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Thursday, July 12, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Nintendo steps into fitness game

Seattle Times technology reporter

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Nintendo is sticking with its so-far successful strategy for expanding the audience of video gamers through new, simpler controls for its Wii console and, soon, a fitness game.

At the same time, Sony, which makes the rival PlayStation 3, continues to court the core of the gaming audience with a large lineup of sophisticated titles, many of which are beautifully rendered by the advanced technology built into the console.

The companies shared their divergent approaches to the business at back-to-back news conferences at the E3 Media & Business Summit here Wednesday. The video-game industry is buzzing as new game titles for the holidays are unveiled and demonstrated, and executives predict record-breaking sales this year.

The directions described by Sony, Nintendo and, on Tuesday, Microsoft, appear to be in keeping with courses they set at the beginning of the current console life cycle.

"I think that they all stayed fairly true to the strategies that they've had all along," said Anita Frazier, a video-games analyst with the NPD Group.

She added that no clear winner has emerged, and probably none will until at least after the holiday shopping season. "There is so much good content for all of them that I think the story is still yet to be written," Frazier said.

Reggie Fils-Aime, president and chief operating officer of Nintendo of America, based in Redmond, was talking like a winner Wednesday.

"This is Nintendo's moment to lead," he said. "What we've accomplished so far may have increased our market share within our industry, but that's just a secondary goal."

The company's primary aim is to steal more of people's available leisure time for video games, he said.

Fils-Aime said video-game sales through the first five months of 2007 were up 50 percent from the same period a year ago in the U.S., and 114 percent in Japan.

"This kind of explosion simply is not possible by exciting only the existing markets," Fils-Aime said. "It reveals an expanded market."

The Wii's low price and easy-to-use controllers and games have helped expand the video-game audience. Fils-Aime credited Nintendo for 69 percent of the industry's growth.

Nintendo is preparing a program — tentatively called "Wii Fit," and due out in the first half of 2008 — designed to build on the sweat-inducing success of "Wii Sports." The sports games are controlled by moving a motion-sensing remote control, rather than manipulating buttons and joysticks.

The fitness game will employ a new peripheral device — a weight-sensing Wii Balance Board — that players stand on while on-screen instructions provide exercise routines, including yoga, step aerobics and hula-hooping.

The "Wii Fit" software is designed to calculate and track each player's body-mass index — a weight-to-height ratio that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls a "reliable indicator of body fatness for most people ... used to screen for weight categories that may lead to health problems."

" 'Wii Fit' ... is the only thing that I saw that was game changing," said Billy Pidgeon, program manager for consumer-gaming markets with IDC. "Everything else [so far at the conference] was pretty much as expected."

A wireless Wii Wheel for driving games, including the forthcoming continuation of the Nintendo "Mario Kart" franchise, is another new controller Nintendo plans for next year.

Nintendo also announced the gun-shaped Wii Zapper, which holds the existing Wii controllers and is designed to make the popular first-person shooter-game category easier to play. Capcom is developing the game "Resident Evil, The Umbrella Chronicles" to make use of the Zapper. Other third-party developers are working on games for it, too.

It will go on sale for $20 packaged with Nintendo software later this year. Nintendo didn't say how much the Wii Balance Board and Wheel will cost. But Perrin Kaplan, vice president of marketing and corporate affairs, said "Nintendo's products are always mass-consumer priced, and they will definitely be in the affordable range."

Other new peripheral devices, such as the guitars, keyboards, drums and microphones used for "Rock Band" and "Guitar Hero," are helping make the consoles more approachable to nontraditional gamers, Pidgeon said. Microsoft jumped on board Tuesday with a new "Big Button" pad controller to be used for trivia and other simpler games.

For Sony, the focus was "games, games and more games," said Jack Tretton, chief executive of Sony Computer Entertainment. The company demonstrated some 50 titles at the news conference, and that's only a fraction of what the company is rolling out.

"Over the next few months, North American gamers will get their hands on nearly 500 games" for the four major consoles Sony sells, Tretton said.

He acknowledged that despite Sony's success with the last generation of consoles — its PlayStation 2 has an installed base of about 118 million units — it has work to do with the PS3. The expensive machine has been the slowest seller so far and earlier this week, Sony reduced the price.

Benjamin J. Romano: bromano@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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