This Week in Games: March 16, 2007

News from the virtual world:

— HOME INVASION: When the AP's Matt Slagle reviewed Sony's online PlayStation Network a few weeks ago, he said, "There still isn't much to see or play." That should change in a big way before the end of the year.

At the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Sony unveiled "Home," a 3-D virtual universe for PS3 owners.

It looks, frankly, a lot like "Second Life," although there's evidence that "Home" has been in development since long before "Second Life" became a phenomenon.

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Within "Home," you can create an avatar and send it out to meet other players, buy stuff or even build its own personal space.

Sony also introduced "LittleBigPlanet," a colorful sort of platform-game construction set in which you build your own levels and share them with other Homebodies.

Both projects are part of an initiative Sony calls "Game 3.0"; Phil Harrison, president of Sony's Worldwide Studios, said it's all about "putting power back into the hands of users — the players themselves."

"Home" is scheduled to launch this fall; "LittleBigPlanet" is due next year.

— HIS MASTER'S VOICE: Nintendo made a much smaller splash at GDC, mainly because of a pending stock deal in Japan that forced the company's executives to keep their yaps shut about any future plans.

As a result, "Mario Bros." mastermind Shigeru Miyamoto's much anticipated keynote address fell flat, revisiting past glories and asking designers to avoid graphic violence.

"I always want that first reaction to be emotion, to be positive — to give a sense of satisfaction, glee," Miyamoto said, which is sweet, but ... yawn.

Best news from the Nintendo camp: "Super Mario Galaxy" for the Wii will be coming out this year, despite rampant rumors to the contrary.

— VICTORY LAP: Microsoft's "Gears of War" has been making like Helen Mirren all winter, scooping up every award the industry could throw at it and leaving Miyamoto's "The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess " looking like an also-ran.

The last stop on the "Gears" victory tour was the Game Developer Choice Awards, where it grabbed the best game trophy and three other prizes. Other multiple award-winners were Capcom's "Okami " and Nintendo's "Wii Sports."

The developers also hosted the Independent Games Festival, which honors innovative, low-budget games created outside the studios of the big publishers.

Top prize, a check for $20,000, went to Bit Blot's underwater adventure "Aquaria ," which will be available for downloading this spring.

— X OVER EASY: Online action is a huge element of "Gears of War," making it the second most-played title on Microsoft's Xbox Live service. Number one is "Halo 2"; number three, despite its lack of exploding body parts, is "Hexic HD."

Microsoft reports that Xbox Live membership has passed 6 million, which is more than half the people who own an Xbox 360 .

If you're more interested in completely useless stats, here's a doozy: Since its launch in November 2002, gamers have spent over 2.3 billion hours — more than 260,000 years — on Xbox Live. No wonder our thumbs are tired.

— SPREADING THE VIRUS: The number of video game consoles in U.S. television households has jumped 18.5 percent over the last two years, but there's still room for more.

According to Nielsen Wireless and Interactive Services, 41.1 percent of all TV households had a game console by the end of 2006 — which means that 58.9 percent of homes don't have one.

Who are these peculiar non-gamers? As you'd suspect, it's women 50 and older; only 8.3 percent played a video game during the last quarter of 2006.

On the other hand, 75.8 percent of boys ages 12-17 played during the same period.

During any given minute, Nielsen reported, about 1.6 million people in the U.S. are using a video game console instead of doing something useful, like downloading pirated movies or voting for "American Idol" contestants.

— NEW IN STORES: One colossus strides across the retail landscape this week, crushing all who dare venture into its path. It's Sony's mighty "God of War II," for the PlayStation 2 , and other publishers avoided this release date like a plague of bloodthirsty harpies.