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Pre-TGS: Microsoft Sets Launch, Japanese Pricing For Xbox 360

Held at the Cerulean Tower Tokyu Hotel in on the afternoon of Thursday, September 15, and presented to ...
Held at the Cerulean Tower Tokyu Hotel in on the afternoon of Thursday, September 15, and presented to a packed crowd by Yoshihiro Maruyama, General Manager of the Xbox Division at Microsoft Japan, the key fact revealed by the pre-TGS Microsoft press conference was the worldwide release date schedule for the Xbox 360: November 22 in North America, December 2 in Europe, and December 10 in Japan. The conference also contained a relatively surprising revelation on the price and hardware configuration for the Japanese release of Microsoft's console. Maruyama announced that in Japan, there will only be one Xbox 360 package costing 37,900 yen ($343), including a wireless game controller, headset, component HD-AV cable for connecting to component and composite television inputs, Ethernet cable, wireless television remote control, and a 20Gb removable hard drive. That there will not be a base Xbox 360 package--without the hard disc for a cheaper price, as there is in North America and Europe--caused a stir in the press conference, with at least one Japanese questioner asking why consumers would not be given the opportunity to pay less and get a version without the hard disc. Maruyama responded, "The reason why we decided to [launch the single HD-enabled Xbox 360 model] is that Japan has a very good broadband infrastructure." Additionally, the price of the HD-enabled bundle is significantly cheaper than the cost in either of the other territories. Maruyama went on to suggest, in terms of content that requires it, "[the Japanese market] will be far more in need of the hard disc," presumably referring to in-depth role-playing or MMO games. He also re-iterated on several occasions that there has been no decision on whether to sell a version of the Xbox 360 in Japan without a hard disc at a later date. Taking the press conference from start to finish, the presentation commenced with a slick montage of lifestyle-type images alongside filmed clips of famous Japanese creators on Xbox 360, including Q? Entertainment's Tetsuya Mizuguchi, currently creating Ninety-Nine Nights in collaboration with Korean developer Phantagram, and who commented, "I'm sure I will be able to make games completely like any others before [with Xbox 360]." It then segued into a Square Enix producer discussing Final Fantasy XI, which is one of the key Xbox 360 titles in Japan, and is due for a beta test to coincide with the console's launch, discussing "new possibilities for online games," announcing, "We'd like to take advantage of the [Xbox 360's] hard disc functions." Finally, alongside other Japanese media personages, a designer from product design firm Metaphys discussed the changeable faceplates and in-game menus for the Xbox 360, stressing customization, one of Maruyama's major keywords for the presentation. Following this introduction, Maruyama took the stage and started by pointing out that, for the Japanese market, there are more than 100 titles already being developed for the Xbox 360; the majority of these are scheduled to be launched into the market before the end of 2006. So far, 66 titles are already announced for Japanese territories, and (including 100 titles for the Japanese market) more than 200 games are currently in development for the console. After briefly discussing some of the key titles for Xbox 360 in Japan, including Mizuguchi's Ninety-Nine Nights, as well as the Sakaguchi-produced Blue Dragon and Lost Odyssey, for which new information and visuals will be shown at the end of 2005, Maruyama went on to introduce Epic Games lead designer Cliff Bleszinski, who came onstage to show Gears Of War, the Microsoft-published Unreal Engine 3 title that is currently one of the best-looking Xbox 360 games. Bleszinski outlined the basic plot of the game, in which individual soldiers are “gears of war” against hideous alien enemies, and then showed several clearly real-time demo sequences, in which the player combined with others to push a flaming car down a hill to provide cover. Bleszinski went on to describe the third-person shooter with atmospheric and horror elements as "not a run and gun game; it's what I like to call a 'stop and pop.'" The game centers around moving, destroying, and even creating cover for you and your team-mates as you progress, and although the demonstrations were not running at a perfect framerate, the extremely impressive levels of detail and complex in-game effects, including impressive swarms of bat-like