expert at KBC Securities Japan in Tokyo. "The problem with the product so far is that no one has fully understood why it's so expensive."

Nintendo Co.'s surprise hit Wii is being snatched up and has been out of stock at some stores, and at $250 is widely welcomed by families as a bargain.

Free downloads of the "GranTurismo" PlayStation 3 software game — out since December for American and Japanese PS3 owners — will be available for the Australia launch, Sony said this week.

The U.S. launch also came with a free Sony movie. The first half million PS3 shipments in the U.S. included "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby" in Blu-ray Disc format.

On Friday, Sony Computer Entertainment said shorter free trial downloads of a golfing game for the Japanese market will also be available next month.

Such free playable demos, intended as previews, are also available in the U.S.

In the latest Japan demo, players can try three holes of a golf game, worth about 10 minutes of playing, said company spokesman Norio Chiba.

Although Sony officials say PlayStation 3 sales are going on schedule, the machine is still a money-loser.

Sony blamed the losses in its video game operations for its faltering profits in the October-December quarter, when Sony profits slipped 5 percent to 160 billion yen ($1.3 billion), largely because of PS3 startup costs.

Sony said it shipped 1.84 million PS3 machines worldwide through Dec. 31, and is sticking to its earlier target of shipping 6 million PS3 consoles by March 31. It shipped 2 million PS3 machines worldwide by mid-January, falling about two weeks behind its initial shipment targets in Japan.

Nintendo sold 3.19 million Wii machines worldwide by the end of the year, 1.25 million in the Americas, and 1.14 million in Japan.

The Kyoto-based maker of "Super Mario" and "Pokemon" games said earlier this year that it's well on its way to reaching its target of global shipment of 6 million Wii machines by March 31, the end of the current fiscal year.

Kamide, the gaming industry expert, said the PS3 needs a fuller lineup of new, attractive games to make the purchase seem worth the price.

"It's the least they can do," he said of the freebies. "If you're paying a head above everybody else for a similar product, a game machine, you want to be able to categorically say the reason why it's so expensive."


Surgeons who play video games more skilled

Playing video games appears to help surgeons with skills that truly count: how well they operate using a precise technique, a study said on Monday. There was a strong correlation between video game skills and a surgeon’s capabilities performing laparoscopic surgery in the study published in the February issue of Archives of Surgery.

Laparoscopy and related surgeries involve manipulating instruments through a small incision or body opening where the surgeon’s movements are guided by watching a television screen.

Video game skills translated into higher scores on a day-and-half-long surgical skills test, and the correlation was much higher than the surgeon’s length of training or prior experience in laparoscopic surgery, the study said.

Out of 33 surgeons from Beth Israel Medical Center in New York that participated in the study, the nine doctors who had at some point played video games at least three hours per week made 37 percent fewer errors, performed 27 percent faster, and scored 42 percent better in the test of surgical skills than the 15 surgeons who had never played video games before.

“It was surprising that past commercial video game play was such a strong predictor of advanced surgical skills,” said Iowa State University psychology professor Douglas Gentile, one of the study’s authors.

It supports previous research that video games can improve “fine motor skills, eye-hand coordination, visual attention, depth perception and computer competency,” the study said.

“Video games may be a practical teaching tool to help train surgeons,” senior author James Rosser of Beth Israel said.

While surgeons may benefit from playing video games, the study did not give parents a pass if their children play the games for hours on end.

A 2004 survey by Gentile found 94 percent of U.S. adolescents play video games for an average of nine hours a week. Game-playing has been linked to aggressiveness, poor school grades and can become a substitute for exercise.

“Parents should not see this study as beneficial if their child is playing video games for over an hour a day,” Gentile said. “Spending that much time playing video games is not going to help their child’s chances of getting into medical school.”


New video game targets childhood obesity

ORLANDO, Fla. - Obesity may be a growing epidemic, but it's Obeez City that is spreading out of control in a new DVD game.

The game, "Body Mechanics," teaches youngsters how to avoid the ravages of being overweight.

Gamers join a team of superheroes called Body Mechanics and war against the Evil Coalition of Harm and Disease, battling villains with names like Col Estorol and Betes II.

The fighting takes place inside the body of Jack Decayd. If Obeez City is not contained, "Jack will die soon," says Neuro, the Yoda-like wise one who narrates the action.

"I remember how it started. A few snacks here, a soft drink there," Neuro says in an ominous tone during the opening. "And before we knew it, the Evil Coalition of Harm and Disease was threatening us all."

Neuro then makes his plea: "You must join the team of heroic Body Mechanics. They need your help in order to gain the knowledge necessary to save Jack's life. Only you can change how this story ends."

The game's real-life target: The fact that about 16 percent of U.S. children ages 6 to 19 are overweight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. There is an 80 percent chance that overweight children will become obese adults and be at risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes.


Sweden to open first virtual embassy

STOCKHOLM - Sweden plans to be the first country to open an embassy in popular virtual world Second Life. “It will have answers to questions on all aspects of Sweden,” Olle Wastberg, general director of the Swedish Institute, an organization which promotes the country’s image abroad, said on Tuesday.

The embassy will be called House of Sweden and modeled on the country’s new embassy in Washington. It will open in a couple of weeks.

Second Life is a 3-D virtual world built and owned by its residents. It was created by Linden Lab and opened to the public in 2003. It says it now has more than 3 million inhabitants from around the globe.

There is no charge for a basic account but a one-time $9.95 fee is charged for additional basic account. Premium accounts start at $9.95 a month and allow you to own land on which you can build, entertain and live.

Reuters operates a virtual news bureau in Second Life.


Singapore to host Sept. game convention

SINGAPORE - Video-game developers, manufacturers, publishers and players from around the world will gather in Singapore in September for a convention expected to be the region's largest. Games Convention Asia, which starts Sept. 6, will address the development needs of Asia's rapidly growing digital interactive gaming industry, which is expected to triple in value to $7.5 billion by 2008, according to the convention's organizers.

Western companies must adapt to differences in the Asian market to take advantage of the potential business here, said Chris Thompson, Asia vice president of Electronic Arts Inc., one of the advisers to the convention. Thompson said Asian gamers tend to value being online and being mobile — the social aspects of gaming.

Several other heavyweight game developers — including Xbox maker Microsoft Corp., Atari Inc. and Nokia Corp. — have also endorsed the event.

Games Convention Asia is a sister event of the Leipzig Games Convention held in Germany. The Asian event will also consist of an international cyber-games tournament.