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Analysis: Video games hit the big time

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Millions of dollars were spent by game companies at E3 to lure visitors to their booths  


By Marsha Walton
CNN Science and Technology Unit

(CNN) -- The "battle of the box" took center stage at this year's Electronic Entertainment Expo. Will Microsoft's Xbox, Nintendo's GameCube, or Sony's Playstation2 win the coveted spot in millions of living rooms and family rooms?

For consumers looking at price alone, Nintendo will have a big jump on its competitors with a $199 price tag for the GameCube. That price was just announced Monday for the console's November 5 release in the United States. It is $100 less than the rival Xbox or Playstation 2. GameCube is expected to thrive especially in the 8- to 15-year-old market, with its popular and exclusive Pokemon and Mario Brothers characters. Nintendo plans to ship 2.5 million units in Japan and the United States.

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But while those rivalries are still unfolding, the sounds of battles raging from scores of new games pulsed through the halls of the Los Angeles Convention Center. From traditional battlefields for games like "Soldier of Fortune" to the combat zone of the freeways for "World's Scariest Police Chases," action still rules at this international showcase for video games.

"Success here at E3 is essential to start the momentum for a game's sales," said Marc Saltzman, video game journalist and author. "It tells retailers what to stock their shelves with for the next six to eight months, especially for the holiday season. And with revenues that now rival Hollywood, it's really do or die."

Companies pour millions into their displays, from a two-story castle touting the rollout of the Harry Potter to roller coaster cars for testing Disney's "Ultimate Ride." It's sensory overload for 62,000 show visitors from 70 countries. And unlike high-tech shows like Comdex that have seen a decline in the "booth babe," this show still is well populated with scantily clad women as gladiators, highway patrol officers, and Army grunts. The lines for convention goers to get their pictures taken with these women often rivaled the lines to test the company's games.

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"Booth babes" help companies promote their games  

"With about 2,500 new game titles each year, companies go to incredible lengths to get reviewers into their space to try out their products," said Saltzman. "It starts weeks ahead of the show, when they send all sorts of tchotchkes to the media. The game industry is very flashy, and it keeps up throughout the show, from the blaring music to the costumed women, anything to lure people in."

In spite of the heavy air of testosterone in the show halls, the game world isn't just about teen-agers anymore.

"It really isn't just for 14-year-old boys anymore," said Josh Quittner, editor of On Magazine.

"I'm not sure it ever was. That was certainly our perception, but now we know that most people who are gamers aren't kids, they certainly aren't boys. More than half of all online gamers are women, and the vast majority of people who play games are adults," he said.

Perhaps to the surprise and dismay of many employers, a survey by On Magazine shows one out of six people who play games spends as much as 10 hours a week playing games at work.

"First person shooters" still command enormous attention. Among the flashiest displays was for "Halo," a title due out for Microsoft's Xbox this fall. For the multi-player, role playing community, there is more fantasy from "Everquest." This 400+ character fantasy game boasts more than 380,000 subscribers.

 

And sports fans flocked to see "Madden Football" and elaborate snowboarding tricks.

All that eye-hand coordination requires some creature comforts, which is why companies like Mad Catz show off elaborate game controllers.

"When a serious gamer is playing for hours and hours at a time, they look for rubber grips," said Shawn Kinninger. Mad Catz is releasing accessories designed to work with Microsoft's Xbox, due November 8.

The company also showed off its wireless controller, which can operate from 100 feet away and doesn't require a line of sight to the console. Instead of infrared, it uses the same technology as cordless phones.

Mad Catz says the product keeps wires from cluttering the living room and will still function if a person or an animal walks between the game box and the controls.

One San Diego company is using the mayhem of several video games as a clinical tool. The Center for Advanced Multimedia Psychotherapy helps patients with a variety of phobias by using video games and virtual reality techniques.

They use the game "Half Life" for veterans being treated for post traumatic stress disorder from battlefield experiences.

"The vivid sounds of the helicopters really helps patients recreate their wartime situations," said clinical psychologist Shannon McGehee.

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Mad Catz controllers designed to work with Xbox  

McGehee uses the game "Midtown Madness" to assist patients with post traumatic stress syndrome from traffic accidents. She says the clinic has a 90 percent success rate in helping patients overcome a fear of flying after eight to 10 sessions.

Fear of heights and fear of public speaking are other phobias the clinic treats using multimedia tools. E3 visitors tested out the clinic's virtual reality program for people who have a fear of heights.

Last year the computer and video game industry generated $6.02 billion in sales, according to the Interactive Digital Software Association. Of the 750 games and other products debuting at E3, exhibitors say about 80 percent of them will be on store shelves by the holiday season.







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