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Microsoft is to launch its Xbox 360 games console in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and South Africa in the next 18 months as it races to grab market share ahead of the arrival of Sony’s console later this year.

There have been no direct retail sales of the Xbox console in these regions so far, although Microsoft’s software operations do have a presence.

Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Russia are key countries that Microsoft’s Xbox division wants to target in Eastern Europe.

Chris Lewis, head of Xbox in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said it was planning to start selling the consoles through local specialist games retailers, as well as through partnerships with multinational groups such as Germany’s Media Markt and DSG International, the electronics retailer whose brands include Dixons and PC World.

The Xbox division will also set up local helplines and a local Xbox Live internet service, allowing gamers to interact with each other and play games online in their own language.

Mr Lewis said the push into these territories was a crucial part of its battle against Sony, which is due to launch its PlayStation3 console by the end of the year.

Microsoft, which launched the Xbox 360 last November, has a year’s start over Sony and is determined to make the most of it.

The Xbox has achieved strong sales in the US and done poorly in Sony’s home territory of Japan, with Europe left as a crucial swing factor for overall global market share.

Microsoft has been working to increase its appeal to European consumers. It hired European and Japanese designers to create the sleeker look for the new console and has worked to secure more European-created games for it.

This included the purchase last week of Lionhead Studios, the UK games studio founded and run by Peter Molyneux, one of the best-known developers in the sector. In 2002, Microsoft also bought UK developer Rare, creator of games such as Perfect Dark Zero and Kameo, which has proved a surprise hit in France.

Mr Lewis said the company would continue to develop content tailored to European gamers, perhaps even on a niche, country-by-country level.

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