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E3 offers peek at video game future

Online gaming, console war to highlight this week's expo

By Daniel Sieberg
CNN Sci-Tech

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Got game? E3 does. In fact, it'll have about 720,000 square feet of it.

Only the latest video games from each developer will be on display Tuesday through Friday at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) at the Los Angeles Convention Center, each vying for the attention of thousands of industry-only attendees and members of the media who have been invited.

At E3 2001, the war between the big three video game console makers -- Microsoft Corp., Nintendo Ltd. and Sony Corp. -- hadn't even gotten off the ground. Sony's PlayStation 2 was the only next-generation unit left on the market, while the others were merely offering previews of various games.

What a difference a year makes.

Since last year's E3 gathering, not only has Microsoft and Nintendo entered the fray with their Xbox and GameCube, respectively, but all three companies also have dramatically cut the price for consumers.

Xbox and PlayStation 2 retail in the United States for $199 -- down $100 from the original $299 price -- following a flurry of discounts last week, and as of Tuesday, GameCube can be purchased for $149, down from $199.

GameCube, which went on sale in the United States in November, has shipped about 4.5 million units worldwide so far. Microsoft's Xbox, which debuted about the same time, said it expects to have shipped 3.5 million to 4 million consoles by the end of June.

PlayStation 2, which had nearly a year jump-start on its rivals, is the clear industry leader, with more than 30 million units sold worldwide.

In addition, a cable channel dedicated solely to video games was launched in April. Called G4, the Comcast Cable venture features 24-hour programming focusing on all aspects of gaming.

Internet transition?

CNN's Bruce Francis reports the video game wars are heating up as hardware makers slash prices on consoles. (May 20)

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Play with 3-D models of the PlayStation 2, Xbox and GameCube (created by Cycore Creative) 

While it remains to be seen whether the noninteractive G4 channel will inspire gamers to drop their controllers and pick up their remote controls, analysts generally agree that it's another sign of legitimacy for the $9 billion per year industry -- one that fiercely competes for entertainment dollars.

During this year's E3, online gaming will undoubtedly be a focus for the console manufacturers. Gamers have competed with each other online on computers for many years, but that popularity has yet to see a successful transition to consoles.

In 2000, Sega's now-defunct Dreamcast and SegaNet network offered people a chance to play games such as "NFL2K1" across a dial-up connection, but the idea failed to win the numbers that Sega sought.

A couple of years and increased penetration of broadband service later, perhaps gamers are willing to reconsider the idea.

Regardless, none of the current console manufacturers are rushing headlong into the concept of online multiplayer games. Only the Xbox comes with a built-in broadband adapter, while owners of the PlayStation 2 and GameCube will need to buy broadband/dial-up adapters when the games are ready for Internet access this fall. Each adapter will cost about $40.

Sony and Nintendo plan to leave the hosting of servers to the software publishers, thus alleviating some of the excess costs. But Microsoft's Xbox team has said it will roll out a centralized service for its games.

Enticement of mainstream gamers

On Monday, Microsoft announced its Xbox Live online plans, which are expected to debut this fall. Along with a $49-per-year subscription, they will come with the Xbox Communicator, a voice headset the company said will allow players to have real-time conversations while playing games.

Last week, Nintendo said it also would compete in the online market this fall, though it offered few details and appeared somewhat reticent in its pursuit.

Ultimately, the future of online gaming will depend on whether mainstream gamers (literally) buy into the notion, said analysts, and whether software makers can lure people in with worthwhile concepts. To be profitable, analysts said it must tap into the mass audience.

Among the overall games getting preshow buzz at E3 for the console and PC are: "Star Wars Galaxies," "Tron 2.0," "Phantasy Star Online," "Warcraft III," "Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind," "Madden NFL 2003" and "Dungeon Siege."

Beyond online gaming and the ongoing console war, there are several challenges facing the gaming industry, including whether to regulate further violent video game sales to minors.

However, few of those concerns likely will be too evident at E3. It will undoubtedly remain the Mardi Gras of video games, a place where flashy special effects, "booth babes" and boisterous, youthful enthusiasm reign supreme and fight for eyeballs everywhere.



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