SAN FRANCISCO, November 10, 2005
 (STAR) Pause the game and zoom in far enough, and you can make out the strands of hair in Mike Holmgren’s mustache.

Not that you would want to get that close to the Seattle Seahawks head coach, even virtually. But that’s one example of the details made possible by Microsoft’s upcoming game console, the Xbox 360, as demonstrated at a preview event here.

Whether that realism translates into market success for Microsoft remains to be seen. For one thing, reigning champ Sony promises similar advances in its next PlayStation console. And rival Nintendo points out that visual improvements alone don’t mean much unless the games are actually more enjoyable.

But the series of games available to play at the San Francisco event made at least one thing clear: The underlying hardware advances in the Xbox 360 – including a souped-up central processor and an advanced graphics chip – will result in much more detailed and vivid games than in the current Xbox or its existing competitors.

"If this were a current-generation game, this would be a flat ground – one big smeary texture," said Blake Fischer, Xbox worldwide content planner, pointing to an elaborate field of individual grass blades waving in the wind in "Kameo," an action-adventure game from Microsoft’s Rare game studio. "This is a living world."

The important thing is what the graphics do for the overall gaming experience, said Xbox executive J. Allard, a Microsoft corporate vice president.

"We’re now at that point where the graphics are good enough to preserve the illusion and make you feel more immersed in the environment," Allard said.

There’s some serious business behind all of this. As Microsoft tries to overtake Sony in the next console generation and make its Xbox business profitable in the process, its fate could hinge on the quality of the games.

The issue is especially important given that the genres of games initially announced for the Xbox 360 are essentially no different that those available for the current consoles, said Michael Pachter, a Wedbush Morgan Securities analyst. That will cause gamers to look even more closely for big advances in the graphics and the underlying experience of playing the games.

"It will limit the success if they’re not materially better than the current-generation games," Pachter said. "The analogy is, do you buy a new PC if you don’t have a reason to? You just don’t do it."

In one respect, Microsoft may be falling short of its own bar. Talking about the upcoming launch, Xbox executives have repeatedly called the initial games available for the Xbox 360 the best launch line-up in the history of the console industry. But some of those who have played Xbox 360 games say that may overstate the case.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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