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Sony on Wednesday unveiled a long-awaited online gaming network that would become the major rival to Microsoft’s Xbox Live when launched in November.
But the console maker’s announcement at the Game Developers Conference in San Jose risked antagonising retailers, whose stores face being bypassed by the service.
“In the future, we’re going to go through a radical change,” said Phil Harrison, president of worldwide studios at Sony Computer Entertainment. “We will be creating and servicing a network of game communities . . . a shift from a disk-based to a network-based business.”
Mr Harrison said that, in a first, complete games could be downloaded from the service on to the hard drive of its next-generation console, the PlayStation 3, due to be launched in November. This would mean no game disk would be required.
“You can have complete e-distribution from the PS3 if you so wish,” he told developers. At present, Sony’s console games are sold as packaged disks in retail stores.
Microsoft’s Xbox Live online service also allows downloading of games, but the company has restricted this to downloads of single levels of games or simple arcade games in order not to jeopardise its relationship with retail stores.
But Mr Harrison’s speech made no mention of retailers and suggested the aim was to cut out the middleman.
“That direct connection between the consumer and the game creator is something we want to push,” he said, announcing an “e-distribution initiative” to create the next generation of content that would only be available online, distributed via its service. A website – www.playstation.com/beyond – has been set up for developers to contact Sony and establish a direct relationship.
“We’re moving from a product-based era to a service-based era,” he said.
He added that users of its PlayStation Portable (PSP) handheld console would be able to download games to its memory stick product and avoid having to buy the UMD disks that currently carry the games.
The PSP was Sony’s fastest growing format ever, he said, and would be updated later this year to allow video and voice calls over the internet through an attached camera.