by Ken Gagne

In an industry about games, these companies take their business seriously.

Developers, retailers, and the press gathered in Los Angeles this week for the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), inviting each other and other industry members to bear witness to what the computer and video game industry will produce in the coming year.

Unlike a personal computer, which executes a variety of tasks including word processing and email, video game systems have traditionally been capable of only entertainment — a role which is beginning to change. Since the debut of the current generation of video game consoles — Nintendo's GameCube, Sony's PlayStation 2, and Microsoft's Xbox — technology has exerted itself in diverse and powerful ways, prompting uses formerly far outside the realm of video games.

"Look for us to find the right path for entertainment convergence," promised Kaz Hirai, president and COO of Sony Computer Entertainment America, who demonstrated the EyeToy. This $39 digital camera connects to the PlayStation 2 and doubles as a motion sensor and input device, allowing gamers to interact with games and other applications through a wave of the hand or nod of the head.

The PlayStation 2 will also continue to advance onto the Internet, as begun in the past year with multiplayer online games such as SOCOM: U.S. Navy Seals — a sequel to which is coming this fall — and EverQuest, a popular fantasy role-playing game. One of the few franchises developed in-house at Sony is Gran Turismo, which will soon manifest its firsth iteration to feature online competition. Gran Turismo 4 will allow gamers to purchase and tune 500 real cars, assemble a personal garage that will read like a history of the automobile, and race them against other enthusiasts across the country.

Microsoft's console is also diversifying its strengths. The Xbox is the only system to have an inbuilt hard disk drive, giving it the capability to store and edit vast amounts of data in conjunction with games and in other venues. This storage will be used to balance the PlayStation's EyeToy visual gimmick by adding a new aural dimension to the Xbox: a music mixer, to be released later this fall. The software will come with a microphone attachment with which virtual disc jockeys can add music and other sound effects to a multimedia presentation of lights and video.

The Xbox also has inbuilt broadband for high-speed Internet connections, which the PlayStation 2 needs a separate network adaptor to attain. Microsoft's online service, Xbox Live, will receive an update this fall, with more tournaments, voice communication, web sites, and player status notifications via cell phones and other devices. "We're not waiting for anything," said Robbie Bach, chief Xbox officer, "because at Microsoft, we don't have to."

The Microsoft Xbox and Sony PlayStation 2 left E3 sporting new price tags of $179, with the PS2 anticipating a separate $199 bundle that includes the network adaptor necessary for Internet gaming.

While Microsoft and Sony endeavor to make their consoles the center of the digital household, Nintendo's reluctance to experiment and adapt may be playing a role in their inability to obtain a large market share in the console wars. Despite a constant stream of high-quality software, the GameCube and games such as Mario and Metroid have not sold as well as expected. Nintendo's narrow focus will produce sequels to these games and others, though it is unlikely they will find themselves with anything akin to the PlayStation's Grand Theft Auto, a mature and violent title and the best-selling game of 2002.

Failing to ride a burgeoning trend, Nintendo is also eschewing Internet functions in their games, including the latest Mario Kart, a racing game which traditionally has multiplayer competition as its strongest point. The one hardware feature Nintendo can boast is connectivity between their two systems, the GameCube and the portable Game Boy Advance. The two systems can link together to exchange data, unlock new game levels, and create other unique gameplay opportunities, as in games where characters can travel between the two systems.

Nintendo currently dominates the handheld market with the Game Boy Advance, which can play more than a thousand games released in the Game Boy's 14-year history. But competitors Nokia and Sony are aiming to grab pieces of this pie as well. Nokia, a newcomer to the electronic entertainment industry, will release the N-Gage, a $299 handheld that sports cellular capabilities. Though Nokia vows the system will serve equally as a games system and cell phone, the price and lack of popular name brands of software may prove powerful deterrents to its success.

Of greater potential is Sony's Portable PlayStation, or PSP, a disc-based system to be released in late 2004. Despite the name, the PSP will not play existing PlayStation games, but will use a new mini-disc medium developed by Sony. Only technical specifications were given for a product this early in the development phase, but Sony, who was themselves a newcomer to the business when they launched the original PlayStation in 1995, now has the industry standing to pose a significant threat to the Game Boy's status.

As J Allard, vice president of the Xbox platform, pointed out, "Real competition goes beyond one game." Nor can any one publisher provide a console with a rounded software library. Among the hundreds of third-party software publishers is Konami, a company with thirty years of history in the industry and many successful franchises with which they will support all the major consoles.

Metal Gear Solid, a series which has included best-selling games in 1998 and 2001, will continue next year. This Christmas, the Nintendo GameCube will receive The Twin Snakes, a recreation of the original Metal Gear Solid game that uses the enhanced graphics and gameplay features of Metal Gear Solid 2. Meanwhile, PlayStation 2 owners can expect Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater in 2004, which returns the series to its tropical origins with a lush, jungle setting. The PlayStation 2 will also enjoy Silent Hill 3, the latest survival-horror game which exerts disturbing and perverse imagery; and Castlevania, which will attempt to be the first successful supplantation of the long-running vampire hunting series into a 3D world.

To satisfy its demanding audience, publishers and developers will continue to innovate, walking the fine line of preserving what has worked while translating it into new media and genres. New hardware and software will continue to play important roles, but they are simply means to an end.

Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association, the host of E3, outlined the industry's goal: "It's not about coming up with better ways to kill people or blow up cars. It's about character development and storylines."

Ultimately, the publishers who are able to deliver a package that, be it violent or scary or challenging or funny, is most of all fun, will be those who remain in the business of making games.

This article is copyright (c) 2003, 2007 by Ken Gagne. All rights reserved. Not to be distributed without permission.

Original publication: Syndicomm Online, 28-May-03