News from the virtual world:
— SECOND GEAR: The one big announcement at this year's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco came as a surprise to absolutely no one: Epic Games is working on "Gears of War 2," the sequel to its 2006 smash.
Lead designer Cliff Bleszinski promised it will be "bigger, better and more bad-ass" when it comes to the Xbox 360 in November.
Otherwise, GDC was all about smaller games. Frankly, I'm more excited that D3 has a sequel to "Puzzle Quest" — a sci-fi version called "Puzzle Quest: Galactrix" — in the works.
And fans of Valve's "Portal," the surprise winner of the GDC's game of the year award, were delighted when designer Kim Swift, during an interview with the G4 cable network, let slip that a follow-up is being developed.
The conference is also home to 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 Kloonigames' 2D puzzler "Crayon Physics Deluxe."
— LET'S GET SMALL: The creativity displayed by independent game developers has gotten the attention of Nintendo and Microsoft, who are trying to attract low-budget designers to their platforms.
"The time has come for the games industry to open its doors to all game creators, enabling anyone to share their creations with the world," Microsoft Vice President John Schappert told an audience at GDC.
Microsoft's initiative, called Community Games, will allow smaller studios to publish their games on Xbox Live.
A prospective designer will have to download Microsoft's XNA Game Studio software and join the XNA Creators Club, which costs $99 per year.
Once a game is ready, a peer group will evaluate it for quality, appropriateness and potential copyright conflicts; if it survives the gantlet, it'll be sold on Xbox Live.
Nintendo describes its WiiWare, coming May 12, as "a virtual laboratory that serves as a breeding ground for new games."
Companies of all sizes have been invited to create low-budget software for the online service.
One of the first titles announced is "Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King," from role-playing game colossus Square Enix, but smaller studios like Telltale Games ("Sam & Max") and Frontier Developments ("Thrillville") are also on board.
— MAKING THE BAND: The most common complaints I hear about "Rock Band" are that it's too expensive and not available for the Wii.
Electronic Arts and MTV Games will eventually deal with both issues; in the meantime, Disney Interactive Studios is hoping to fill in the gaps with the forthcoming "Ultimate Band."
The distinguishing feature of "Ultimate Band" is that it won't require the purchases of a separate guitar, microphone and drums.
Instead, you'll use the Wii controller and nunchaku to simulate acting as the "frontman" and playing instruments. There will also be a portable version for the Nintendo DS.
Disney has become a powerhouse in the music industry over the last few years, topping the charts with "High School Musical" and Hannah Montana.
But Disney Interactive's Graham Hopper said the "Ultimate Band" set list will be broader, with "music kids love and parents love."
The first two samples: "My Generation" by The Who and "Fell in Love with a Girl" by the White Stripes (finally!).
— ADIOS, HD: Toshiba has pulled the plug on the HD DVD high-definition video format. That means victory for Sony, whose competing Blu-ray technology is built into the PlayStation 3.
But it's bad news for Microsoft, which bet on Toshiba by marketing an HD DVD add-on for the Xbox 360.
Over the weekend, Microsoft announced it would stop making the HD DVD player.
It will still provide standard warranty support for the device — but if you bought one, you're probably going to have a hard time finding anything new to play on it.
— NEW IN STORES: PlayStation Portable owners get some off-the-wall treats in Sony's "Patapon" and Majesco's "Blokus Portable: Steambot Championship." ... War breaks out in Codemasters' "Turning Point: Fall of Liberty" (Xbox 360, PlayStation 3) and THQ's "Frontlines: Fuel of War" (360). ... More mysteries await the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 in Ubisoft's "Lost: Via Domus" (360, PS3). ... The Wii has a little something for everyone, with the Adventure Co.'s "Agatha Christie: And Then There Were None," THQ's "Destroy All Humans! Big Willy Unleashed" and "Sega Bass Fishing."