PlayStation 2 gets the first punch in

This week Sony launches PlayStation 2, with which it is seeking to defend its crown as the world's most popular games console.

This week Sony launches PlayStation 2, with which it is seeking to defend its crown as the world's most popular games console.

For the time being you can forget Tekken 3, Dead or Alive and Mortal Kombat. The ultimate video game fight will be waged between the console makers themselves.

With Nintendo preparing its GameCube and Microsoft readying its X-box console, the stakes are high.

The tabloids have already been screaming about Sony's UK pricing policy - a PlayStation 2 will cost pounds 299 at launch in the UK compared with the equivalent of pounds 200 in the US and pounds 262 in Germany. The number of machines on offer is also an issue. The original pre-Christmas 200,000 unit allocation has been cut to 165,000, which have already been sold.

'The biggest issue is not how much hype it's created, but why Sony is continuing to build it. It now has to deliver on that expectation - it's crazy that you can't go out and buy this thing,' says Scott Walker, previously account director for PlayStation at TBWA, and now chief executive at Happy Dog, which is helping define strategy for Microsoft's X-box.

The positioning of the first PlayStation did much to help video gaming shed its nerdy image and seduce an older audience into what TBWA called 'a life of dubious virtue'. For the sequel, expectations are even higher.

Sony's new pre-order system means PS2 will sell nearly eight times better than the original machine in its first weekend. Sony expects to sell ten million boxes worldwide by the end of March.

For Sony, the machine is a bridgehead into the general entertainment marketplace, as PS2 is about more than just games, with a grown-up hi-fi styling and the capability to play DVD movies. It will also ultimately offer web access.

Sony's ultimate vision is of PS2 as the hub of home entertainment, with users able to plug in a host of other peripherals such as digital cameras, mobile phones and MP3 players for different applications.

'It will start off as a games machine, but will become the machine that will take you into the new connected entertainment world,' says Alan Welsman, UK marketing director at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe (SCEE).

But Walker warns: 'Sony must be careful it doesn't overstretch its core equity as a gaming brand and that its image doesn't become too watered down by trying to move into too many markets.'

Indeed, Welsman concedes that the machine's additional capabilities 'could be distracting', perhaps one reason why its launch campaign carries no reference to the machine's technical features - even its DVD capability is not mentioned in its first ad push.

The latter, created by TBWA/London and directed by film director David Lynch, continues PlayStation's reputation for surreal ads, introducing the theme of the 'Third Place'. The stylised black-and-white ads feature off-the-wall characters, including a bandaged figure and a suited man with a duck's head, in disorienting environments.

'It's more about what the brand stands for than what the machine actually does. The ad reflects that (PlayStation 2) will be the gateway through to a new experience. You will define what you want to do in this space,' says Welsman.

The PS2 launch also marks a move by Sony into a closer relationship with the consumer that could ultimately bypass the retail channel.

SCEE may not yet be selling direct, but its pre-order system will give it the largest single database of DVD players in the UK and will enable it to carry out personalised, regional marketing in tandem with retail partners.

The company also envisages developing its Playstation.com web site to offer multi-player online gaming music and video downloads.

Meanwhile, online retailers and PlayStation rivals are taking advantage of the PS2 hype and unit shortage. There may be no firm release date, launch titles or pricing for Microsoft's X-box yet - the earliest it will appear here is next autumn - but www.gamestop.com is offering visitors the chance to pre-order an X-Box with three games. The battle has only just begun.



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