News from the virtual world:
— ATOMIC DOUG: Most players have never heard of Doug Lowenstein, but his impact on video games far outweighs that of, say, John Madden or Tony Hawk.
Since 1994, Lowenstein — as president of the Entertainment Software Association and its predecessor, the Interactive Digital Software Association — has led the fight against video-game censorship.
Alas, he's leaving the industry, but not before he delivered a stinging valedictory speech at the DICE (Design, Innovate, Communicate, Entertain) Summit, an annual gathering of industry pooh-bahs in Las Vegas.
Lowenstein surprised the audience by passing up a chance to attack politicians and lawyers who are trying to ban violent or racy games; instead, he took aim at companies that publish such software and then "cut and run."
"Nothing annoys me more," he said. "Don't pass the buck. Don't look for others to fight the fight for you. ... Stand up and defend what you made."
Lowenstein also took on the gaming press, which he said "needs to take itself more seriously," and urged designers to focus more energy on educational games.
"I hope companies will continue to take risks, push the envelope, find new ways to use the technology," he concluded. "Let's not be self-satisfied as an industry."
— YEAR OF `GEARS': The DICE Summit was also the site of the 10th annual Interactive Achievement Awards, honoring the best video games of 2006.
The big winner was Microsoft's "Gears of War," which chain-sawed through the competition to collect eight trophies, including game of the year.
Now, we like "Gears" and its enthusiastic lead designer Cliff "Cliffy B" Bleszinski, but that's overkill, and its triumphs in a few unlikely categories (art direction? male character performance?) raised some eyebrows.
On the other hand, Nintendo's "Wii Sports" fully deserved the three prizes it gathered (including "outstanding innovation"). Other multiple winners were Bethesda Softworks' "The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion," Activision's "Guitar Hero II" and Sony's "LocoRoco."
— 'OKAMI' STRIKES BACK: The Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, which votes on the Interactive Achievement Awards, was widely criticized for ignoring Capcom's "Okami."
I thought "Okami" was the best game of 2006; the influential IGN Web site agreed, calling it "the one game that was enjoyed by everyone across the board."
The members of the Game Developers Conference are on board too. When the nominees for the group's Game Developers Choice Awards were announced, "Okami" and "Oblivion" led the pack with four nominations each.
Both are up for the best game trophy, competing with "Gears of War," "The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess" and "Wii Sports." The awards will be presented March 7 in San Francisco.
— BLU NEW YEAR: For all the difficulties that surrounded last year's launch of the PlayStation 3, at least one part of Sony's strategy seems to be working. Blu-ray, the Sony-backed high-definition DVD format that's integral to the PS3, is taking off.
Citing figures from the consumer research firm Nielsen VideoScan, Sony said Blu-ray has passed the rival high-def format, HD DVD, in cumulative sales since the PS3's introduction.
Ninety percent of PS3 owners have watched a Blu-ray movie on the console, Sony said, and Blu-ray discs outsold HD DVD three-to-one during the second week of January.
The whole fight between Blu-ray and HD is reminiscent of the war in the 1980s between VHS and Sony's Betamax format; this time, Sony may prevail.
— NEW IN STORES: Fans of Nintendo's "Wii Sports" finally get the follow-up they've been craving: "Wii Play," which includes a shooting gallery, air hockey, billiards and six other games, and comes bundled with one of those elusive Wii remote controls. ...
Valentine's Day is also a holiday for PlayStation Portable owners, with Sony's "Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters," Atlus' "Monster Kingdom: Jewel Summoner" and Rockstar's "The Warriors." ...
And then there's a genuine oddity: Natsume's "Chulip" (for the PS2), in which your goal is to impress a cute girl so she'll give you a kiss. Romance games are very popular in Japan; "Chulip" could be the first to find a U.S. audience.