creatures arcing through the levels, ended up leaving a distinctly positive impression, though it's not clear that Gears Of War is extremely Japanese-friendly. From there, probably the best technical demo appeared as CEO of Phantagram Sang Youn Lee teamed up with a product manager at Microsoft Japan for the first-ever real-time demonstration of the Tetsuya Mizuguchi-produced title Ninety-Night Nights. Very much built on the gameplay style of previous Microsoft-published exclusives in the Kingdom Under Fire series, and itself redolent of Koei's Dynasty Warriors series, which is extremely popular in Japan, the demo showed some absolutely gorgeous-looking real-time hack and slash action, with 50 to100 enemies on screen at any one time, and great-looking blur and depth of field effects, with tremendously large and powerful “overkill” power-ups. Although not particularly original in terms of gameplay, the stunning visuals for the game really showed off the Xbox 360 hardware to positive effect, and the title, which also showcased some beautiful CG sequences in trailer form and displayed much more Japanese-friendly character design than previous Phantagram titles, is likely to be one of Microsoft's strongest games in Japan. Following, Maruyama introduced some of the other innovations around the Xbox 360 line. For Xbox Live 360, a similar structure to the Western launch will occur, with Xbox Live Silver being free and Xbox Live Gold being paid. Also, as in the West, it won't be necessary to have a credit card to sign up, particularly important in a Japanese society where credit cards are still somewhat less important. A company called E-Context is teaming up with massive Japanese convenience stores including Lawson, FamilyMart, Circle-K, and Sunkus so consumers can buy points for subscriptions and Xbox Live Marketplace there. In addition, the Xbox Japan head talked a little about the Xbox 360 booth at Tokyo Game Show, which is showing off a 360-inch screen, about 80 playable Xbox 360 units, and an Xbox 360 Concept Zone with a space that simulates a living room and shows off the Xbox 360 in its lifestyle surroundings. Microsoft is building a temporary lounge building in Tokyo where people can try out the Xbox 360 for themselves in the run-up to the holiday season, a unique marketing ploy. Maruyama showed a trailer with footage of a number of Xbox 360 games to be shown in some form at TGS, including Capcom's Resident Evil 5 and Dead Rising, Tecmo's Dead Or Alive 4, Square Enix's Final Fantasy XI, and the next-generation Sonic The Hedgehog title from Sega. Although much good-looking gameplay was shown, there was little in the way of major new software announcements. However, seven Japanese launch titles, including Dead Or Alive 4, Ridge Racer 6 Frame City, Ghost Recon Enchant Arm, Tetris: The Grand Master and Everyparty, were specifically mentioned for the December 10 start date, with more than 20 titles due in Japanese stores by the end of January. Finally, Maruyama took questions from the audience, and displayed some significant verbal acuity in deflecting answers to many specific questions such as the initial shipment numbers for Japan's Xbox 360 launch ("We have not made any announcement on the initial shipment"), possible future support for the HD-DVD format ("There is the possibility in the future we may adopt HD-DVD... [but] for now we have the existing DVD drive"), and comments on whether the price might be perceived as too high for some Japanese consumers or much lower compared to other territories' HD-enabled bundle ("We believe that the price is an appropriate one ... you can't make a simple comparison.") Taking tough questions from Western journalists, Maruyama admitted that he and his company were "not satisfied" with the current Xbox's performance in Japan, but noted the preparation was as short as two years for the first Xbox. Launch titles for Japanese users were thin on the ground for Microsoft's first console, compared to this time round, when Japanese-specific games are being courted much more actively, and a three-plus year preparation time for the hardware has really helped. Maruyama concluded, "We need to provide new experiences if people are going to buy a new generation of consoles," but also noted that Microsoft is taking a risk by being out of the gate first in the next-gen console battle. "There are benefits of being first in the market," he said, acknowledging, sensibly enough, that his company will not necessarily grab the support of the users by being first. [UPDATE: 5.36am PST - added extended write-up, pictures from press conference linked in news article.]

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