After three days saturated with the screaming, dreaming, flashing and slashing of 534,000 square feet of video and computer games, everything starts to look the same.
Or maybe it's just that everything pretty much is the same these days.
At the annual Electronics Entertainment Expo--where software developers and hardware manufacturers trot out the latest and greatest in electronic game artistry and technology--there was a lot of earnest talk about convergence, the evolutionary trend toward a marriage between personal computers and set-top game consoles, such as those made by Nintendo and Sony.
And while that hardware marriage is at least several years off, a different--and potentially more dramatic--convergence has already begun. The once-distinct lines separating computer and video games from each other, from traditional toys and even from literature are starting to blur. Games look alike. New consoles use PC platforms. PCs deliver console-quality graphics. Big manufacturers and publishers even think alike.
How the trend plays out promises to change the way people think about electronic games. As more households buy PCs and set-top consoles, electronic gaming teeters on the edge of becoming true mass-market entertainment.
Between 1996 and 1997, penetration of consoles, such as Sony PlayStation and Nintendo 64, nearly tripled from 6 million to 16 million. By the end of 1998, the number is expected to double to nearly 30 million, according to estimates by the Interactive Digital Software Assn., the umbrella trade group that sponsors E3. Just under half of U.S. homes have a PC, and IDSA statistics suggest that they are used for games more often than anything else.
For game developers, that rapid growth means finding new ways of appealing to an audience beyond the locked-cocked-and-ready-to-rock adolescents who traditionally make up their market. Surprise hits, such as WizardWorks' "Deer Hunter," illustrate how games outside the bloody norm can open new markets.
"For the first time ever, we're not sure who our customer is," said Steve Crane of Santa Monica-based Activision. "People are buying games who never have before."
Despite an abundance of talk like that, the bulk of the 35 football fields' worth of noisy, laser-lit display booths was taken up by conventional fare: first-person dungeon crawlers, role-playing adventures, flight simulators, a few bloody fighters and lots of sequels. A sequel sampler: "Turok 2," "Descent 3," "Duke Nukem Forever," "Colony Wars Vengeance," "Road Rash 3D," "Final Fantasy VIII," "Mortal Kombat 4" and "SimCity 3000."
Among the most hyped sequels: Universal Interactive's "Crash Bandicoot: Warped" for PlayStation and Eidos Interactive's "Tomb Raider 3" for PlayStation and the PC, which are scheduled for release this fall. Both take technology to new places.
Powered by a new graphics engine, "Tomb Raider 3" sees busty PhD Lara Croft fighting new bad guys in new places, but otherwise retains the look and feel of the first two.
"Crash" pushes the PlayStation's limits and proves there's still room for developers to grow. Even a huge game like "Gran Turismo" uses only 75% of the rig's resources. Good thing, since Sony has no announced plans to replace its 3-year-old 32-bit console.
"It's a fallacy that this industry is technology driven," said Sid Meier, chairman and director of creative development at Firaxis Games. "Technology serves the creativity of the gamer, not the gamer serving the technology."
Sure thing. Although games such as Meier's "Civilization" series demonstrate the truth in his statement, most other developers just mouth the words. If we had a quarter for every time we heard someone say tech was subservient to play this year, we'd be reporting from Aruba, not Atlanta.
Even so, a few gems stood out.
Nintendo's "The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time" gives adventure players an engrossing three-dimensional world. Due in the fall, "Zelda" combines fast action with decent storytelling. It was by far the best game from Nintendo. Although the long-awaited Color Game Boy was on display, no one got to touch it--or even get a good look at it. From what we could see through the plastic case ensconcing the pocket-sized machine, we can confirm that it does indeed have a fairly crisp color screen.
Sony devoted much of its sprawling, elevator-equipped booth to "Crash Bandicoot: Warped," but "Spyro the Dragon" stole some of "Crash's" attention. Designed for kids, the three-dimensional game takes players on a nonviolent trip through some beautifully drawn fantasy worlds with lots of big, smooth animation. It's due in the fall.
And although Sony showed no new hardware, it did demonstrate two intriguing PlayStation peripherals: an analog controller that features the kind of force feedback in Nintendo's Rumble Pak and a pocket organizer that plugs into PlayStation's memory port. The controller is due for the fall, but the organizer won't hit North America until sometime next year.
In its normally low-key way, LucasArts Entertainment debuted "Grim Fandango" and "Rogue Squadron." "Rogue Squadron" is a tight combat flight simulator for Nintendo 64 based on the "Star Wars" universe. "Grim Fandango" drops players into the persona of Manny Calavera, a travel agent in the Land of the Dead. Designed by the same team responsible for the subversive "Full Throttle," "Grim Fandango" is the kind of smart, elegant PC title necessary to broaden the appeal of interactive games to baby boomers.
Hasbro Interactive intends to catch boomers and their kids with the same games. In addition to original titles, Hasbro converts classic board games to computer. Games that boomers grew up with--Life, Stratego, Risk, Battleship, Monopoly--have all been revamped for the computer screen. For boomers, the games evoke nostalgia; for tech-savvy kids who wouldn't know what to do with a Candy Land board, the games seem new. But like many others, Hasbro taps a little too deeply into nostalgia by revamping old arcade favorites, such as "Centipede" and "Missile Command."
Further blurring the lines between old and new, traditional and cutting-edge, Danish toy maker Lego rolled out two product lines that fuse PCs with the company's familiar plastic bricks. Lego Mindstorms combines the PC with Lego's advanced Technic line to create programmable robots. And Lego Media showed off products that allow children--and adults--to build Lego models on the PC, run a Lego railroad and even play Lego chess. All are due in the fall.
But the product generating the most buzz wasn't even on display. Sega's Dreamcast system, a 128-bit monster running Windows CE, holds the potential to revive the company after the abject failure of its 32-bit Saturn system. Following the business models so successfully employed by Nintendo and Sony, Sega plans to put all its development and promotion resources into a single, premier product when Dreamcast launches in North America next year. That's quite a departure from the past, when the company flooded the market with different systems. "We learned a lot," said Sega's Dan Stevens.
What distinguishes Dreamcast from other consoles is its incorporation of PC technology and platforms in a set-top box. Its graphics will be powered by Power VR technology and the operating system will be an optimized version of Windows CE, both of which give developers greater flexibility in designing games.
It also makes Dreamcast more like a PC than any console before it.
"I believe in convergence," said Pete Higgins, of Microsoft Corp.'s Interactive Media Group. "It's starting to happen. We will continue to do console-like things on the PC and PC-like things on the console and both on the TV."
Yet for every Higgins, there is at least one Howard Lincoln. Lincoln, president of Nintendo of America, shares the view of many console developers here that the price and performance differences between PCs and dedicated machines will keep the two markets distinct.
Staff writer Aaron Curtiss reviews video games every Monday in Cutting Edge. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Staff writer Jennifer Oldham can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.