In a corner of a San Francisco hotel suite last weekend, a woman was carrying out her first major heart surgery, while friends looked on sipping glasses of red wine and nibbling hors d’oeuvres.
A few yards away, a female investment banker was swinging wildly with an imaginary baseball bat and a mother was driving a turbo-charged truck off-road while, in another corner, four women whooped as one of their team scored a strike in a ten-pin bowling alley.
The room of flailing arms and hands was mirrored by action on flat-screen TVs around the suite. All of them were hooked up to the Nintendo Wii games console, which is due to be launched in the US on Sunday and on December 8 in Europe.
This was no typical pre-launch party. For that, you had to be on a celebrity A-list in Beverly Hills two nights earlier, joining Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, Chris Rock and Owen Wilson as they tried out the Sony PlayStation 3, on sale from today in the US after its debut in Japan last weekend.
The different social groups targeted by rivals Nintendo and Sony for their console launches – groups including working women, Hollywood stars and hard-core gamers – represent radically different marketing approaches for next-generation consoles that both makers tout as offering revolutionary advances in performance and functionality.
“Our mission was to go out and try to reach the people that would not consider themselves to be gamers,” explains Amy Cotteleer, president of A Squared Group, a marketing consultancy hired by Nintendo.
At the penultimate event of a 24-date tour of the US, the 30 or so women in the suite represent one of two target social groups relatively new to gaming – “the new-wave soccer moms and the multi-generation families,” says Ms Cotteleer.
“These are women who are in charge of the money and make the decisions and want to share that language of gaming with their children, but maybe feel intimidated,” she says. “They come to these events and nine out of 10 end up saying: ‘I want it for myself’.”
The women in the suite are acquaintances of Carol Dolezal-Ng, a mother of two from Berkeley who acts as an ambassador for A Squared, helping to spread the news about the Wii. “I can now see how this would work with the family. We can all be doing something together,” she says. “And I can also see this being a ‘girls’ night out’.”
Nintendo’s Wii is the least sophisticated and cheapest of the next-generation consoles. Its key selling point is its wireless controller, shap-ed like a TV remote control but equipped with motion-sensing technology and a vibrating “rumble” effect. This lets players mimic the movements of a golfer, boxer or a tennis or baseball star, feeling and hearing the impact of their actions.
Nintendo has fared badly in the current console round. It was relegated to third place in sales terms by the Microsoft Xbox, although its GameCube has proved both small and affordable enough for many to buy one as a second console.
The Wii could occupy a similar status in the next-generation console war, with its slim profile and $250 (£179; €249) price tag. But with the revolutionary controller and games that suit a wider audience it could increase its market share by reaching new audiences. “We are really excited about the Nintendo Wii. We think it will bring in the mass-market consumer and that will provide a lot of opportunity,” says Robin Kaminsky, executive vice-president at games publisher Activision.
The PlayStation 3, costing $500-$600, has been criticised for having a less than compelling opening line-up of games and for focusing too much on the in-built Blu-Ray high-definition DVD player. Blu-Ray has both pushed up the PS3’s price and caused production problems. Fewer than 200,000 units are expected to be available at launch in the US, the world’s biggest market, say Citigroup analysts.
The PS3 is appearing a year after its main rival’s Xbox 360, with Microsoft expecting to sell 10m by the end of 2006.
The PS3 does have a motion-sensing controller, though less advanced than Nintendo’s. But it is not marketing the PS3 as an audience-expanding console.
“Historically, hard-core gamers have driven adoption in the console market. PlayStation has recognised that this is an audience it needs to reconnect with,” says Jason Cieslak of Siegel+ Gale, a strategic branding firm, which has worked on marketing the PS3.
The console’s advertising campaign emphasises its geeky technical prowess, including details of processing power and storage. “Some of the components of the PS3 are going to have legs on them for years to come. That’s the big difference – the Xbox 360 and the Wii technically are really not peers of the PS3 from a longevity standpoint,” says Mr Cieslak.
If Sony hopes its latest console will recover from a slow start as consumers catch on to the benefits – such as the quality of high-definition TV and accompanying DVD drives and game systems – it is not a risk-free strategy.
Perrin Kaplan, Nintendo of America’s head of marketing, argues that it could simply take too long for the strategy to deliver results: “It’s still only about 12-18 per cent of households that have high definition, and there’s not a huge difference in the graphical quality.”
Paul Jackson, video games analyst at Forrester, the research company, says: “It’s still early stages, but Microsoft is looking comfortable with a significant lead.”
Most disturbing for Sony, a report by Merrill Lynch last week forecast worldwide market shares in 2011 of 39 per cent for Xbox 360, 34 per cent for PS3 and 27 per cent for the Wii – a doubling of share for Microsoft and Nintendo over the previous generation and a halving of the PS2 share of 69 per cent.
It all makes for gloomy reading for the world’s dominant console maker as it launches its most advanced machine yet.