by Ken Gagne

Whoever spoke of the lull before the storm, has never attended E3.

The Electronic Entertainment Expo, held last week in Los Angeles, is the video game industry's annual opportunity to showcase its wares in an event open to the media, retailers, developers, and other trade members. The products that debut at E3 are a glimpse of the future of a $6 billion industry which comprises a growing portion of America. "The fact is, not only are games everywhere, but gamers are everyone," observed Doug Lowenstein, president of E3's host, the Interactive Digital Software Association.

This year's show heralded an incoming generation of game consoles. Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft, not content to wait for the holiday season, did everything in their power to convince the world that their 128-bit, DVD-based console would be the wave of the future.

Sony has a head start on the competition, their PlayStation 2 having launched in 2000 and three million consoles sold in North America since. Despite strong sales, the PS2 is often criticized for lacking "killer apps" — games that make the console worth purchasing. Sony intends to remedy that situation with several important releases this year.

Gran Turismo 3 A-Spec is Sony's most realistic racing games ever, and will be available separately or bundled with the PS2 for $329 when the game launches in July.

Other games will also capitalize on popular PlayStation franchises, such as Final Fantasy X, a groundbreaking role-playing game from Square; Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, a spy game from Konami; and Silent Hill 2, a cinematic horror game, also from Konami.

Even with a strong lineup of games, Sony is determined to expand the PS2 into more than a gaming console. By year's end, an LCD monitor, keyboard, mouse, hard drive, and combination modem/broadband adaptor will be available, giving the PS2 almost as much functionality and Internet connectivity as a home computer.

Another multimedia conglomerate, Microsoft, is ready to enter the video game industry for the first time. Their Xbox console will launch on November 8th with a pricetag of $300. The hardware includes a hard drive and broadband adaptor — essential pieces of technology for a system to connect to the Internet.

Just as Sony's E3 showing lacked in online titles, Microsoft was missing a strong, unique library of game titles. Halo, a shooter from Bungie Studios, stands out strongly, as do exclusives such as Dead or Alive 3. The rest of their lineup consists primarily of computer games, or updated versions of other consoles' games. Though Microsoft stands to have a hardware juggernaut this Christmas, it may not sell without games people want to play.

One company with few, if any, online strategies is Nintendo. Unlike their competitors, Nintendo is solely an entertainment company. They will draw on their vast gallery of popular icons and other successes when they launch two new systems this year.

The Game Boy Advance will be on store shelves next month, and is the first true upgrade to the most popular handheld ever since its initial launch a dozen years ago. Accompanying its release will be new entries in well-known game series: Super Mario Bros. Advance, Mario Kart Advance, F-Zero, and Street Fighter II.

With the high success rate of both the original Game Boy and its flagship Pokemon titles, the Game Boy Advance is practically guaranteed high market penetration, paving the way for the Nintendo GameCube home console, to which the GBA can connect.

The GameCube launches on November 5th, beating Microsoft's Xbox by mere days. No pricing was announced, but for a system that does not play CDs or DVD movies nor has built-in Internet components, $200 is a likely upper limit for the GameCube.

Again, Nintendo will launch a new system with familiar characters. In Luigi's Mansion, Mario's brother must clear a haunted manor of spirits, ala Ghostbusters.

The GameCube is not without its innovations, either. Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of Mario and Donkey Kong, is hard at work on Pikmin, a Lemmings-like game in which players organize plantlike insects to overcome obstacles. Eternal Darkness is an insanity-inducing, Resident Evil-like game that spans from the Roman Empire to the modern age.

After the poor market performance of the Nintendo 64, Nintendo will need to apply what they call "the Nintendo difference": innovation, quality, franchises, and world-famous game development. Only these qualities give Nintendo a chance at re-entering the console wars.

The game market has traditionally been unable to sustain more than two game systems. The first casualty of this survival of the fittest was Sega, who in January announced that they will cease production of their Dreamcast system and begin developing games for other consoles.

The first fruits of these labors were shown at E3. Both of Nintendo's new systems will benefit from Sega's platform-agnostic business model. Sonic the Hedgehog will appear as a launch title for the Game Boy Advance, as will the puzzle games ChuChu Rocket and Columns.

Sega's massive multiplayer role-playing game, Phantasy Star Online, will make its way to the GameCube, along with Monkey Ball, an original puzzle game.

Various signature and original Sega games will also be available for PlayStation 2 and Xbox. Though these releases may include online games, Sega's responsibility ends with the content; it is up to Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft will need to develop and implement methods for their consoles, and the games, to connect to the Internet.

With a vast history of games to tap and multiple systems for which to develop, Sega stands poised to meet their goal of being the world's top publisher by 2003.

Sega's not giving up on its own system just yet, though. The Dreamcast will receive six entries in the Sega Sports lineup, including World Series Baseball, NCAA Football, and Virtua Tennis; all six games will feature online play. And in June, Sega will celebrate the tenth anniversary of their hip hedgehog with Sonic Adventure 2.

This year's E3 introduced a lot of new hardware, and many, many pieces of software — some original, some not. Kazuo Hirai, president and COO of Sony Computer Entertainment America, pointed out, "Pretty graphics are just the ante to get into this business." There's no question that the systems competing for places under this year's Christmas tree can produce pretty graphics. For the first generation ever, all the consoles are on the same level of 128-bit processing power. The industry will thrive, but which console will have the software that allows 145 million American gamers to thrive as well, only time will tell. 

This article is copyright (c) 2001, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Sentinel & Enterprise, 21-May-01