March 14: Out of the Xbox

Amid a flurry of advertising, Microsoft has announced that its long-awaited Xbox game console will hit Australian retail shelves on March 14.

The console will carry an anticipated retail price of $649, but Microsoft is keeping distribution details close to its chest at this stage.

"We haven't announced our retail strategy yet," said Xbox director Alan Bowman. "All I can say is that it will be available where customers typically buy video games systems."

Microsoft is refusing to divulge how many retailers will be involved with the Xbox launch next March, but more than 100,000 systems are planned for shipment in Australia within the first three months of sale.

A raft of games is also expected, with Microsoft announcing its own titles, including Halo, Oddworld: Munch's Oddysee, Project Gotham Racing and Amped: Freestyle Snowboarding. Most Xbox games are expected to carry a price tag of $99.95.

"We are expecting a minimum of 15 to 20 titles at launch. It is all about finding a balance between too many and too few titles because the console is all about the games," Bowman told ARN. "As well as the major release titles from Microsoft Studios, we also have strong support from third-party developers."

The Xbox includes a hard disk, broadband adapter and DVD capability. Users will need to purchase the DVD controller as an add-on. While pricing has yet to be announced, Bowman confirmed the kits would be available at the launch.

With Sony recently dropping the price of its PlayStation 2 console, speculation over the price of Microsoft's offering has become something of a sport among consumers. Bowman said he considered the $649 outlay to be a "very aggressive price".

"We gave a lot of thought to the price point," he said. "This is a video game system but it is also a future interactive entertainment unit. The fact that you can also play music CDs on it with Dolby Digital surround sound is a bonus."

Early reviews have welcomed the Xbox and applauded its graphics and speed, but it remains to be seen whether it will win the hearts of consumers. Retailers have reported very little feedback from customers, but that is not necessarily an indication of how well a product will do in the market, one retailer told ARN.

"We had no feedback on Microsoft Train Simulator and we sold absolutely bucket loads, same as the Flight Simulator Pro," he said. "Microsoft just seems to have a gift in that if it has the logo on it, it will sell."