In the evolution of video consoles, game makers may hold survival key

— Nintendo's GameCube and Microsoft's Xbox herald themselves as the latest in video game evolution.

But many third-party game developers see the competition among the two new consoles and Sony's year-old PlayStation2 as the real study in Darwinism � and it is the game makers who may ultimately decide which consoles survive.

Game designer Steven Rechtschaffner, for one, is convinced "the games sell the consoles".

Rechtschaffner's "SSX Tricky" snowboarding adventure is one of several titles, including football simulator "Madden NFL 2002" and cartoony crash-up derby "The Simpsons: Road Rage," that Electronic Arts is releasing for all three systems.

By hedging their bets, EA and other third-party game manufacturers limit their risk while waiting to see which consoles players will favor.

"We don't have to automatically develop for every console out there," said company spokeswoman Trudy Miller. "All of these consoles will sell out for Christmas this year, but the real challenge will be to sell 10 million by next year."

If game developers pull away from a flagging system, its library of games stagnates � which tends to drive away even more potential buyers.

Nintendo vanquished Atari and Colecovision in the 1980s. More recently, Sega's troubled Dreamcast system fell victim to Sony's PlayStation1 and Nintendo's N64.

Ironically, industry veteran Nintendo has become the most vulnerable in the new competition.

With a year's head start, Sony has already entrenched itself by selling nearly 20 million PlayStation2 consoles.

Most third-party gamers expect PlayStation2 to be the core of their business this year and some have dedicated exclusive games to it, such as Konami's "Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty" and EA's "007: Agent Under Fire."

That leaves the fight mainly between the $299 Xbox and the $199 GameCube, with Xbox promising 15-20 launch titles while GameCube has only five to seven.

Nintendo has found itself fighting not only for consumers, but also for game developers.

It has responded by focusing mainly on younger game players with family-friendly third-party software such as Sega's 3-D maze game "Super Monkey Ball" and Ubi Soft's "Disney's Tarzan Untamed."

Japanese game maker Konami, which developed the series of "Castlevania" monster-hunting games for Nintendo's previous systems, plans no immediate releases for GameCube. But it does have the action flight adventure "AirForce Delta Storm" ready for the launch of Xbox.

"It takes time to learn how to develop for a hardware system ... and there was some shortage of (GameCube) development kits," said Konami spokesman Chris Kramer. "Microsoft was very proactive about getting development kits out there everywhere."


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