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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

TECH_JAPAN

GAMES

The quake hits Nintendo while hackers shake Sony


For much of March, regular television advertising was all but replaced by public service announcements. Understandable really: Who wants to be the official sponsor of the biggest tragedy to hit Japan since the war? But what if you had just rolled out a new product and wanted to promote it?

This was the dilemma that faced Nintendo as it tried to promote its brand new glasses-free 3-D game portable, the Nintendo 3DS, which had launched in late February — any steam it was picking up was quickly lost when the March 11 mega-quake hit. Sales went from 96,000 units during the week of the quake (which hit on a Friday), and plummeted to 61,000 units the following week, according to Japanese retail tracker Media Create.

But in the weeks following March 11's earthquake, a curious thing happened: While sales of the Nintendo 3DS game console began to slide, sales of rival handheld, the Sony PlayStation Portable, actually picked up.

Even in the wake of a horrific disaster like the tsunami, it seems people want to play video games. This is not only evident in the PSP sales spike, but in what kids in quake refugee centers are saying; they're telling Japanese reporters that they'd like to play video games to ease their boredom, and some children have even been photographed holding up signs saying they want video games. As with books or television, video games offer an escape, which is something many people need right now. And while that has not translated to big 3DS sales it has meant big PSP sales.

In late February, Sony was selling around 47,000 PSP machines a week. But in the weeks following the quake, when the Nintendo 3DS was in nosedive, the PSP was selling more than 50,000 units a week, even approaching 60,000 machines sold during the last week of March. That means the PSP actually started selling better immediately following the earthquake. There are numerous factors for this, however. The PSP boasts an impressive library of games compared to the 3DS, which is just getting started. What's more, the ¥16,800 PSP is cheaper than the ¥25,000 Nintendo 3DS. And it's hard to justify an expensive purchase in times like this, especially for a game machine that doesn't yet have many games.

The biggest drop-off in sales for the Nintendo 3DS was between the week ending March 6, during which it sold 209,000 units, and the week ending March 13 in which it sold 96,000 units. Of course, as the earthquake hit on a Friday it robbed Nintendo of a weekend of sales, but it could be argued that the 3DS had already began its downward trend. Gamers on Japan's popular 2 channel bulletin board had been complaining about a lack of compelling titles for the 3DS.

What's always made Nintendo hardware so successful is the fact that Nintendo makes Nintendo games for it. But even with the inevitable favorites that are bound to appear on the 3DS, Nintendo lost much of its promotional momentum after the March disaster. There is still hope for the 3DS, and though Sony's 6-year-old handheld is giving Nintendo's new toy a run for its money, it can certainly bounce back.

While the earthquake understandably overshadowed 3DS promotion during March, Nintendo itself has ended up eclipsing its own new handheld in April with rumor after rumor of a new Nintendo home console making waves. Sources say the new console will be more powerful than Micosoft's Xbox 360 and the Sony PS3, and feature a novel new controller with a touchscreen. Nintendo finally confirmed the new machine last week. The console does not currently have a name, but will debut at the E3 gaming expo in Los Angeles this June, where it will be playable. By confirming this console hot on the heels of the 3DS' release, Nintendo hasn't really given its new handheld a chance to breathe.

In other news, the hacking of Sony's PlayStation Network has taken the shine off the PSP's impressive postquake run. On April 20, the PSN went offline after an intrusion was discovered on April 19. More than 70 million registered users were not able to access the PSN's free (and paid-for) online services. Also, game companies couldn't release new downloadable PSN games and content.

On April 26, a full week after the hack, Sony announced that the PSN had experienced an "external intrusion," which put personal information at risk. That delay was something that caused U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal to demand why Sony took so long to inform customers.

The breach compromised the registered account names, passwords, e-mails and birthdays of users. On April 27, two Alabama men filed a lawsuit against Sony for failing to encrypt data and establish the necessary firewalls to protect registered users. Sony has hired a private security firm and is aiming to ramp up its online security measures.

On Sunday, Sony Computer Entertainment boss Kaz Hirai stated that more than 10 million credit card accounts might have been compromised. Via e-mail, Sony notified those whose accounts were put at risk. The PSN hack also drew comments from Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano, who said companies must protect sensitive consumer data, and the attention of U.S. Homeland Security, which began investigating the "malicious intrusion" with the Federal Trade Commission, 22 state attorney generals and the FBI.

The identity of the hackers is not known, but the hacker group Anonymous has been mentioned as a suspect. Anonymous, which doesn't have organized members, denied being responsible for the attack.

On April 16, days before the PSN hack, Anonymous staged a boycott at Sony stores across the globe. The in-store boycott was a failure, with only a handful of Anonymous members turning up to pass out fliers. Anonymous was angry at Sony for suing famed hacker George Hotz, who first got international attention after "jailbreaking" the iPhone, enabling the device to be used with other wireless phone operators. Hotz also successfully hacked the Sony PS3, a console previously thought to be unhackable, and even posted the PS3's source code online. Sony took Hotz to court, stating that hacking or modifying the machine was outside the console's terms of agreement. Hotz, and his defenders, argued that the console was his, and he had the right to do whatever he pleased with it. This spring, Hotz settled out of court with Sony, under the condition that he would never hack another Sony product again.

Later this year, Sony is aiming to release its new portable game machine, currently dubbed the NGP. To make sure Sony is giving the console the attention it deserves, the Tokyo-based electronics giant has killed off its older disc-free, digital-only PlayStation Portable, the PSPgo, so it can focus on the NGP and the disc-based PSP.

The original PSP quickly became a hackers' dream handheld due to the ease with which it was hacked. This also enabled the PSP to run pirated games. Similar to the hacker's argument during Sony vs. Hotz, hackers continued to find exploits on the PSP, stating it was their hardware because they had purchased it and could do what they liked with it.

With a new Nintendo console debuting this summer, and fall and winter, when the NGP supposedly launches, one can't help but wonder if the 3DS will be lost in the shuffle — and hope that Sony's PSN will finally offer registered users the security and protection they need.

Brian Ashcraft is a senior contributing editor at gaming website Kotaku.com.


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